08/04/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bush Plays Hamlet: To Bomb or Not to Bomb...

Reposted from Foreign Policy In Focus

The debate has seesawed back and forth in the press, in blogs, on the street. Will George W. Bush, prodded by his pitchfork-wielding vice president, bomb Iran before the end of his term?

According to one camp, an attack on Iran is so last term. In fact, the whole "evil axis" thing is passé. The administration has already done a 180 on North Korea. And, along with sending a negotiator to the talks with Iran in Geneva last week, the administration is considering opening a U.S. interest section in Tehran. The Pentagon is dead set against an attack. Our allies would freak. The poll numbers suggest that even though Iran tops the list of "enemies," few Americans support bombing the country or even threatening to do so. And don't forget, Tom Engelhardt points out, the impact such a war, or even threat of war, would have on the price of oil, a steep hike that would enrich a few but sink the economy.

All that seems sensible. But since when was the Bush administration sensible? The attack on Iraq was a predictable disaster. The snubbing of North Korea in 2002 was a predictable disaster. The current signs of an easing of tensions might simply be the lull before the storm. Toppling the regime in Tehran has been on the top of the to-do list for the administration since long before it was even an administration. And suicidal attacks, after all, are not the monopoly of jihadists.

So, let's say that an attack is within the realm of possibility -- since, after all, the Bush administration is capable of heartbreaking acts of staggering idiocy -- but not likely.

Okay, what about the administration giving Israel the green light to knock out Iran's nuclear facilities? Certainly Israel has given some indications of a desire to do so. Earlier this month, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that his country "has proved in the past it is not afraid to take action when its vital security interests are at stake." But what do you expect Israel to say? I can just imagine Barak getting up in front of reporters and saying, "Well, we've been talking about a preemptive strike against Iran for years but frankly the current government is in the middle of a corruption scandal, the fallout from an attack on Iran would be devastating for my country, and I think we should just take this option off the table." That kind of honesty from a high official is about as likely as Arnold Schwarzenegger deciding to do ads for Viagra.

The Hamlet-like focus on attacking Iran -- to bomb or not to bomb, that is the question that obsesses the media -- obscures some other critical issues. For instance, the warm-cold cycle of U.S.-Iranian relations deserves a closer look. Writes William O. Beeman in Playing Games in Iran, "Every first move in a warming trend -- such as Iranian support for the U.S. war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, U.S. aid to Iran during the Bam earthquake in 2003, and Iran's formal offer to enter into comprehensive negotiations with the United States in 2003 - has been followed by sharp criticism from both inside and outside of the Bush administration." So the recent one-two punch from hardliners John Bolton and Benny Morris, in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times respectively, are predictable responses to what they perceive as signs of weakness -- i.e., a willingness to negotiate -- on the part of the Bush administration.

The U.S. government's own National Intelligence Estimate in 2007 cast doubts on the existence of a viable nuclear weapons program in Iran. We should also be careful not to accept Iran's claims concerning its missiles either, particularly after the missiles tests last week. "Scientists and Iran experts equally doubt Tehran's claims about the missiles range, carrying capacity, and accuracy," Frida Berrigan writes in Avoiding Brinksmanship with Iran. "David Wright, a physicist and co-director of UCS's Global Security Program, who reviewed the test carefully, notes that 'Iran frequently exaggerates the capability of its missiles, and it appears it is continuing that tradition.'"

So, it's a complicated game of move and counter-move, deception and counter-deception. Beneath this game, though, it's possible to see that the Bush administration's overall approach to Iran - containment and isolation - is just not working.

Consider the example of the pipeline deal between India and Iran, with Pakistan as the middleman. Despite heavy U.S. pressure on countries that want Iranian oil, India is moving forward with the deal. "For the United States," writes Hannes Artens in Iran Isolation Attempts Backfire, "it deals a resounding blow to the fragile international sanctions front the Bush administration has crafted to contain Iran. What is more, with China keen on joining the project, a new geo-strategic axis -- Tehran-Islamabad-New Delhi-Beijing -- is about to emerge. This axis will radically reshuffle the power structure in Asia and, with it, the global balance of power."

It's not only India and Pakistan parting company with the United States. NATO ally Turkey has broken ranks, too. As Avni Dogru writes in Why Are the Neocons Attacking Turkey?, "a significant Turkish-Iranian rapprochement has taken place, not only because of Iran's policy against the Kurdish separatists (PKK), but also because of Turkey's growing energy needs. Trade volume with Iran alone increased from $1 billion in 2000 to over $8 billion in 2007."

Again, if geopolitics were a rational process, all of these factors would push the United States to the negotiating table with Iran and keep it there. Tehran's nuclear and missile programs are not an immediate threat. And the current containment policy is a leaky vessel. But if trigger fingers get itchy in Washington, all bets are off.