Last week, President Bush suggested that Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons could lead to World War III, which White House press secretary Dana Perino later played down as suggesting nothing more than the seriousness with which the president views the threat posed by a nuclear Iran.
More recently, however, Vice President Cheney said in a speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Sunday, “The United States joins other nations in sending a clear message: We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon,” and that Iran faces “serious consequences” for its pursuit of nuclear arms.
Between talk by Mr. Bush — head of state of a country that has somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 nuclear weapons — of World War III and Mr. Cheney’s using the same language that he used in advance of the Iraq War (Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan), observers in the US and elsewhere cannot be blamed for wondering whether the US will be at war with Iran in the waning months of the Bush administration. (Niall Ferguson dismisses the idea that war is imminent — imminent being a few weeks — but that’s little comfort to me.) Even if the talk is bluster designed to make Iran give in somehow, the LA Times wonders whether the Bush administration, its credibility all but spent, can achieve anything but more Iranian recalcitrance with this approach.
For my part, like Fareed Zakaria, I’m not convinced that Iran is somehow beyond deterrence:
When the relatively moderate Mohammed Khatami was elected president in Iran, American conservatives pointed out that he was just a figurehead. Real power, they said (correctly), especially control of the military and police, was wielded by the unelected “Supreme Leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Now that Ahmadinejad is president, they claim his finger is on the button. (Oh wait, Iran doesn’t have a nuclear button yet and won’t for at least three to eight years, according to the CIA, by which point Ahmadinejad may not be president anymore. But these are just facts.)
How does Japan enter the picture?
Prime Minister Fukuda will, of course, be in Washington next month to meet with President Bush. I think that the November summit might be a good opportunity for Mr. Fukuda to distinguish himself from his predecessors and state in no uncertain terms that Japan finds the Bush administration’s rhetoric counterproductive to the resolution of the crisis, that Japan, as a state with official ties with Iran, wants to play a greater role in finding a solution, and that Washington cannot count on Tokyo’s support in the event of war unless all other options are exhausted first.
In other words, for the US-Japan alliance to be more equal, Japan has to act like an equal of the US, making demands of its own on its ally.
Of course, given the Bush administration’s expectations from its allies (i.e., seen and not heard), an interjection by Mr. Fukuda would probably have little impact on the administration’s plans for Iran — and it’s unclear to me how Japanese mediation could help resolve the crisis — but at least Mr. Fukuda could stake out a firm Japanese position now and perhaps prevent Japan from getting overwhelmed by events should a war come, all while signaling to the Japanese public that Japan’s foreign policy will not be conducted from Washington.