Don't go there

April 11, 2006

Leave it to a diplomat to offer the most candid assessment so far of the idea that the United States would attack Iran to thwart its nuclear ambitions: "completely nuts."

That's British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's view of a possible pre-emptive strike plan under development at the Pentagon and reported in New York and Washington. He's absolutely right. The United States couldn't - and shouldn't - attempt any such thing. Its sorry standing in the world, the Bush administration's bungling of the Iraq invasion and the pro-Iran sentiments of China and Russia argue against it.

The reports are alarming not because they appear to be "wild speculation," as President Bush dismissed them. We would expect any competent administration to develop some contingency plan in the event diplomatic efforts fail to convince Tehran to revise its strident, full-steam-ahead nuclear development program. But in this administration, prevention means force - and that's the reason to be alarmed. Mr. Bush and his advisers have earned this reaction, even if Pentagon planners are proceeding responsibly and as they should. They can blame it on their dismal postwar record in Iraq.

This president has had trouble admitting errors, and he hasn't demonstrated that he has learned from the grievous mistakes made in Iraq. Such behavior doesn't inspire confidence that Mr. Bush and his team would act differently if called upon to challenge Iran.

Iran's nuclear ambitions are a serious and confounding problem for the U.S. and its allies. More than two years of talks failed to persuade Iran to trade nuclear carte blanche for Western aid and economic incentives. Russia, a staunch ally of the Islamic Republic, wasn't able to convince Tehran to let Moscow serve as a nuclear fuel go-between, a practical compromise. Iran's president has antagonized the West with his fiery pronouncements against Israel. Its spokesmen have threatened to cut oil supplies and ominously warned of America's ability to hurt and be hurt. Mr. Bush's rapprochement with India over its nuclear program hasn't helped matters.

Pentagon contingency plans for a military strike against Iran do raise the stakes in this discussion - particularly because the use of tactical nuclear weapons is reportedly under discussion. Finding a diplomatic solution becomes more of an imperative, and Britain, France or Germany should use the nuclear strike drumbeat to intervene with Tehran again. That may be what the administration is counting on - but Americans should be praying for.

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