Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared on October 26 that “Israel must be wiped off the map.”  Invoking the words of Ayatollah Khomeini, he told an audience of 4,000 cheering students that a new conflict in Palestine would soon remove “this disgraceful blot from the face of the Islamic world.”

The statement, made in the midst of an ongoing controversy concerning Iran’s nuclear program, caused an international outcry.  Iranian diplomats in Europe and at the United Nations tried to limit the damage by presenting Ahmadinejad’s words as ritualized rhetoric.  Within days, however, his government announced the recall of 40 senior ambassadors and heads of diplomatic missions, including Iran’s envoys to London, Berlin, and Paris, who had been involved in months of delicate negotiations with the European Union on the nuclear issue.

Ahmadinejad’s toughness parallels a growing determination in Washington to deal firmly with Iran, and to do so regardless of the ongoing imbroglio in Iraq.  President George W. Bush has said repeatedly that he retains “all options” in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, including military force.  That is what some strategists in Washington had wanted all along.  Their goals were apparent in Mr. Bush’s inclusion of Iran in his “Axis of Evil” address in February 2002: to effect a regime change, or else to neutralize Iran as a meaningful factor in the regional equation.  They faced a lot of resistance because of the trouble in Iraq, but Iran’s recent intransigence has given them the opportunity to pursue their agenda with a new vigor.

American pressure has helped Iran’s transformation.  Over the previous decade, a reformist movement had taken root among the usual harbingers of change: students, middle classes, the internet-connected young and educated urbanites.  The “Axis of Evil” rhetoric made the reformers uneasy and vulnerable to the charge of treason.  Eight years of cautious liberalization under Mohammed Khatami came to a halt.  With every new threat from Washington, pro-Islamic media, such as Jomhuri-ye Eslami, pointed an accusing finger at the reformers, suggesting that “the enemy is preparing the ground for its lackeys.”  The moderates were eventually marginalized, giving way to a new generation who had claimed all along that the Great Satan cannot be appeased.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is one of them.  He is a disciple of Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, a fiery Shiite cleric who advocates suicide operations against “the enemies of Islam.”  Ahmadinejad is supported by the basij, a volunteer force that acts as a vigilante militia enforcing Islamic laws.  His victory over Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a moderate by Iranian standards, was resounding and indicative of the nation’s mood.  Ahmadinejad’s policies could be predicted from his description of nuclear technology as the “demand of the whole Iranian nation.”  He accused Iran’s negotiators of allowing their E.U. interlocutors to intimidate them, and, barely a month into his presidency, he resumed work at the Isfahan uranium-conversion facility, which—an enthusiastic Iranian commentator wrote—“indicates Iranians’ strong will to defend their inalienable right to access nuclear technology.”

Until last September, Tehran could claim that Washington was being unreasonable in its demand that Iran give up enriching uranium to produce electricity.  Such activity, the Iranians pointed out, was allowed under the current nuclear-arms regime.  By October, however, the E.U. Troika—including Mr. Bush’s long-time critics over the war in Iraq, France and Germany—declared that Iran was violating previous agreements on uranium enrichment and voiced misgivings about her true intentions.  In November, the European Union’s foreign ministers expressed their “grave concern” over Iran’s resumption of uranium enrichment, a step toward a potential showdown with Iran in the U.N. Security Council.

Iran possesses all the key elements of a weapons program.  She has three uranium mines sufficient to provide raw materials, and she has gas centrifuges for enrichment.  IAEA scientists visiting the facilities at Natanz in February 2003 reported a series of gas centrifuges in an underground complex that may be a pilot plant for a much bigger system.  Iran also has a heavy-water plant at Arak and a major reactor at Bushehr, originally commissioned by the shah in 1974 but suspended in 1979 and subsequently resurrected with Russian help.  Furthermore, Ahmadine-jad gave a defiant speech to the U.N. General Assembly in which he promised to share Iran’s nuclear technology with other Muslim countries.  This was no mere rhetoric.  It reflected his core belief that “the Middle East can have either an American future, or an Islamic one led by Iran.”  The country’s withdrawal from the Nonproliferation Treaty is also on the agenda.  “If this happens,” the Tehran Times editorialized, “other NPT member states might follow Iran’s lead” and the country would act as “a model for all Third World states.”

Iran hopes that a joint U.S.-E.U. action at the Security Council would not yield results if either Russia or China (or both) decide to oppose sanctions.  Russia does not want to put her profitable business ties with Iran at risk, while China is an important consumer of Iranian oil.  Both would be loath to support a resolution that would be seen as addressing primarily Western concerns.  Both are likely to insist on a narrow interpretation of the term violation.

The Europeans are now willing to grant the American point that Iran is being unreasonable and devious on the nuclear issue, but they will continue looking for a diplomatic way out.  Even Mr. Bush’s ally Britain is reluctant to consider another war in the region.  Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said in a speech in Brighton to the annual conference of Britain’s ruling Labour Party that “military action is not on anyone’s agenda.”

