WASHINGTON - Since the release of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear capabilities last December, the prevailing conventional wisdom has been that the report's finding that Iran is not currently pursuing nuclear weapons had derailed the possibility of the George W. Bush administration launching a military strike before leaving office.
In the months preceding the report's release, the anti-Iranian rhetoric coming out of Washington had been increasingly bellicose, with President Bush suggesting that allowing Iran to gain 'the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon' could ultimately lead to 'World War III'.
The release of the NIE -- the consensus view of all 16 U.S. intelligence services -- and its conclusion that Iran halted efforts to pursue nuclear weapons 'in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure' appeared to be a serious blow to proponents of military action.
Yet some believe the Bush administration could still choose to attack Iran, perhaps so as to ensure a Republican victory in the upcoming November presidential election.
'Their intention to use fear is very clear, and I think that you have to understand how they manipulate American fear to keep power,' said Rep. Jim McDermott, a Democrat from the state of Washington.
'[President Bush] wants to find a way to provoke a military confrontation, or gin up some data to frighten the American people into believing a preemptive strike is defensible,' McDermott said at a recent forum in Washington organised by the group Just Foreign Policy. 'And I live in constant fear that he intends to do just that,' he said.
Entitled 'The Folly of Attacking Iran', the forum was aimed at encouraging support for direct, unconditional negotiations with Iran. Yet much of the discussion was rooted firmly in the past -- in particular, 1953, the year U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorised the overthrow of the democratically-elected Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq.
Mossadeq had angered the British government by nationalising Iran's oil, which the British had been extracting and selling with little benefit to the people of Iran thanks to a favourable concession gained more than 50 years earlier. Unable to overthrow Mossadeq themselves after he expelled their diplomats, rightly fearing they were seeking to launch a coup, Britain responded by persuading the U.S. government that Iran was on the verge of a Soviet-inspired communist revolution.
Though Mossadeq was in fact a committed nationalist who abhorred both socialists and communists, President Eisenhower, in a staunch Cold War mindset, was soon convinced by British arguments that he be overthrown. After just a few weeks of bribing and back-room dealing, 'Operation Ajax', as the CIA-led plot was known, succeeded in overthrowing Mossadeq, who was then sentenced to house arrest until his death in 1967.
'That coup did not only result in the end of one man's premiership, it resulted in the end of democratic rule in Iran,' noted Stephen Kinzer, a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times and author of the book 'All the Shah's Men', which details the U.S.-sponsored 1953 coup.
The overthrow of Mossadeq, followed by the successive support of six different U.S. presidents for the repressive dictatorship of the Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, directly led to the Islamic revolution that brought the current Iranian government to power, argued Kinzer. Further, that revolution in part led the United States to provide military support for Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein during his war with Iran in the 1980s -- a conflict that cost upwards of one million lives.
'The great lesson that I draw from this is that when you violently intervene in the political development of another country, you can never predict what the long-term consequences will be. And most likely, although the consequences will be terrible and tragic for the target country, they will be even worse for the country that launched the intervention,' said Kinzer.
'The same thing will be true if we fail to learn this lesson and launch an attack on Iran now,' he added.
Other speakers suggested that though the NIE seems to have diminished the chances of an attack on Iran in the next 10 months, efforts still need to be made to push the issue of rapprochement with Iran onto the agenda of the next U.S. president.
'Neither Senator [Hillary] Clinton nor Senator [Barack] Obama has seen fit to openly discuss this issue' of dialogue with Iran, said William Nitze, a former State Department official under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. 'And I think part of that has to do, frankly, with what they perceive -- not correctly, in my view -- as the interests of Israel and its supporters in the United States.'
Though Democrats have criticised President Bush's handling of the war in Iraq, many have echoed the administration's hawkish rhetoric when it comes to Iran. One recent Democratic-sponsored resolution which passed overwhelmingly called for the United Nations to indict Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for 'inciting genocide' because of his anti-Israel rhetoric.
And last year, after further tightening economic sanctions against Iran, Democrats in Congress removed a provision in an Iraq war spending bill that would have forbidden an attack on Iran without congressional approval. The measure was removed after intense lobbying from groups such as the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, an influential lobbying group that is seen as supporting policies in line with Israel's right-wing Likud Party.
'It would be a disaster for Israel if the United States took military action against Iran, because it would fundamentally weaken the United States and it would fundamentally weaken Israel's position in the Middle East,' argued Nitze. 'But nobody in the political horizon, including on the Democratic side of the aisle, has been willing to say this.'
Of the major party candidates, only Senator Obama has suggested that he would meet with the leader of Iran -- a stance that was ridiculed by many in the Washington political establishment when he voiced it last summer. But even that position is now in question, as Obama told reporters recently that he supported Israel and the Bush administration's refusal to talk to the leaders of the Palestinian group Hamas, saying, 'You can't negotiate with somebody who does not recognise the right of a country to exist.' Like Hamas, Iran also refuses to recognise Israel.
Still, speakers at the forum urged attendees to lobby their members of Congress to support legislation urging President Bush to engage Iran in direct and unconditional negotiations.
'I think if we passed that bill tomorrow, probably Bush would name [Vice President] Dick Cheney as his ambassador,' said Kinzer. 'Nonetheless, I think it would be a great symbol, a great sign, that Congress doesn't really want this military option.'
'It really is a question of whether we will learn the lessons of history or whether we will repeat them,' Rep. McDermott added.