On Oct. 17, President Bush raised the specter of war with Iran. "If you're interested in avoiding World War III," he said, it's necessary to deny the Islamic Republic "the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon." Condemnation of his comments was swift. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) accused the President's of using "rhetorical ghosts and goblins to scare the American people, with claims of an imminent nuclear threat in Iran."
Navel-gazing is a Capitol Hill pastime but such criticism is misplaced. Since the disclosure of Iran's covert enrichment program, IAEA inspectors—not the CIA or Iranian exiles—report a litany of lies. IAEA inspectors discovered traces of uranium metal used to build bombs, not fuel reactors. IAEA inspectors also found that Iran had experimented with chemical separation of polonium, a material used to initiate nuclear detonation. Iran still has not revealed what rogue Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan sold on his trip to Tehran.
Diplomacy should always be the strategy of first resort, but its track record with Tehran does not encourage. While fashionable to blame Iran's nuclear desire upon U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, Tehran's program predates such interventions by 15 years. In the name of engagement, the European Union nearly tripled trade with Iran between 2000 and 2005. But rather than invest that windfall in schools and hospitals, the Iranian government—then under reformist control—poured money into its military and centrifuge programs. Tehran has yet to provide the West a single, confidence-building measure.
Iranian diplomats say their program is peaceful, but officials close to Supreme Leader ‘Ali Khamenei suggest otherwise. On Feb. 14, 2005, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer Kharrazi, secretary-general of Iranian Hezbollah, said, "We are able to produce atomic bombs and we will do that." Three months later, Gholam Reza Hasani, Khamenei's representative to the West Azerbaijan province said, "An atomic bomb…must be produced." And, on Sept. 3, 2007, Khamenei himself said, "Iran will outwit the West on the nuclear issue."
Iran's centrifuge cascade, Syria's surprise nuclear plant, and North Korea's role in its construction suggest time is limited. To avert escalation, the White House must demonstrate diplomacy to be Tehran's best option. Bush's rhetoric dampens Iran's overconfidence and underscores U.S. seriousness, both in Tehran and at the United Nations. Bashing Bush may make good politics, but it is irresponsible and may hasten the result which Bush's domestic critics most fear.