What is the likely outcome of a confrontation between the US and Iran? I don't mean the la-la-land futurology, still being served up by friends of the Bush administration over the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, about how the world will still be a safer place, and democracy will spread to areas other presidents couldn't reach.
I prefer to subscribe to a reality that says the US and its allies have screwed up twice, and that Washington is threatening to do so again. The reality is we sleep-walked into an unfolding disaster in Iraq, despite ample warnings of a tragic course. Then, still lawless Afghanistan -- awash with a bumper crop of opium -- is a glass more than half-empty. Reality says Iran is another accident about to happen.
US foreign policy is backfiring again. Seduced by its own ideological certainty that all it does is right, it continues to create a series of failed and fragile states, running seamlessly from the borders of Pakistan to within spitting distance of the Dead Sea. Osama bin Laden could not have planned it better.
Which leads to the question: is there any evidence at all that US President George W. Bush's new foreign policy team is likely to be more adept at dealing with Iran than with the previous two crises it confronted?
To deal with the issues first, Iran, it is true, presents a series of complex challenges. Operating by the same stretched criteria of distant threat that launched a war against Iraq, Iran appears even more dangerous. It has an extant civil nuclear program and has mastered key nuclear-military technologies. It has long-range missiles which might eventually carry a warhead. It has a long history of hostility to Israel. Factions in Iran's political order even now are interfering in Iraq. But the crucial issue is precisely what does this agglomeration of detail mean?
Seen from Washington, where all gaps these days seamlessly join up, it means that Iran is a hostile, terror-sponsoring state, meddling in Iraq, and on the verge of acquiring weapons to target Tel Aviv.
The European view, which has sought to negotiate a uranium enrichment freeze rather than confront Tehran, is more subtle and factors in the full spectrum of Iran's intentions. Iran, seen from this vantage point, is an infinitely more complex construction, with power structures that are both competitive and contradictory, and with the greatest competition for a more open society coming from Iran's younger generation.
Iran, too, displays a curious mindset. Through its culture and recent history, it sees itself as a player on the world stage. It pricks America in Iraq because it can, not because it has greater ambitions than to have a friendly state next door. Its endless foot-dragging over nuclear inspections and declarations, seen in this light, is inward-looking, defensive. It's as much about pride as hostile intentions.
Iran's nuclear ambiguity -- like former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's over his retention of weapons of mass destruction -- and its determination to show it has mastered key elements of the physics and engineering to make a bomb, also serves a purpose. In a world where the US has recently invaded two of Iran's neighbors in quick order, there are hawks who believe in the value of a nuclear deterrent, even if that deterrent is as yet incomplete.