Is war with Iran inevitable, even imminent? Or is peace at hand?
From the public diplomacy of the administration, either conclusion may be reached. Consider.
"West Offers Iran 'Refreshed' Deal," ran the headline in the May 3 Washington Times. The story described an offer to Iran, agreed to by all five members of the Security Council -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China -- of a sweetened grand bargain, if Tehran will suspend its enrichment of uranium.
Blessing the offering in London was Condi Rice.
Details will not be made public, but the offer is said to include Western aid to Iran for a civilian nuclear program, a light water reactor and a five-year stock of enriched uranium held for Iran by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
America's contribution would be support for Iran's admission to the World Trade Organization, a conference to discuss regional security in the Gulf, a U.S. offer to sell Iran spare parts for its U.S.-built civilian aircraft and a beginning of the lifting of three decades of U.S. sanctions.
News of this offer, plus the relaxed mood in Washington, which is utterly unlike the tense atmosphere prior to March 2003, suggests that war with Iran is far from the mind of this city.
But to take the warnings and threats of the civilian and military leaders of this administration at face value would lead one to conclude the opposite -- that war with Iran is indeed inevitable, and probably soon. Consider.
Last month, Gen. David Petraeus was asked by Joe Lieberman, "Is it fair to say that the Iranian-backed special groups in Iraq are responsible for the murder of hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians?"
"It certainly is. ... That is correct," answered the general.
The next day, Petraeus testified, "Unchecked, the 'special groups' pose the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic Iraq."
Petraeus has since been promoted to command of all U.S. forces in the region.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, known as an opponent of war on Iran, followed Petraeus, accusing Tehran of being "hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons." Last week, Gates was out front again. "What the Iranians are doing is killing American servicemen and -women inside Iraq."
Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is now also pounding the war drum. Iran's "irresponsible influence," its support of terror and its pursuit of atomic weapons, he said last week, is creating a "perfect nightmare" for the region. The Pentagon, said the chairman, is planning for "potential military ... action" because of Iran's "increasingly lethal and malign influence."
"It would be a mistake to think that we are out of combat capacity," Mullen declared. A second U.S. carrier just entered the Persian Gulf.
CBS reports that a target list of U.S. military planners includes the headquarters of the Quds Force and plants where Iran produces enhanced IEDs and the rockets used against the Green Zone. The network also reports that the State Department has begun drafting an ultimatum.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmal Khalilzad has chimed in: "Iran and Syria must stop the flow of weapons and foreign fighters into Iraq, and their malign interference in Iraq."
Iraqi Maj. Gen. Qasim Atta says 700 rockets and mortars have been fired at Coalition forces and the Green Zone, and most of the "Katyusha and Grad rockets and smart roadside bombs" were Iranian-made. The U.S. military is preparing a dossier on Iran's role in the Iraq war.
In the Landon Lecture at Kansas State, CIA Director Michael Hayden declared, "It ... is the policy of the Iranian government, approved to the highest level ... to facilitate the killing of Americans in Iraq." That day, State designated Iran the "most significant" and "most active" state sponsor of terror on earth.
From the White House to State to the Pentagon to CIA, the Bush administration is now singing from the same song sheet: Iran's Quds Force, with the knowledge of President Ahmadinejad, is arming and directing "special groups" to kill U.S. soldiers and prevent a U.S. victory.
Is the White House rattling sabers to prod Iran into talks?
Perhaps. But the administration has also painted itself, and us, into a corner with the war talk. And there are only three ways out.
The first is that Iran halts the attacks, ends its intervention and negotiates on the six-nation offer. The second is that Iran rejects the deal, refuses to stop the attacks and U.S. air strikes begin.
The third is that Bush is bluffing and goes home railing against an axis-of-evil nation killing American soldiers, having done nothing.
With Israel, the Israeli lobby, the neocons and Dick Cheney insisting on air strikes, and even Hillary Clinton talking about Iran being "obliterated," the last course would seem the least probable.
We are likely headed either for negotiations with Iran or war, after Bush returns from the 60th anniversary celebration of Israel's birth.
"To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war," said Winston Churchill in 1954, whose career often contradicted his wise counsel.