What is the likely outcome of a confrontation between the U.S. and Iran? I don't mean the la-la-land futurology, still being served up by friends of the Bush administration over the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, about how the world will still be a safer place and democracy will spread to areas other presidents couldn't reach.
I prefer to subscribe to a reality that says that the U.S. and its allies have screwed up twice and that Washington is threatening to do so again. That we sleepwalked into an unfolding disaster in Iraq, despite ample warnings of its tragic course. That says that still lawless Afghanistan -- awash with a bumper crop of opium -- is a glass more than half-empty. And that says Iran is another accident about to happen.
The screw-up view of history sees U.S. foreign policy backfire again as, seduced by its own ideological certainty that all it does is right, it continues its project to create a series of failed and fragile states running seamlessly from the borders of Pakistan to within spitting distance of the Dead Sea. Osama bin Laden could not have planned it better.
Which leads to the question, is there any evidence at all that Bush's new foreign policy team is likely to be more adept at dealing with Iran than with the previous two crises it confronted?
To deal with the issues first. Iran, it is true, presents a series of complex challenges. Operating by the same stretched criterion of distant threat that launched a war against Iraq, Iran appears more dangerous. It has an extant civil nuclear program and has mastered key nuclear-military technologies. It has long-range missiles that might eventually carry a warhead. It has a long history of hostility to Israel. Factions in Iran's political order even now are interfering in Iraq. But the crucial issue is precisely what this agglomeration of detail means.
Seen from Washington, where all gaps these days seamlessly join up, it means that Iran is a hostile, terror-sponsoring state, meddling in Iraq and on the verge of acquiring weapons with which it could target Tel Aviv.
The European view, which has sought to negotiate a uranium enrichment freeze rather than confront Tehran, is more subtle and factors in the full spectrum of Iran's intentions. Iran, seen from this vantage point, is an infinitely more complex construction, with power structures that are competitive and contradictory -- with the greatest competition for a more open society coming from Iran's younger generation.
Iran, too, displays a curious mind-set. Through its culture and recent history, it sees itself as a player on the world stage. It pricks America in Iraq because it can, not because it has greater ambitions than to have a friendly state next door. Its endless foot-dragging over nuclear inspections and declarations, seen in this light, is inward looking, defensive and as much about pride as hostile intentions.
Iran's nuclear ambiguity -- like Saddam's over his retention of WMD -- and its determination to show it has mastered key elements of the physics and engineering to make a bomb also serve a purpose. In a world where the U.S. has recently invaded two of Iran's neighbors in quick order, there are hawks who believe in the value of a nuclear deterrent, even if that deterrent is as yet incomplete.
Iran, seen from the European viewpoint, feels compellingly real. Seen from Washington it feels like another overhyped threat.
Which leaves a dangerous paradox. For the risk is that the harder America pushes, the more prickly and dangerous Iran is likely to become. Like Iraq, it has the potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Which begs the question, why precisely is Washington pushing so hard?
According to some senior diplomats it is in part a question of amour-propre, frustration that it is the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, that is handling the dossier, and the Europeans doing the talking. But it is more than that. In July Israel's Knesset was presented with an annual intelligence assessment that said Iran (now that Iraq has been smashed) is its greatest threat. So we step toward confrontation once again. It is clear that Bush, unembarrassed by the fact that the intelligence used to justify the case for war against Saddam was cooked up, is playing the same game again.
The claim last week that U.S. intelligence had discovered Iran was close to modifying its missiles to take a nuclear payload, the Washington Post quickly revealed, had come from a single, unverified walk-in source.
There is a sense of déjà vu about all this: that realities once again are being concocted for ideological expediency. And that left to its own devices Washington will screw up the complex problem of Iran. This time Britain cannot be party to it.