Diplomacy has been tried repeatedly since August 2003, when experts from the IAEA found traces of weapons-grade uranium at Natanz.  Iran denied the weapons charge and asserted that the samples taken by IAEA came from nuclear equipment that was contaminated when it was bought over a decade ago from Pakistan for civilian purposes.  Last summer, the IAEA came up with a conciliatory report that confirmed this particular assertion, and its director-general, Mohamed El-Baradei, said that Iran would allow the agency to monitor her activities.  Ahmadinejad’s subsequent refusal to allow inspections and his provocative debut at the United Nations reflected Iran’s new ideological climate, in which nuclear identity is seen as consistent with the country’s right of passage from technological adolescence to the status of a regional power that commands respect and demands equal treatment.

What can the United States do about Iran?  An all-out “Operation Iranian Freedom” is not a rational option.  Even with our unsurpassed military capabilities, the United States would not be able to mount a full-scale invasion.  Iran is much bigger than Iraq—1.65 million square miles—with three times the population (over 70 million).  The Tehran regime, dominated by Shiite clerics, is authoritarian, but it is not devoid of a broad popular base; it is certainly not a closed autocracy as Saddam’s Iraq was.  When Iraq attacked Iran in 1980, the regime in Tehran could count on considerable popular support on nationalist, as well as religious, grounds.  Millions of Iranians would resist an American attack with equal enthusiasm today.

If various E.U. and U.N. attempts to deal with Iran by diplomatic means fail—i.e., if Tehran does not give up on uranium enrichment—a limited military action would be more likely.  A sustained air campaign is possible, regardless of the ongoing commitment of the ground forces in Iraq, because America’s air power is not committed there.  A disabled Iran could be further crippled by internal dissent, especially if the United States were to support Azeri separatists in the north-west and in the Iranian part of Kurdistan.  Iran’s oil production would be disrupted, but much of its supplies are destined for China, which is increasingly being perceived in Washington as America’s main long-term rival.

The cost would be prohibitive, however.  Keeping Iraq’s Shiites cooperative is a key element in the U.S. exit strategy.  An American attack on their coreligionists across the Shat-el-Arab could prompt a Shiite uprising in southern Iraq.  Even the rise of a low-intensity insurgency in Basra or Karbala would be a major setback to Iraq’s elusive stabilization.  If Iran’s output of some four million barrels per day is not only disrupted but completely halted, a sudden rise in oil prices could trigger a worldwide recession.  If, in addition, Iran blocks the Strait of Hormuz, through which most of the oil from the Gulf passes on its way to the Far East and Europe, the global energy crisis would make the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War pale by comparison.

It is far better to employ bilateral diplomacy and offer U.S. security guarantees to Iran.  Washington should offer to refrain from its “Axis of Evil” rhetoric in return for a clear “no nukes” commitment from Ahmadinejad.  Multilateral initiatives involving the European Union will be drawn out and futile without a direct American approach to Tehran.  Iranian leaders are aptly playing the nationalist card with the nuclear issue, evoking Iran’s struggle to nationalize her oil industry in the early 1950’s.  Ignoring the national-pride aspect would lead the United States to repeat the mistake the British made in 1951, when they turned a question of oil royalties into a groundswell of Iranian nationalism.  A reasonable deal could also entail allowing Iran to enrich uranium to the extent needed for power generation, acknowledging her right to this technology, provided that she keeps the entire nuclear program under international oversight.

Either way, the United States should not risk a new, open-ended and dangerous commitment in the Middle East over Iran’s nuclear program.  Iran is simply seeking to do what several other regional powers—notably Israel, India, and Pakistan-—have already done.  Her security concerns, viewed objectively, are real.  There are U.S. troops in Iraq to the west, in Afghanistan to the northeast, and U.S. Air Force bases in the former Soviet Central Asia to the north.  Pakistan, Iran’s eastern neighbor, is inherently unstable, potentially hostile, and armed with nuclear bombs.  Iran’s leaders are understandably loath to rely on imported armaments again.  They desire nuclear arms primarily as a means of deterring external threats.  The notion that Iran would seek to threaten America with a half-dozen devices that she may build over the next decade—and with no prospect of developing long-range delivery vehicles—is simply not credible.

Israel may have more reason to feel threatened by Iran’s plans, but it should be up to Israel to consider her options and act accordingly.  She may well decide on a robust response reminiscent of her action in Iraq, with all the attendant risks and uncertainties.  She should not expect the United States to do the job on her behalf, however.

Rather than contemplate military action against Iran, the United States would be well advised to look beyond the nuclear issue to our longer-term regional objectives and interests.  As Amin Saikal noted in the International Herald Tribune recently, a viable resolution of the nuclear row depends very much on how the parties can come to terms politically:

If Washington recognized Tehran’s Islamic regime, stopped constantly threatening Iran, and agreed to controls on weapons of mass destruction across the region—including Israel’s—it would make considerable progress in dealing with the nuclear issue.

The problem is that Washington has never contemplated subjecting Israel to the same constraints that apply to other countries in the region.  This needs to change.  With the end of the Cold War, the key justification for U.S. micromanagement of Middle Eastern affairs has disappeared.  America should develop and pursue regional policies based on her own goals.  This has not been the case for more than a generation, during which influential interest groups have driven U.S. policy in the greater Middle East.  The price of converting Middle Eastern strategy into another form of domestic politics has been high.  It has included two wars with Iraq in just over a decade, followed by that country’s open-ended military occupation and an ever-worsening guerrilla conflict.  Suicidal terrorism has reached our shores, and the “War on Terror” is not going well.

America can ill afford to add “the war in Iran” to the list, and she has no compelling strategic or moral reason to do so.