The mullahs know their 20th century history. They know Western democracies find it easier to temporize, to put off a growing danger, to decry the threat rather than face it. European leaders have a well-established, and well-deserved, reputation for appeasing dictators. And now America is expected to follow their example.
The decline of the West can be measured in the crises it declines to recognize. Till it's too late, or almost so. Till a rogue state like North Korea gets its Bomb. Look at how long it took the West to move in the Balkans. And in Libya. And now it only watches as new horrors unfold in Syria.
The pattern is familiar. It goes back to the 1930s, when the raving demagogue was a German. It took forever for European statesmen to realize that the funny little man with a moustache would not be appeased despite their best efforts. They may have read his book, in which he laid out his pet hatreds and dreams of world domination beyond question, but it was hard to take him seriously. Surely, he would prove only a passing fancy in a highly civilized nation, the land of Goethe and Schiller, Beethoven and Mozart.
In their naivete, the leaders of the West's democracies had no idea whom they were dealing with in Herr Hitler. And he had an all too accurate understanding of whom he was dealing with. The more of his demands were met, the more demanding he became. The more concessions the Chamberlains and Daladiers made, the more aggressive he became.
Each of Herr Hitler's territorial demands was to be the last -- before the next one. And war came. For there are certain things that eventually have to be faced in this world. Like evil.
Now the same pattern is being played out again. Another team of UN inspectors has been dispatched to Teheran, and has returned without being allowed to inspect anything nuclear. Tension builds.
In 1938, a little country like Czechoslovakia could be sacrificed readily enough for a brief and ersatz Peace in Our Time. But in 2012, a little country like Israel is no Czechoslovakia; it has nuclear weapons of its own. It also has a good, indeed a haunting, inescapable memory of where appeasement leads. It cannot be counted on to go gently into that awful night. Not again.
In Washington, the American secretary of defense, Mr. Leon Panetta, is quoted as saying he believes there is a "strong possibility" Israel may strike at Iran's fast-developing nuclear installations in April, May or June. What, no exact date? No precise Israeli order of battle to share with Teheran, too? The secretary has backed away from that statement, but it lingers in the diplomatic air. Like a (not so) distant early warning.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is not as coy. After meeting with Israeli officials, Gen. Martin Dempsey warned, "It's not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran." He's still hoping (against hope) that its leaders will decide not "to weaponize their nuclear capability." Which is the Strangelovian way generals today speak about the unspeakable. They use vague euphemisms, as if vague language could keep the danger vague, too. It can't. The danger grows clearer and closer every day.
Is it time for an international conference at the very top level to reach a comprehensive agreement and break this impasse? They say Munich is nice in the spring.
In the unlikely event Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and cohort prove sane and refrain from actually using the Bomb they've worked so long and deviously to develop, its very existence would dramatically alter the already shaky balance of power in the Mideast, and not for the better. It would surely set off a nuclear arms race between Iran and its more fearful neighbors and rivals like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates.
Or maybe Iran's little fuehrer would wipe his fingerprints off and transfer a nuke or two to one of his regime's fronts, Hamas in the Gaza Strip or Hezbollah in Lebanon, and let them deliver it on target. There's no end to the tricky possibilities, one more dangerous than the other. Welcome to the nuclearized Middle East, as if that part of the world weren't volatile enough.
The other day, another temporizer was heard from -- William Hague, the British foreign secretary. Demonstrating a talent for stating the obvious, he pointed out that a military strike against Iran's fast-developing nuclear capacity would have "enormous downsides." And he was using understatement. Such an attack would risk embroiling the whole Middle East in still another war, one that might involve more than the Middle East this time.
Indeed, the only thing more dangerous than launching a pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear installations might be not to launch it, and let Mahmoud Ahmadinejad carry out his promise to rearrange the map of the Middle East. And risk not just another war in that volatile region but a nuclear one. To adapt a phrase from that noted analyst of foreign and all other affairs, Bette Davis aka Margo Channing: "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy ride!"