01/26/2012 10:32 am ET Updated Mar 27, 2012

Iran: The Road to War?

The drums are sounding for war on Iran. The leading Republican presidential candidates pledge military action as soon as they cross the threshold of the White House. The Obama administration sharpens its rhetoric in accompaniment to imposing coercive sanctions. It strong arms its allies to stand with it in confrontation. Israel uses all of its formidable levers of influence to push the United States into war mode. All shades of the media work overtime to stoke fears in a manner reminiscent of the build-up to the Iraq invasion. Amidst all this noise and fury the one thing missing is a sober assessment of the problem and what are suitable approaches to addressing it. This unfortunately has become habitual in American foreign policy.

American foreign policy over the past 11 years has demonstrated a perverse genius for placing the United States in lose/lose situations. Navigating without a strategic gyroscope, and with maladroit diplomacy run by appointees who have skipped too many grades, we repeatedly have painted ourselves into a corner from which there is no escape other than by taking risky and highly costly expedient actions. That's true of Afghanistan, Iraq (where Mr. Maliki rubs our noses in our failure by inflicting enhanced humiliation techniques on us weekly), Bahrain/Saudi Arabia, Palestine and -- most dangerous of all -- Iran. Two successive administrations have presumed to set unrealizable objectives and to try reaching them by ill conceived methods in ignoring the fundamental givens of the situation.

One, Iran will never forego the option of developing a nuclear capability that is crucial to their objective security needs. It is militarily encircled by the United States, living with nuclear armed neighbors and -- in addition -- is a Shi'ite island in a Sunni sea. Moreover, the country still lives with the trauma of huge losses in its eight year war with Saddam's Iraq which was backed by Western and regional powers.

Two, therefore, sanctions and other means short of war will not work. The stakes are too high for the leadership while the suffering populace in these instances almost always directs its bitterness toward the outsiders who have inflicted the pain.

Three, the undeclared war by other means that we are conducting confirms the security imperative and solidifies a national consensus on the nuclear issue. A besieged country is acutely aware of its vulnerabilities and feels victimized as well. The paranoid streak in the minds of a political class that has experienced thirty years of conflict and tension prompts the question: why did the world accept the Pakistani "Sunni" bombs but will go to any lengths to prevent Iranians from acquiring a "Shi'ite bomb?" Since the very legitimacy of the Islamic Republic depends on its self identity as the expression of a Shi'ism that historically has suffered persecution by Sunnis, there is a powerful sense of discrimination.

Four, somehow neutralizing the potentially destabilizing effects of the Iranian nuclear program requires reaching a set of understandings and putting in place arrangements that satisfy the basic security interests of all parties in the Gulf region. Here is what Ephraim Halevy, former chief of Israel's Mossad and a native of Iran, has to say on this score:

It is not part of my vocation to stop water from flowing. Iran will have the bomb. If no one does anything Iran will have it in ten years (MB: estimate in 2006), In my capacity as head of Mossad, that is to say insofar as I am one of those responsible for the defense and security of Israel, the only thing that I can do is to push back this date enough by the most subtle means possible in order that we have the time to elaborate, among the West, Iran and us a regional security system which provides guarantees acceptable to everyone.

Five, talks on the nuclear question that ignore the above are doomed to failure. Insistence on a complete separation of the nuclear issue from broader security concerns can lead at best to a short term marginal slowing of Iran's predetermined course.

Six, to paint the Islamic Republic as the epitome of evil and to pursue a veiled strategy of regime change makes serious negotiation impossible. Iranians of all stripes find the country's depiction as an international pariah intolerable. They resent being treated as a rogue nation denied the rights that other states are accorded routinely while being singled out for the imposition of penalties and constraints.

Seven, this logic holds despite the Islamic Republic being a noxious regime that has abused its citizens.

Eight, consequently Washington's tiptoeing to the brink of conflict puts us in the position of either backing away and thereby losing face and credibility (along with votes for Mr. Obama in November) or taking military action whose effects would be disastrous.

Conclusion: if you feel it is imperative to deny Iran a nuclear capability, then get ready for a costly war and chaotic aftermath. More and more aggressive coercion short of military action has no hope of resolution; it could bring on war unintentionally, however. Let's be honest about what we want and the full implications of going after it.

American post-9/11 imperial ambitions have been driven by the belief in absolute and total security. That has meant military and political domination of the Greater Middle East. In reckless pursuit of this delusional goal, our schemes have founded against the harsh realities of international life. It would be tragic if the curtain falls on a scene of a cataclysmic failure of our own making.