From where I sit, the real significance of this story about Jacques Chirac going off-message on Iran is to underscore something I’ve said before — it’s not clear that bombing Iran would delay Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon at all. Virtually every country on earth could be doing less than it currently is to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon. As we see in Chirac’s remarks, in virtually all of these countries there is some substantial disagreement as to how big of a deal the Iranian nuclear program is. Beyond the strict merits of the question, there are two factors militating toward a hard line on Iran. One is that the United States wants other countries to take a hard line, and our words carry some weight. A second is that other countries don’t want the United States or Israel to do anything crazy and start a war.
If a war starts, obviously, that second rationale goes out the window. For some countries, the first may go out the window as well. At the margin, countries with aspirations to greatness (Russia, China, France, India, Brazil, etc.) all face a constant dilemma between kissing the hegemon’s ass and wanting the undermine the hegemon. The more we act like a rogue hegemon — launching or supporting aggressive warfare against other countries — the more at least some of those of those countries will opt for less ass-kissing and more undermining. Both considerations indicate that military strikes on Iran are likely to erode other countries’ efforts to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb.
It’s crucial not to sell those efforts short. Russia and China have taken a beating in the American press — especially the hawkish press — for not cooperating with the Bush administration as much as one might like. And, indeed, one could ask them to do more. On the other hand, they could be doing much less. At the limit, China could simply accept a whole bunch of money in exchange for sending some Chinese nuke-building guys and nuke-building machines over to Iran: Bomb! I’m not a fortune-teller, so I can’t tell you how big the impact of strikes would be on foreign countries’ attitudes, but the point is simply that it’s a huge X Factor that hawks are absolutely refusing to reckon with.