The turmoil in Pakistan might have one positive result: the need to strengthen the American presence in neighboring Afghanistan could narrow the White House’s options and permanently derail plans to attack Iran. Nevertheless, the likelihood of a war that will be a catastrophe for both belligerents, almost certainly for the entire Middle East, and possibly for the world at large, remains at a high level. War might even be regarded as inevitable because it is the only option remaining for decision-makers in Washington, who have effectively closed the door on other approaches that might reduced the level of hostility.
Contrary to the repeated assertions by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, an endless series of threats emanating from Washington is not diplomacy. The United States is refusing to negotiate with Iran, and the only obstacle to a war from the U.S. side is the resistance coming from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and some military and naval officers, most notably the Central Command’s Admiral William Fallon, who are heavily outnumbered by those in the administration and outside it who are pro-war. Anti-Iranian resolutions pass by large majorities in Congress. Both parties and nearly all the presidential candidates assert the necessity of war to disarm Iran and have placed no impediment on its initiation, the mainstream media is as acquiescent as it was in the run-up to Iraq, and the latest Zogby poll indicates that even a thin majority of the public has been convinced by the war hysteria and is supportive of conflict. Powerful lobbying groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) continue to resist talks and urge a military resolution. It may be that few in the White House and Congress actually want to pull the trigger on Iran because they are gun shy after the debacle in Iraq, but the danger of a larger war growing out of a relatively minor incident is very real, as is the possibility that a nervous Israel will play some part in initiating a major conflict that will draw the United States in.
One of the strongest constituencies supporting military action against the perceived Iranian threat is voters who describe themselves as politically conservative. Most also identify as Republicans. To a certain extent, this support derives from a desire to support "their president" rather than from any serious consideration of what the probable consequences of yet another war in the Middle East might be. It also likely stems from a more general belief that the United States should have a strong and assertive defense policy in a troubled world, coupled with the irrational fear that "Islamofascism" is a global force that threatens national security. Those who see an existential struggle join with the Christian Armageddonists to welcome an "end days" conflict that pits good against evil, but they are likely a small minority even among conservatives.
As is often the case, conservatives should look to the example of President Ronald Reagan to see how global conflict should be managed. Reagan won the Cold War against a powerful nuclear armed adversary through calculated steps that increased bilateral cooperation on security issues while at the same time ratcheting up pressure on the shaky Soviet economy. The radically different imperialistic foreign policy of the Bush administration is difficult to reconcile with the cautious internationalism embraced by Reagan and his Republican predecessors, which proceeded carefully and sought to avoid involvement in other people’s quarrels. Bush rarely exhibits other traditional conservative values, such as a preference for smaller and less intrusive government, fiscal responsibility, rule of law, and regard for the Constitution. He has convincingly demonstrated that he is not an heir to the Reagan tradition. George W. Bush, like his father before him, fraudulently claims the conservative label solely for his own political convenience.
Traditional Republican conservatives and foreign policy realists believe above all that war should genuinely be a last resort, not a first option, and that war must absolutely be in response to unambiguous threats to a vital national interest. It is the White House’s embrace of permanent war and nation-building in the Middle East that should be most troubling, as it has already meant the deaths of thousands of American soldiers. Fiscally responsible conservatives should also be concerned about borrowing what will eventually amount to trillions of dollars to finance wars of choice. This has resulted in a plummeting dollar, higher interest rates, and increased energy costs, which has given China the keys to the U.S. economy.
Concerning Iran, the United States intelligence community has yet to complete a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), though the report is scheduled to be issued by the end of this month. Unlike other recent NIEs, it will not have key judgments released in unclassified form, which means that the public and even many government officials will not know what it says. There is every indication that the delay in the preparation of the report was due to concerns by the administration that it was not "strong" enough. The White House will undoubtedly seek to use the document to buttress its case for action against Iran.
From the conservative viewpoint, it would be far better if the administration were to use the NIE to undertake a careful assessment of the Iranian relationship and respond to that assessment realistically. No one doubts that the United States and Iran have genuine differences that include possible nuclear proliferation, regional dominance, support of terrorism, and Iran’s proper role as a neighbor of both Afghanistan and Iraq. These differences cannot be resolved with a bombing campaign. They should be dealt with through diplomacy, without any preconditions, and it is up to the United States to jump-start the process because the United States has more to lose from another war, most particularly in economic terms. Far from an extreme or radical position, positive and comprehensive diplomatic engagement with Iran was a key recommendation of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group and was also endorsed recently by Efraim Halevy, the former head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service. Conservatives should also eschew the demonization and disinformation campaign against Iran, which has muddied the waters and made negotiations more difficult. Iran has a legitimate, elected government, like it or not, and it should be treated with respect. The United States should step back and make a serious and dispassionate estimate of the genuine threat posed by Iran without using the words "Hitler" or "Nazis," or mentioning the year 1938.
Conservatives who believe that there must be a "casus belli" to justify a conflict or who are practicing Christians and believe a war must be "just" should particularly note the lack of evidence suggesting that Iran is preparing to attack anyone. The intelligence community believes that Iran might well have a secret nuclear weapons program, even though there is no evidence to support that suspicion. But even if Iran is seeking nuclear weapons, there is broad consensus that the program is likely not far advanced, is suffering from technical problems, and is susceptible to internationally sanctioned steps to slow it down further as long as the United States takes the lead and abandons the role of school bully.
Conservatives should also be skeptical about other claims, as much of what appears in the media is false or misleading. Iran has a vested interest in stabilizing both Iraq and Afghanistan, and the accounts of Tehran’s involvement in both countries, most recently described as "conducting operations in our battle space" in Iraq, have been grossly overstated and frequently based on dubious intelligence. While Iran is undoubtedly both able and willing to make the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Iraq uncomfortable, the allegation that it has been deliberately "killing our soldiers," which is the latest congressional pretext for going to war, is not supported by hard evidence. That Iran would have any interest or ability to provide a weapon of mass destruction to a terrorist group is speculation piled on top of speculation. It is unsupported by evidence, and observers of Iran have frequently noted that the regime of the mullahs has consistently behaved cautiously in support of its perceived national interest and is not suicidal. Even if Iran does obtain one or two crude nuclear weapons, it is difficult to imagine how Tehran could pose a serious threat to the United States in the near term, because it can be both deterred and contained.
Finally, conservatives should believe that America comes first. They should insist that the United States’ interaction with Iran be based on our national interests, not Israel’s, Saudi Arabia’s, or any of the other countries’ in the region, though those interests and concerns can be instrumental in shaping U.S. policies. Any serious analysis of the growing conflict with Iran will reveal that there are serious issues between Tehran and Washington, but the "existential crisis" that has been fueling the talk of war is largely false in nature, a concoction of outside interests, including lobbies, interest groups, the media, and the military-industrial complex.