PLAYING POLITICS ISN'T A POLICY. I'm going to dissent, with Ezra, from the emerging TAPPED line on Iran here and say that any Democrat who comes out and argues that we can't deal with Iran until Bush is out of office will do nothing more than reaffirm to the nth degree the perception that Democrats cannot handle national security matters. Iran is not just an American problem and is not going to go away as an issue if Democrats choose to punt on it. The U.S. did not precipitate this conflict. The entire world, through the United Nations National Security Council, is concerned about Iran becoming the ninth state to acquire nuclear weapons. The Europeans were taking the lead on exerting pressure on Iran until quite recently, and Russia attempted to broker a deal that would prevent the present intensification of tensions. A nuclear Iran governed by a madman is of far graver concern to Europe and Israel than it would be to the more distant U.S. The issue for us right now is that the U.S. is the only nation with the military power to credibly insure that negotiations are backed by the threat of force, as some believe they must be to succeed. So some of the present U.S. saber-rattling, as disturbing as it may be, has to be understood as part of the international negotiating process, rather than an effort to ignore it.

Meanwhile, the single most important question from the perspective of American interests -- which is what I'd like to see Democratic (and Republican) leaders talking about, rather than whether or not the president is a bozo -- is how our presence in Iraq is going to help or hurt whatever it is we intend to do about Iran, and what the impact of any action against Iran will be on our troops. It's not at all clear to me whether, as some analysts believe, the presence of 150,000 U.S. troops across the border in Iraq is acting as a kind of niggling on-the-ground reminder that the U.S. threat of force is real and capable of being launched now as at no other time (what with the military having such a strong presence in the region already), or whether, as Iranians and a number of observers of the region have warned, any actions taken while U.S. troops remains so heavily involved but thinly spread in Iraq will amount to walking into a noose.

Abdel Bari Atwan, editor in chief of London's Al-Quds Al Arabi, is one of many who have articulated that latter perspective:

If they impose economic sanctions against Iran, it means 150,000 American soldiers will be hostages to the Iranian militia or Iranian supporters inside Iraq. Now the Sunni are against them, in the future the Shia will be against them, they will have extremely serious difficulties.

Iraq is already, by all accounts, in the midst of an intensifying civil war. What would be the impact of bombing Iran now on that conflict? Can the U.S. military option most likely to be used -- air power -- really be considered a discrete intervention when neighboring ground forces may face retaliation? Even those who argue most credibly for the eventual necessity of air strikes if Iran continues to flout the international bodies attempting to convince it into to give up its nuclear ambitions cannot answer this question.

Further, there is a very real question about what impact air strikes might have on the Iranian opposition movement and the pro-democracy forces we say we support. Even in the U.S., we know that dissidents are most unpopular when a nation faces external threats. It is possible that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would use U.S. or coalition air strikes to unify his humiliated nation against the West and crack down on internal opposition in a way that undermines hopes for democracy in the region and destroys the possibility of liberalization within Iran for years to come. Indeed, air strikes might even make it more likely that Iran ultimately acquires nuclear weapons, by rallying the Iranian public behind the goal and making the need to prevent further attack by the U.S. more urgent.

Given that most credible intelligence analysts believe Iran is five to 10 years away from building a bomb, and given the incredible risks air strikes might pose to both U.S. troops in the region and to Iranian dissidents, the strongest argument that can be made right now is that the United Nations process that was short-circuited in the lead up to the Iraq War ought to be scrupulously adhered to in this instance, and that negotiations be given a real possibility of working. A strong Democratic response to Iran's nuclear ambitions that begins with taking Iranian nuclear ambitions seriously -- I find a disturbing number of people on the left are now telling me that there's nothing to worry about if Iran goes nuclear -- and then forcefully demands from the administration a decent respect to the opinions of mankind and international law, as well as a level of evidence it failed to provide with regard to Iraq, is about as much as can be hoped for. I also believe it would be respected.

--Garance Franke-Ruta