The Bush administration is moving toward military action against Iran, despite its current public support for multilateral diplomacy. Surprisingly, that eventual outcome may also comport with the interests of the Iranian government. The real losers in this arms-length conspiracy between the two hostile governments will be the American and Iranian peoples.

For the moment, the Bush administration is playing a more sophisticated diplomatic game against Iran than it did during the ham-handed run-up to the unpopular invasion of Iraq, which led to U.S. isolation from most of the rest of the world. The administration has allowed France, Britain, and Germany to take the lead in trying to negotiate away Iran’s nuclear program. Having failed in that effort, the Europeans are now on board with an International Atomic Energy Agency referral to the United Nations Security Council for the possible imposition of sanctions. The United States is now working to convince China and Russia that stiffer actions against Iran are warranted. Rather than taking rash, almost unilateral, action as it did against Iraq, the Bush administration apparently has learned its lesson and seems to be willing to let multilateral diplomacy play out in order to build international support for a military response.

President Bush has said that Iran should not be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon and recently used the term “grave” to describe the threat from Iran, eerily, the same term he used to describe the threat from Iraq before the U.S. invasion. A source on Capitol Hill told me that anti-Iranian hawks are already making speeches and introducing bills to build the case for a military attack.

But after the disaster in Iraq, an invasion probably will not be the preferred course of military action against Iran. Although the Bush administration likes to flex its muscles, it does seem capable of learning—at least in a tactical sense. Any invasion of Iran would be a daunting task, especially with almost 150,000 U.S. forces tied down in the quagmires in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran has two-and-a-half times the population of Iraq, almost four times the area of that country, and is mountainous rather than flat. If the challenge of winning a counterinsurgency war against the mainly secular Sunnis in Iraq seems impossible now, fighting the fanatical religious zealots in Iran on unfavorable terrain would likely prove to be horrific.

Instead, the Bush administration would probably opt for air strikes targeting Iran’s nuclear sites. Although aerial bombardment might set back the Iranian nuclear program, it would probably not eliminate it. After Israeli air strikes against the Iraq’s Osirik nuclear reactor in 1981, nuclear aspirants dispersed and hid atomic facilities, buried them, or placed them in highly populated areas where bombing would kill many innocent civilians. If the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is any indication, U.S. intelligence on Iranian nuclear facilities probably isn’t that good, and air strikes would thus likely be ineffective. Why then would the Bush administration go down this route? Because much of government policy—U.S. or other—is to show the domestic audience that something is being done about a problem, especially when the threat from an external “enemy” has been embellished. With a long confrontation with Iran and eventual air strikes, the Bush administration could distract attention from the deteriorating situations in Iraq and Afghanistan for many months without risking yet another quagmire in Iran.

First, only mild international economic sanctions will likely be placed on Iran. Here the United States will fall victim to the first consequence of its invasion of Iraq. Other countries are suspicious that a hard-line approach against Iran will encourage the United States to do what it did against Iraq. Yet economic sanctions, no matter how strong, will be unlikely to compel the Iranian government to get rid of its nuclear program, which has wide public support in Iran. The second consequence of the invasion of Iraq, a country that was not even close to getting a nuclear weapon, was that Iran, which was much closer to that goal, saw how the U.S. superpower treated non-nuclear “rogue” states and accelerated its nuclear program to acquire the ultimate deterrent against the United States and Israel. No wonder Iran has been unwilling to accept Western trade and investment goodies to negotiate away its nuclear program.

But if the aggressive Bush administration is prone to military action, why is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the new Iranian president, making inflammatory comments that could allow the United States to portray him as madman who requires a military drubbing? Perhaps Ahmadinejad realizes that a U.S. invasion is unlikely and that air strikes by the “Great Satan” would be ineffectual but would help him win over a young population that is tired of Islamic radicalism and wants to reestablish ties with the world. Thus, U.S. air strikes could benefit both the U.S. and Iranian governments at the expense of their peoples.

Instead the U.S. should accept the fact that Iran will probably obtain nuclear weapons and use the massive U.S. nuclear arsenal to deter the use of any puny Iranian nuclear force. Something similar was done when radical Maoist China obtained nuclear weapons in the mid- to late-1960s. Also, “the return of the radicals”—as represented by Ahmadinejad—will likely generate a counterrevolution among the Iranian people, who want to reconnect with the world, according to Professor Jack A. Goldstone of George Mason University, an expert on revolutions. According to Goldstone, this counterrevolution happened in China after radicals returned during the Cultural Revolution and in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s purges.

So instead of the Bush administration’s activist stance against the fulminating Iranian regime and its nuclear program, perhaps a “do-nothing” policy would achieve better results with much less cost in blood and treasure.