President George W. Bush waves off as "wild speculation" reports that he's plotting war against Iran.
One option under review includes dropping bunker- busting nukes on Iran's deeply buried nuclear facilities, the New Yorker reports.
"What you're reading is wild speculation," the president told a Johns Hopkins University audience Monday.
What's scary, however, is we've heard this all before: The denials. The dire talk. The absolutist aims that make compromise impossible, and the hastily assembled war plans that don't make a lot of sense except as bargaining chips.
In the months before attacking Iraq, President Bush also assured the nation that no decision had been made and that multilateral persuasion was preferred. Yet the code words were there.
"The purposes of the United States should not be doubted," Bush told the U.N. General Assembly in September 2002. "The Security Council resolutions will be enforced -- the just demands of peace and security will be met -- or action will be unavoidable."
In other words, if the United Nations didn't act, the United States would.
Now a war with Iran could be the offshoot of the failure to subdue Iraq and recreate it as a U.S. ally and oil pump.
In his Johns Hopkins appearance, Bush made clear that Iran remains an "axis of evil" state subject to the long arm of U.S. global policing.
"I got out a little early on the issue by saying axis of evil,' " he said Monday to inexplicable laughter from the crowd.
"But I meant it. I saw it as a problem. And now, many others have come to the conclusion that the Iranians should not have a nuclear weapon."
Is this all just saber-rattling to get the Iranians to come to their senses? A lot of people think so.
There's a school of punditry that says that Iran has become too comfortable thinking America is hobbled by Iraq, and we must disabuse them of that notion.
The trouble is, we are hobbled by Iraq. We're also hobbled by the reality of what war in Iran would mean.
It means sending ground troops into a nation larger than Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia combined. It means waging war against a country with a far more formidable army and a more unified populace than Iraq.
Such a war could happen only if this nation believed its survival was at stake.
Bombing alone won't be enough. Iran's nuclear facilities are dispersed and hardened, and many remain hidden. Much of its nuclear expertise is held now by individuals, not within bricks-and-mortar structures.
Putting tactical nukes into the equation is a provocation that signals to countries like Iran that they're right to risk war to acquire their own nuclear weapons as a deterrent to such attack.
Furthermore, nuclear bunker-busters aren't the clean, fallout-proof weapons many people assume.
A little-noted National Academy of Sciences study last year definitively burst that bubble by concluding that nuclear bombs can't be shot deeply enough underground to avert fallout and civilian deaths.
"Theoretically, there is" such a thing as a fallout-proof, deep-penetrating nuke, says engineering expert Eugene Sevin of Lyndhurst, who served on the NAS panel. "Practically, there isn't."
No matter how deep the blast, Sevin said in a phone interview yesterday, "there is no way of containing the nuclear burst, so there's going to be nuclear materials, radiation and fallout."
What was Tehran's riposte this week to the talk of U.S. attack?
Iranian officials said, in effect, "You're too late -- we already have enriched uranium. We're part of the club.'
"There is no way via war, sanctions or safeguards to hold us back."
They're wrong about that. There are ways to hold them back, but they're the ways of dissuasion, of carrots and of unified pressure from Iran's trading partners.
Talk of war only lessens the chance for diplomacy. And drafting war plans may lead to the grossest mistake of all with this administration: actual war.
Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages.
© 2006 Clevland Plain Dealer