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On its face, of course, the notion of a war with Iran seems absurd. By any rational measure, the last thing the U.S. can afford is another war. Two unfinished wars--one on Iran's eastern border, the other on its western flank--are daily depleting America's treasury and overworked armed forces. Most of Washington's allies in those adventures have made it clear they will not join another gamble overseas. What's more, the Bush team, led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, has done more diplomatic spadework on Iran than on any other project in its 51/2 years in office. For more than 18 months, Rice has kept the Administration's hard-line faction at bay while leading a coalition that includes four other members of the U.N. Security Council and is trying to force Tehran to halt its suspicious nuclear ambitions. Even Iran's former President, Mohammed Khatami, was in Washington this month calling for a "dialogue" between the two nations.
But superpowers don't always get to choose their enemies or the timing of their confrontations. The fact that all sides would risk losing so much in armed conflict doesn't mean they won't stumble into one anyway. And for all the good arguments against any war now, much less this one, there are just as many indications that a genuine, eyeball-to-eyeball crisis between the U.S. and Iran may be looming, and sooner than many realize. "At the moment," says Ali Ansari, a top Iran authority at London's Chatham House, a foreign-policy think tank, "we are headed for conflict."
So what would it look like? Interviews with dozens of experts and government officials in Washington, Tehran and elsewhere in the Middle East paint a sobering picture: military action against Iran's nuclear facilities would have a decent chance of succeeding, but at a staggering cost. And therein lies the excruciating calculus facing the U.S. and its allies: Is the cost of confronting Iran greater than the dangers of living with a nuclear Iran? And can anything short of war persuade Tehran's fundamentalist regime to give up its dangerous game?
ROAD TO WAR
The crisis with Iran has been years in the making. Over the past decade, Iran has acquired many of the pieces, parts and plants needed to make a nuclear device. Although Iranian officials insist that Iran's ambitions are limited to nuclear energy, the regime has asserted its right to develop nuclear power and enrich uranium that could be used in bombs as an end in itself--a symbol of sovereign pride, not to mention a useful prop for politicking. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has crisscrossed the country in recent months making Iran's right to a nuclear program a national cause and trying to solidify his base of hard-line support in the Revolutionary Guards. The nuclear program is popular with average Iranians and the élites as well. "Iranian leaders have this sense of past glory, this belief that Iran should play a lofty role in the world," says Nasser Hadian, professor of political science at Tehran University.