03/08/2012 04:34 pm ET Updated May 08, 2012

Reading Tuchman in Tehran

While traveling in London this past week, I could not help but to be
reminded of the enormous sacrifices that have been made by nations in
times of war. It seems as though every street has a memorial to a
particular war or regiment. (Most striking of all is The Cenotaph,
an empty tomb that stands in the middle of Whitehall. Constructed
shortly after the First World War, the tomb bears the inscription "The
Glorious Dead," words chosen by Rudyard Kipling to remember those who
have given their lives for each of their nations in all wars around
the world.) Indeed, as we approach the 100th anniversary of the start
of the First World War it is worth reminding ourselves that wars are
difficult to control -- even if limited by intent or design. As
Barbara Tuchman reminds us in The Guns of August, it is doubtful that
at the outbreak of war in 1914 anyone would have predicted a war that
ended with well over 10 million dead by its conclusion. If the
experience of the First and Second World Wars is not enough to remind
us, then the experience of war in Afghanistan and Iraq -- both begun
with "limited" objectives and timelines -- should shake the world from
the belief that wars can deliberately be limited with any degree of

The current tension between Israel and Iran, including incredibly
heated rhetoric calling for preemptive actions and assassinations is
eerily reminiscent of the period before the summer of 1914, when the
sense of "inevitability" of war seized national leaders. Israel feels
that preemptive action against Iran may be needed to prevent an
existential threat -- Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon. While
Iran has not crossed the point of no return in becoming a nuclear
state, Israel may not be willing to risk that its own nuclear
capability could deter a nuclear armed Iran. Indeed, for Israel, a
nation whose collective memory includes the Holocaust, Iranian threats
of nuclear "extermination" may not seem idle threats. The point is
that the tinder is dry, the flints are primed, and we are on the brink
of war in the Middle-East -- a war that is likely to go well beyond the
borders of Israel and Iran. The world cannot simply sit and wait for
the spark.

It is time for Israel and Iran to talk. It is time for Iran to
recognize the state of Israel and to understand that acquiring a
nuclear weapon may make Iran less safe. Iran must allow IAEA
inspectors to complete their inspection missions unhindered. If the
Iranian government refuses, then the Iranian people need to truly
consider whether it is time to choose between their nation and their
leaders. This crisis is bigger than Khamenei or Ahmedinejad and their
continued intransigence is threatening the Iranian people. For their
part -- the Israelis must weigh the true consequences of preemptive
war and recognize that such action may be a greater risk to Israeli
lives than a nuclear armed Iran.

For the United States, this continuing crisis comes at a time when our
nation is tired after over a decade of war in Afghanistan, a
tremendously costly struggle in Iraq, and a man-made humanitarian
disaster in Syria precipitated by a despicable leader who may have to
be stopped through military force. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta
and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey have
correctly explained the potential risks posed by a nuclear Iran as
well as the additional risks posed by pre-emptive military action by
Israel. In the end, military action will at best only delay Iran's
nuclear aspirations. Therefore, these ambitions must be halted
through other means. The recent efforts at enhanced sanctions, an
effort including European participation, is a strong sign that the
world is committed to preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear state,
while also avoiding the need for massive military action. It is not,
as some would suggest, a matter of being willing to wage war to back
up talk. It's a matter of knowing when a nation has no choice but to
go to war. We have not exhausted all options just yet.

History is replete with as many examples of prudent military action as
it is risks taken on behalf of peace. Our leaders must remember that
we still go to war, as Thucydides wrote over 2000 years ago, out of
fear for our own security, justice and honor, and self-interest.
There is certainly enough fear at this point, but it is time to take
the edge off rhetoric and move away from the certainty of conflict.
All it will take is one misunderstanding, one accident, or one bungled
action for the Middle East to be plunged into a calamity. As Barbara
Tuchman wrote almost fifty years ago, "War is the unfolding of
miscalculations." Hopefully, someone in Tehran -- and in Tel Aviv -- is
reading Tuchman.