02/09/2007 12:40 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Did Tony Snow Just Take "Invading" Iran "Off the Table"?

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned yesterday a U.S. attack on Iran would trigger Iranian retaliation against U.S. interests "around the world," the Washington Post reported.

In response to Khamenei's warning, White House spokesman Tony Snow said, "I've said it, the secretary of defense has said it, the president has said it: We're not invading Iran."

Now this raises two questions.

First, the obvious one: Khamenei spoke about an "attack," while Snow talked about "invading." Presumably, Khamenei was speaking in Farsi. But while I claim no special insight into what Khamenei had on his mind, it seems reasonable to interpret his remarks, in the absence of any information to the contrary, as responding to the threat of U.S. airstrikes on Iran, which has been the subject of widespread international speculation, rather than the threat of a land invasion by U.S. ground troops, which has not been seriously discussed.

I mean, does anyone think that what Khamenei was trying to get across was, "Hey, if you bomb us, that's not a big deal, we wouldn't bother to retaliate. But if you send in the Marines, boy are you going to be in trouble."

On the contrary, if the U.S. "invaded," it's not obvious why the Iranians would want to trouble themselves much with retaliating against U.S. interests "around the world." The wise man stays at home, Emerson wrote. Why mess with retaliation around the world if you've got U.S. soldiers in your own country?

No, the context in which retaliation "around the world" makes the most sense is one in which the U.S. attacks from the air, with planes and/or missiles, so that direct retaliation against the attacking forces would be difficult or impossible.

So, it seems like Tony Snow and other U.S. officials a playing word games of the type Republicans liked to make fun of when Bill Clinton was President. It all depends on what you mean by "invade."

But Snow's statement suggests an even more interesting question. On the more limited question of an invasion, Tony Snow seems pretty emphatic. He doesn't say, at this point in time we have no intention of invading. He says, we're not invading, so why are you bothering me with this.

Can we therefore say that a U.S. invasion of Iran has been ruled out? If true, this would be a striking development. Obviously, lots of people - not just peaceniks but retired U.S. generals - think a U.S. invasion of Iran would be a terribly evil and stupid idea.

But until now the Washington mantra - chanted by Democratic Presidential candidates like John Edwards and Hillary Clinton as well as Bush Administration officials - has been that "all options" must remain "on the table." Until now the Table has been sacrosanct. No-one has been allowed to remove anything from it.

So, if Tony Snow just removed the "option" of invading Iran from "the table," then it is possible to remove "options" from the table after all. It would be possible for the Bush Administration to pledge not to attack Iran.

The argument so far has been that it would be foolish to remove any threats.

But that logic is now, apparently, out the window.

Any "pre-emptive" U.S. attack on Iran - if not authorized by the U.N. Security Council - would be a violation of international law. Even the threat of such an attack violates international law. To ensure that Iran complies with international law, we should act to strengthen, not undermine, the international legal framework. And a key way to do that is to make clear that we ourselves intend to comply with it.

-- Robert Naiman, Just Foreign Policy, February 9, 2007

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