Is a Bush pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear enrichment plant at Natanz, or on the Al Quds force of the Revolutionary Guard, a more remote possibility today than it was several weeks ago?
So it would seem.
The latest indication is a candid interview in the Financial Times with Adm. William "Fox" Fallon, head of Central Command, who would be the Tommy Franks of any naval or air war on Iran.
"The Pentagon is not preparing a pre-emptive attack on Iran in spite of an increase in bellicose rhetoric from Washington, according to senior officers," concluded the FT in the lead of its story.
Dealing with Iran is a "challenge," a strike is not "in the offing," Fallon is quoted. His comments, said the Times, "served as a shot across the bows of hawks who argue for imminent action."
"(G)enerally, the bellicose comments" out of Washington "are not particularly helpful," said our CentCom commander. That is naval gunfire directed right across the bow of the West Wing.
For the ranking man in Washington said to be arguing loudest for imminent action is Dick Cheney. And the most "bellicose comments" about Iran coming out of Washington have come from George W. Bush.
Here, again, is Bush at the American Legion Convention:
"Iran ... is the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism. ... Iran funds terrorist groups like Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which murder the innocent and target Israel. ... Iran is sending arms to the Taliban. ... Iran's active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust."
Last month, Bush ventured further, "(I)f you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them (Iran) from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."
If terms like "nuclear holocaust" and "World War III" are not "bellicose rhetoric," what is?
Why might the administration be backing away from war on Iran?
First, Pakistan. With a nation of 170 million with nuclear weapons in a political crisis that could lead to civil war, igniting a war with Iran would seem suicidal -- especially with the war in Iraq about to enter its sixth year this spring and the war in Afghanistan about to enter its seventh year next month.
Second, there is no guarantee U.S. air strikes could denuclearize Iran, except temporarily. Bombs cannot destroy knowledge. And Iran has been gaining knowledge for years on how to enrich uranium. Moreover, Iran has surely secreted away many of the centrifuges it has constructed, far from the Natanz plant -- ground zero -- where 2,000 or 3,000 are said to be operating.
Third, no one can predict where an attack on Iran will lead. While the United States could smash all known nuclear facilities, Iran could ship IEDs, sniper rifles and surface-to-air missiles into Afghanistan and Iraq, and send in thousands of Revolutionary Guard and cause chaos in the Gulf that would double or treble the price of oil, setting off a worldwide recession. Sleeper cells could retaliate for Iranian casualties with suicide bombings at U.S. malls.
We went into Iraq and Afghanistan without an exit strategy. In Iran, other than the naval and air strikes of the first weeks, we do not know how or where the war would go. We do know the Iranians have been preparing surprises.
Fourth, Congress seems to have found its voice, and 30 senators have written to inform President Bush that he does not have the authority, absent an Iranian attack on U.S. forces, to launch a war on Iran. While Rudy Giuliani and John McCain remain hawkish, the Democratic candidates are moving in the other direction.
Fifth, there has been a downturn in roadside attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, suggesting Iran may no longer be supplying the enhanced IEDs. And U.S. forces have released several Iranians held captive in Iraq. There may be progress behind the scenes, as both countries could suffer horribly in a war.
We are not out of the woods yet. If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is telling the truth about those 3,000 centrifuges working perfectly, Iran could have the nuclear material for a single bomb in a year. The International Atomic Energy Agency reports this month on whether Iran is meeting its commitments to come clean. It is not. And the European Union will report on whether the sanctions have succeeded, or failed. And the latter is the case.
And there are those in Tehran who would relish U.S. strikes, to unite the nation against us and consolidate the mullahs' power.
Nevertheless, the forces against war now and for negotiations with Tehran -- Condi Rice, Robert Gates, the Pentagon brass, the most outspoken of the retired military and NATO Europe -- seem to be gaining the ascendancy in the last great battle of the Bush presidency.
And the War Party, which began its propaganda offensive around Labor Day, seems to have shot its bolt. For now.