We’ve heard this quickening drumbeat before. Last time, it led to the tragic invasion and occupation of Iraq. This time, if we let the drummers provoke us into war with Iran, the consequences will likely be far worse.

Rat-ta-tat-tat. Weapons of mass destruction. Boom-shakka-boom. A madman in charge. Thump-thump-thump. Mushroom clouds.

Tune out the anxiety-inducing percussion and think for a minute. Yes, there are good reasons to be concerned about the Iranian nuclear program. But it doesn’t follow that launching a military attack — or providing support for an attack by Israel — would necessarily be effective, let alone wise. The evidence suggests it would be neither.

Obviously, Iranian officials are lying when they say their nuclear program is entirely for peaceful purposes. But it is clear that Iran does not yet have the ability to build a nuclear weapon — and unclear whether the Iranian government, if and when it does achieve that capability, will take that final provocative step.

Covert operations believed to have been carried out by Israeli intelligence agents, perhaps with U.S. assistance — a diabolically clever computer virus that crippled many of Iran’s enrichment centrifuges, along with the targeted assassinations of key Iranian scientists — have significantly slowed Iran’s progress toward being able to make a bomb. It is reasonable to assume that such actions, and their effectiveness, will continue.

But let’s also assume that sabotage, in the end, will not be enough to keep Iran from reaching its goal. What then?

First, it seems to me, you have to figure out why the Iranian regime has gone to the trouble and expense of mounting a nuclear program in the first place. If you string together enough examples of the apocalyptic, anti-Semitic rhetorical venom that spews regularly from both religious and secular authorities in Iran, you might believe that as soon as the first nuclear-tipped missile came off the assembly line it would be sent hurtling toward Israel. But if you look at the way the regime actually behaves, you’d have to conclude otherwise.

The Iranian government acts in ways that are inimical to the interests of Israel, the United States, our Western allies and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. But it does not act in ways that are inherently irrational.

The regime wants Iran to be able to dominate the region as it did in the days of the Persian Empire. Like all dictatorial governments, it also wants to perpetuate its hold on power. Achieving nuclear capability would serve both these goals; a suicidal attack against Israel or the United States would serve neither.

It is worth mentioning that the regime’s superpower ambitions were greatly furthered by the U.S. decision to go to war against Iraq, thus eliminating Iran’s chief rival. When Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons, he used them on his own people and against Iran, not against the West.

It’s also worth mentioning that Iranian leaders might look at Iraq and Libya, which abandoned their nuclear programs, and then look at North Korea, which did not, and conclude logically that the best way for a “rogue” government to survive is to make a bomb.

My guess is that the Iranians might stop short of actually testing a nuclear device. Simply letting the world know they’re able to make one would give them the added clout they seek.

To be sure, a world with a nuclear-capable Iran would be a more dangerous place — especially for Israel and the United States, but also for Saudi Arabia and every other nation within missile range. But is there an alternative?

Iran is a huge country, and its nuclear facilities are widely dispersed across forbidding terrain — in some cases, buried deep in mountainsides. I am not convinced that an Israeli air attack, even with logistical support from the United States and its regional allies, would be able to accomplish more than delay the nuclear program by a few years.

The United States could do a more definitive job. But we would be talking about a massive, sustained bombing campaign of the kind that preceded the Iraq invasion. We’re not talking about some kind of one-day “surgical” strike. It would be war.

Are you ready for Gulf War III? If not, the only choice is to continue with diplomacy and sanctions. They aren’t great options, but they’re the best we’ve got.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group

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