One more Middle East mistake? (Brattleboro Reformer)

Editorial

On Thursday, the Bush administration imposed a broad set of economic sanctions on Iran for what it called "proliferation activities and support of terrorism."

The administration is hardening its stance against Iran, which allegedly is trying to build nuclear weapons and backing terrorist groups around the world.

The rhetoric is getting stronger. Last week, Bush said a nuclear-armed Iran would pose "a dangerous threat to world peace." On Sunday, Vice President Dick Cheney -- the most ardent supporter of military action against Iran -- again warned of "serious consequences" if Iran did not halt its nuclear program.

"The United States joins other nations in sending a clear message: We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon," Cheney told the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Iran maintains that it is developing nuclear technology for power generation. Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Agency for Atomic Energy, told the French paper Le Monde this week that he and his agency still believe it might take up to eight years before Iran could develop a nuclear weapon, assuming that it wants to.

In ElBaradei's view, he and the IAEA want "to wean people away from the idea that Iran will be a threat tomorrow and that we find ourselves now before the question of determining whether we should bomb Iran or allow it to acquire the bomb. We are not in that situation at all. Iraq is a screaming example of the fact that in many cases the use of force exacerbates the problem instead of resolving it."

Unfortunately, ElBaradei's logic doesn't seem to be shared by those who believe military action against Iran is urgently needed.

On Thursday, Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said that bombing Iran if economic sanctions and diplomacy fail is something he supports. Likewise for former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the rest of the Republican field.

And Hillary Clinton? The senator from New York was the only Democrat running for president who voted for the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment, which calls on President Bush to declare Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. Sen. Barrack Obama, D-Ill., ducked the vote, which many critics saw as giving Bush another blank check for war.

But then again, there has not been a shred of logical thinking when it comes to Iran. Writing in a recent issue of Newsweek, Middle East expert Farheed Zakaria neatly laid out the argument.

"Iran has an economy the size of Finland's and an annual defense budget of $4.8 billion. It has not invaded a country since the late 18th century," Zakaria wrote. "The United States has a GDP that 68 times larger and defense expenditures that are 110 times greater. Israel and every Arab country (except Syria and Iraq) are quietly or actively allied against Iran. And yet we are to believe that Tehran is about to overturn the international system and replace it with an Islamo-fascist order. What planet are we on?"

Yet that is the prevailing view in the White House and among its allies in Congress and in the media. Iran is an urgent threat and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is Hitler incarnate.

That is why, in Zakaria's view, "we're on a path to irreversible confrontation with a country we know nothing about. The United States has had no diplomats in Iran for nearly 30 years. American officials have barely met with any senior Iranian politicians or officials. We have no contact with the country's vibrant civil society. Iran is a black hole to us -- just as Iraq had become in 2003."

This nation is perilously close to making a foreign policy mistake even worse than the invasion of Iraq. The Bush administration's sanctions have no support from European, Asian or Arab states. Russia and China, which hold veto power on the United Nations Security Council, will not support any attempt to impose new U.N. sanctions on Iran.

As was the case with Iraq, President Bush will likely ignore the U.N. and unilaterally order an attack on Iran. The military planning has been in the works for years and the administration has been carefully laying the groundwork for military action.

Unfortunately, as was the case with Iraq, the Bush administration is distorting the facts in order to justify an attack on Iran. There is no conclusive evidence that Iran's government is funneling weapons to insurgents in Iraq. Nor is there credible evidence that Iran will be able to quickly build a nuclear weapon soon.

Next month, the IAEA will report on Iran's nuclear program. ElBaradei has said this is a decisive moment for Iran. Either it comes clean and accurately details the extent of its nuclear program, or it gives a less than truthful accounting and gives the international community another reason not to trust Iran.

Russia and China have already said they will not consider the U.S. requests for sanctions until the IAEA report comes out. It might be wise for the Bush administration to tone down its rhetoric until then also, but being wise is not a hallmark of the Bush White House.