Steve Chapman

At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union had some 45,000 nuclear warheads. At the moment, Iran has none. But when Barack Obama said the obvious -- that Iran does not pose the sort of threat the Soviet Union did -- John McCain reacted as though his rival had offered to trade Fort Knox for a sack of magic beans.

"Such a statement betrays the depth of Sen. Obama's inexperience and reckless judgment," exclaimed McCain. "These are very serious deficiencies for an American president to possess."

But if Iran is the Soviet Union, I'm Shaquille O'Neal. There is nothing reckless in soberly distinguishing large threats from small ones, and there is something foolhardy in grossly exaggerating the strength of your enemies.

As military powers go, Iran is a pipsqueak. It has no nuclear weapons. It has a pitiful air force. Its navy is really just a coast guard. It spends less on defense than Singapore or Sweden. Our military budget is 145 times bigger than Iran's.

By contrast, the Soviets had far more nuclear weapons than we did, a blue-water navy, formidable air power and ground forces that dwarfed ours. In a conventional war, it was anything but certain that we could prevail, and in a nuclear exchange, it was clear they could destroy us.

Iran is a very modest adversary. Of course, even a Chihuahua can bite. The U.S. government claims Iran has provided arms and training to Iraqi insurgents -- never mind that it is allied with the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

But it's worthwhile to remember that even bad regimes sometimes have understandable motivations. The United States helped overthrow a democratically elected Iranian government in 1953 and provided aid to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. If Iran sees an interest in bleeding the U.S. military, that is likely a defensive response to the presence of an avowed enemy on its border rather than a sign of aggressive intent.

Its actions in Iraq, however, are supposedly the least of the menace. McCain and many others are convinced that Iran will soon get nuclear weapons and proceed to use them.

The first claim overlooks the Bush administration's own National Intelligence Estimate, issued last year, which concluded that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The NIE also said, "Tehran's decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs."

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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