When George W. Bush suggested Iran's acquisition of nuclear arms technology might be a catalyst for World War III, progressive-minded people took it as a sign that Chimpy W. McHitlerburton is off his neocon rocker. The president must be spoiling for a new way for Americans to get their heads blown off for his amusement as Rep. Pete Stark might put it.
Here's the offending quote that put the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Michael Moore at Def Con 2: "If you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."
Was that really such a jingoistic message? And what exactly did the president mean about World War III?
Concerning the former, French President Nicolas Sarkozy made much the same point at the United Nations last month.
"If we allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, we would incur an unacceptable risk to stability in the region and in the world," he told the General Assembly. "Weakness and renunciation do not lead to peace. They lead to war."
Maybe Sarkozy is a cowboy at heart. Or maybe he and Bush are on to something.
Let's review a few facts. Iran is the world's foremost state sponsor of terrorism through groups such as Hezbollah. Its leaders are guided by an extremist religious ideology that exalts martyrdom.
Iran hid its nuclear research program from the international community for two decades, in violation of its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligations. The existence of the program only became known when an opposition group exposed it in 2002. Since then, Iran has lied repeatedly about the nature and purposes of the program.
Reasonable people people interested in avoiding war and preserving peace can conclude, therefore, that a regime that is this dangerous, opaque and dishonest should not be trusted with mankind's most lethal technology. And there are two ways to prevent them from acquiring it.
The first way is peacefully, by laying out economic disincentives for bad behavior and economic inducements for good behavior.
Never mind international sanctions from the U.N. Security Council, where Russia and China do the mullahs' bidding. Even among NATO allies, Germany and Italy seem determined to prove Lenin's maxim about capitalists selling the rope by which their enemies will hang them.
If sanctions aren't effective or aren't even meaningfully attempted then the military option is the unappealing alternative of last resort. The message from Bush and Sarkozy was not directed at the leaders of Iran. It was directed at the leaders of the countries who are in a position to make sanctions work but whose irresponsible actions are making the military option inevitable.
And what about World War III? Note that Bush did not say, "If you're interested in avoiding a U.S. attack, you ought to stop Iran." Tehran's nuclear ambitions have spurred a new Middle East arms race and frightened Arab neighbors into pursuing their own "peaceful" nuclear programs.
Every day that Iranian centrifuges process enriched uranium, the edifice of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty crumbles a bit more. If Iran acquires the technological capacity to build a weapon, it will collapse completely.
Then there is Israel, with its own nuclear deterrent, which last month conducted a military strike to pre-empt nuclear weapons research in Syria. In 2002, former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani a so-called moderate delivered a revealing sermon in which he said the solution to the Zionist problem is the nuclear bomb, one of which could obliterate Israel, while any Israeli response would inflict limited damage on the Islamic world.
"The confrontation of pious and martyrdom-seeking forces with the highest forces of colonialism is extremely dangerous and might inflame a third world war," he said.
Bush and Sarkozy see World War III as a catastrophe to be avoided. Iran's leaders see it as an acceptable consequence of a theological imperative.