Speculation about a confrontation over Iran's nuclear program continues, as Iran moves its money out of European banks and the oil market exhibits a fine case of jitters. Yesterday's New York Times hinted strongly at one possible military scenario, while explaining its many undesirable consequences. In the same section, David Brooks's op-ed (subscription required) described the growing domestic political rifts over the various options available to us. The only parties heartened by all this must be President Ahmadinejad and the mullahs.
In David Sanger's article, various US officials--most off the record--described a possible air strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. It would have more in common with 2003's "Shock and Awe" air campaign in Iraq than with Israel's 1981 raid on Osirak. But unlike Iraq, Iran would not absorb such an attack without responding in ways that could quickly involve the entire region, throwing energy markets and stock markets into chaos. Iran's recent rhetoric suggests they see this as their trump card.
Meanwhile it's clear that Iran has gone to school on Saddam's methods for sowing division within the international community. As long as they can string out talks with Russia about external processing for their nuclear fuel, the likelihood of Russia or China participating in any meaningful international sanctions will remain low. Iran is stalling, and that is their best strategy at the moment; it may be ours, as well.
In the absence of a military option with acceptable costs, and without a broad consensus--in either Congress or the UN--on sanctions that would punish the Iranian government without backfiring elsewhere, both sides will keep posturing, until everyone's patience is exhausted. The ultimate outcome depends mostly on the true nature of the Iranians' goals and the strength of their determination to achieve them. Perhaps their intended model is Pakistan, which has suffered little lasting damage from joining the nuclear club. But will they risk ending up like North Korea, armed but isolated, or Iraq, which bluffed once too often?