When -- not if -- is the only mystery about an Iranian nuclear bomb.
All the warning signs are there.
In 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama on two occasions went out of his way to warn the Iranians that the development of a nuclear weapon "would be a game-changing situation, not just in the Middle East, but around the world." Obama later added, "It is unacceptable for Iran to possess a nuclear weapon; it would be a game changer."
Strong language. And Obama twice this year again used "game changer" in reference to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, warning him not to dare use chemical weapons. In March, Obama announced to Assad that "the use of chemical weapons is a game changer." A month later, Obama again warned Assad not to resort to WMD use: "That is going to be a game changer."
The Iranians must conclude that Obama's oft-used sports metaphor is more a verbal tic than a serious red line. What should they fear next from Obama -- a really, really big game changer? Do we really expect them to show us either that they have lied in the past about their WMD aims but have now renounced them, or that they have been misunderstood and will prove to the world that they never have sought a bomb in the first place?
The Phantom Moderate
Not long ago, Assad was hailed by the American foreign policy establishment as a "reformer." Sen. John Kerry was widely praised for his visits to Damascus. Kerry's inspired engagement supposedly stood in stark contrast to the Bush administration's mindless ostracism of the misunderstood dictator, who was sending terrorists into Iraq, planning the assassination of a prominent politician in Lebanon, aiding Hezbollah and exploring all sorts of WMD avenues.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gleefully contrasted Assad the "reformer" with the late Muammar Gadhafi, the murderous dictator, when she explained why the Obama administration was going to bomb the latter but not the former, which had only committed "police actions."
When the murderous Assad appears on Western media, he certainly does not sound like his late uncouth father. Instead, in smart Western suits, he speaks softly in French-accented English. His chic wife Asma was fawned over in a 2011 Vogue magazine puff piece, "A Rose in the Desert."
The latest Middle East "moderate" and "reformer," Hassan Rouhani, the new president of Iran, follows Syria's script. As in the case of Assad, he appears a pleasant change from his immediate predecessor, the coarse Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Yet, like the phantom moderate Assad, there is no evidence to support Obama's assertion before the U.N. that, "We are encouraged that President Rouhani received from the Iranian people a mandate to pursue a more moderate course." There was no free election in Iran. Rouhani has a hardliner background and once enjoyed close ties to the Ayatollah Khomeini. He has bragged about deceiving the Europeans over Iran's nuclear enrichment program, and was instrumental in hiding it.
Dear American People
Last month, Russian strongman Vladimir Putin wrote a letter to the American people that was published in the New York Times. It was full of sugarcoated half-truths, charming fantasies, and bald historical distortions -- and largely worked in portraying both Russia and Syria as voices of moderation and subject to unfair Western bullying.
Not long after, Rouhani copied that ruse by writing an op-ed for the Washington Post. His piece hit every American therapeutic chord imaginable -- from the sappy "identity," "win-win outcomes" and "for the sake of their legacies, and our children and future generations" to the overdramatic "Cold War mentality," "zero sum game" and "cultural encroachment." Rouhani sounded part local T-ball coach, part campus diversity czar and part peace-studies facilitator.
If it once seemed impossible that Iran could have sanctions weakened, avoid a Western pre-emptory strike on its nuclear facilities and obtain WMD, after Syria it suddenly seems likely. The model is now Assad staring down a blinking U.S.
For the Iranians, getting the bomb is now well worth the risk.
The upside was always undeniable. The West -- as in the case of its treatment of North Korea and Pakistan -- usually gives more financial aid to rogue proliferators than to nations that play by the rules. Without nukes, Islamabad and Pyongyang are hardly newsworthy. Neither would earn attention and deference from countries like China, India, Japan and the United States.
Even better for Iran, its nuclear Sword of Damocles will make life miserable for both its hated enemies the Israelis and its Arab Sunni rivals. The more a nuclear Iranian theocracy sounds unhinged with its accustomed apocalyptic and messianic rantings, the better it can protect its terrorist franchises.
It is old news that for Iran, the long-term advantages of obtaining a nuclear bomb have always outweighed the temporary downside of economic sanctions.
But what is new is the Syrian model that has excited the Iranians as never before.
"Game changer" threats are now seen as empty. Posturing as a "moderate" works. Sugary op-eds in American papers beguile the public. And Vladimir Putin is always ready to come to the rescue.
No wonder that Iran believes it can finally have its WMD and woo us, too.