As George W. Bush contemplates the prospect of attacking Iran and the regional conflagration that would result, he may be awaiting a heavenly signal that would confirm the doomsday predictions of his allies on the religious right. Here on earth, however, many of the same themes that promoted war on Iraq are beginning to appear again.
While the president arraigned Iran as a rogue state in the "axis of evil" alongside Iraq and North Korea years ago, the rhetoric portraying Tehran as the world's most evil and dangerous regime is increasing in volume and pitch. The story line is simple and scary: Iran is a dictatorial terrorist state on the brink of acquiring a nuclear arsenal, and it is led by a madman who resembles Hitler and threatens neighboring states, especially Israel.
Now that litany, melding truth with exaggeration, must sound familiar to anyone who remembers the arguments for invading Iraq and ousting Saddam Hussein. Like Saddam, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is an ostentatious villain who sounds all too eager for confrontation, even though his government officially prefers a negotiated solution.
Soon we will hear that Tehran is allied not only with the Palestinian group Hamas but with al-Qaida (although the latter are Sunnis and the former are Shiites). As with Iraq, suspicion that Iran helped to engineer the 9/11 attacks will be encouraged if not stated explicitly. Indeed, that inflammatory accusation has been floated already in certain precincts on the right and, if the Bush administration decides to wage war, will quickly surface in the mainstream media.
Presumably all those assertions will be treated with the appropriate skepticism, now that we understand the deceptions that landed us in the Iraqi quicksand. Congressional leaders of both parties and journalists of all persuasions must ask hard questions about the intelligence concerning Iran's nuclear program, its ambitions and its responsibility for terrorism.
Politicians and reporters should likewise question any rosy predictions about the outcome of hostilities with Iran. We now know, for instance, that oil prices will go up, not down, in the event of a war, and that the costs in life and treasure will be much greater than any prewar estimate.
Bombing and invasion will be even less welcome in Iran than "shock and awe" was in Iraq. Despicable as he is, Ahmadinejad enjoys considerably more popular support and legitimacy than Saddam did. His armed forces, wielding long-range ballistic missiles and other advanced weaponry, are in far stronger shape than Saddam's enfeebled military.
So war with Iran would be no "cakewalk," to put it mildly. To suppose that the United States, or Israel, could simply drop a few dozen "bunker busters" on Iranian nuclear sites without serious consequence would be exceptionally reckless.
Aside from the obvious impact on America's international reputation and alliances, which have suffered a precipitous decline under Bush, there could be immediate and severe retaliation inflicted on coalition troops in Iraq. For anyone who cares about the well-being of our soldiers, any strike across Iraq's eastern border should be approached with extreme caution. That's why high-ranking American military officers are reportedly urging the president to avoid war with Iran.
Should Bush ignore their advice and order airstrikes, it is possible to imagine a disaster ensuing. At present, the coalition forces in Iraq depend heavily on supply lines that extend for 300 miles along highways from Kuwait and the southern Iraqi port at Basra. Mechanized units of the Iranian military, which currently boasts 800,000 men under arms, would not have far to go to cut those lines as soon as the United States started bombing. And their way into southern Iraq, cutting off the Al-Faw peninsula, would be paved by an uprising of the Shiite militia.
Faced with an Iranian invasion, the British might well be forced to flee. Our strained forces would have to move rapidly southward in large numbers to repel the Iranians -- using equipment that is in poor shape after three years of constant use -- or risk being cut off from their supplies for months. Airlifts are unlikely to suffice, and they would arrive under constant threat from shoulder-fired missiles. As one savvy observer put it, referring to the French debacle in Indochina: "Think of Dien Bien Phu in the desert."
If an attack on Iran provoked full-scale rebellion by the Iraqi Shiites, then an even worse outcome is conceivable. Our forces, along with the tens of thousands of contractors and bureaucrats employed by the occupation, might ultimately be forced to retreat from an Iraq in flames. That would mean horrible casualties and utter humiliation. Think of Saigon in the Green Zone.
And that imagined scene doesn't begin to delineate the costs to humanity of war sweeping across that volatile and essential region. War with the Iranian mullahs may be inevitable someday, though we should hope not. Perhaps we could try talking to them first.