For Anti-War Reporter, "Feverish" Talk of Iran Nuclear Threat Is "New Whiff of Gunpowder in the Air"

If Libya was considered a good war in Timesland, war with Iran would definitely be a bad one, reporter Scott Shane says, lumping any action against Iran’s nuclear threat to our long and costly involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Shane tried to dissipate the threatening “whiff of gunpowder in the air” in his front-page “news analysis” Wednesday, “In Din Over Iran, Rattling Sabers Echo,” which is written in the style of an anti-war activist. He quoted four scholars, all of whom were dismissive of the threat and against intervention, and even noted criticism of his own paper for overstating Iran’s threat.

The United States has now endured what by some measures is the longest period of war in its history, with more than 6,300 American troops killed and 46,000 wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan and the ultimate costs estimated at $3 trillion. Both wars lasted far longer than predicted. The outcomes seem disappointing and uncertain.

So why is there already a new whiff of gunpowder in the air?

Talk of war over Iran’s nuclear program has reached a strident pitch in recent weeks, as Israel has escalated threats of a possible strike, the oratory of American politicians has become more bellicose and Iran has responded for the most part defiantly. With Israel and Iran exchanging accusations of assassination plots, some analysts see a danger of blundering into a war that would inevitably involve the United States.

Echoes of the period leading up to the Iraq war in 2003 are unmistakable, igniting a familiar debate over whether journalists are overstating Iran’s progress toward a bomb. Yet there is one significant difference: by contrast with 2003, when the Bush administration portrayed Iraq as an imminent threat, Obama administration officials and intelligence professionals seem eager to calm the feverish language.

Though the Times often claims that he did, President Bush never actually called Saddam Hussein or Iraq an "imminent threat." In fact, in his 2003 State of the Union address Bush clearly indicated the threat wasn't imminent: "Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike?"

Despite a decade of war, most Americans seem to endorse the politicians’ martial spirit. In a Pew Research Center poll this month, 58 percent of those surveyed said the United States should use military force, if necessary, to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Only 30 percent said no.

“I find it puzzling,” said Richard K. Betts of Columbia University, who has studied security threats since the cold war. “You’d think there would be an instinctive reason to hold back after two bloody noses in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

In a rarity, Shane used the Times’ ombudsman to go after stories from his fellow reporters on Iran:

...Haunting such discussions is the memory of the Iraq war. The intelligence on weapons of mass destruction, which was one of the Bush administration’s main rationales for the invasion, proved to be devastatingly wrong. And the news media, including The New York Times, which ultimately apologized to readers for some of its coverage of claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, are again under scrutiny by critics wary of exaggerated threats.

Both the ombudsman of The Washington Post and the public editor of The New York Times in his online blog have scolded their newspapers since December for overstating the current evidence against Iran in particular headlines and stories. Amid the daily drumbeat about a possible war, the hazard of an assassination or a bombing setting off a conflict inadvertently worries some analysts. After a series of killings of Iranian scientists widely believed to be the work of Israel, Israeli diplomats in three countries were the targets last week of bombs suspected to have been planted by Iranians.

Shane seems confident his paper was “overstating” the case against Iran, but conventional wisdom has been wrong before on Iran’s nuclear capability. Witness the 2011 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which Foreign Policy magazine claims “walks back the conclusion of the 2007 NIE, which stated that Iran had halted work on its covert nuclear weapons program.”

Shane concluded with one of his four negative sources lamenting the lack of nuance in the “inflammatory rhetoric” on Iran’s nuclear ambitons.

Peter Feaver of Duke University, who has long studied public opinion about war and worked in the administration of President George W. Bush, said the Obama administration’s policy was now “in the exact middle of American public opinion on Iran” -- taking a hard line against a nuclear-armed Iran, yet opposing military action for now and escalating sanctions. But as the November election approaches, Mr. Feaver said, inflammatory oratory is likely to increase, even if it is unsuited to a problem as complicated as Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“This is the standard danger of talking about foreign policy crises in a campaign,” he said. “If you try to explain a complex position, you sound hopelessly vague.”