Historically, Iranians see themselves as one of two great Asian military powers, the other being China. Launching a few cruise missiles or bombing uranium-enrichment plants will probably only fuel Iran's historic ambition to become a regional superpower. An Iranian I spoke with in Tehran five years ago unabashedly admired the US. But he strongly affirmed his country's right to acquire nuclear weapons as a matter of national pride. After all, he said, "The Pakistanis and the Israelis have them."
Both Moscow and Washington have made the same two policy errors in Southwest Asia in the past 30 years. They tried to occupy rigidly Muslim countries and reshape tribal Islamic societies, tailoring them to their respective Western ideologies. Both superpowers grossly misjudged the powerful hold religion has over Muslims, and they expected Afghans and Iraqis to embrace secular communism or Western democracy. The Russians failed, and America's prospects don't appear much better.
Perhaps the most egregious error policy planners make is their assumption that once wars are started, their outcome is predictable. Who among the Politburo mossbacks in 1979 could have foreseen that the Soviet military venture in Afghanistan would become a major factor in the collapse and death of the Soviet Union? Mr. bin Laden and much of the Muslim world take full credit for the Soviet implosion after Moscow's defeat there. Wars simply do not end the way those who launch them expect. Iraq was supposed to be quick and clean, and Iraqis, we were told, would welcome their American liberators. The Taliban, ousted from Afghanistan in 2001, has risen again like a phoenix.
President Bush should begin with the premise that war with Iran is not an option and the realization that constructive engagement may well be the labor of decades. That may not prevent Iran from building a bomb. But states that join the nuclear club, India, Pakistan, and China, have historically tended to behave more, not less responsibly, and treaties between adversarial states have worked.