OpinionIran in the World PressNo, it’s not really World War III

No, it’s not really World War III

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New York Times: If what they say has unforeseen or unintended consequences, public figures often complain that their words were “taken out of context.” President Bush did not complain about the news coverage when he suggested that an Iran with nuclear weapons could set off World War III, but his remark cries out for context nonetheless. The New York Times

By DAVID STOUT
Published: October 21, 2007

IF what they say has unforeseen or unintended consequences, public figures often complain that their words were “taken out of context.” President Bush did not complain about the news coverage when he suggested that an Iran with nuclear weapons could set off World War III, but his remark cries out for context nonetheless.

The context is historical, geographical and perhaps even personal; one reasonable conclusion was that Mr. Bush was not really envisioning a match about to light a nuclear fuse.

But first, it would be good to review just what he said.

“We got a leader in Iran who has announced that he wants to destroy Israel,” Mr. Bush said at a news conference. He was referring to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s remark that Israel “will disappear soon,” words about as inflammatory as others the Iranian has uttered about Israel.

“So I told people,” Mr. Bush went on, “if you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.”

Iran is believed to be accumulating the technical know-how to build nuclear weapons. It has rockets powerful enough to reach Israel and other Middle Eastern countries, although none powerful enough to strike the United States, as the old Soviet Union had, and as Russia does.

It was likely no coincidence that Mr. Bush spoke just after Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, visited Iran and issued a warning of his own.

“We should not even think of making use of force in this region,” Mr. Putin declared at a meeting of the five nations that border the Caspian Sea.

President Bush, on the other hand, has refused to rule out force against Iran, and recently French officials have made statements indicating a similar stance.

So does that mean the West and the Russian leader are at odds?

Maybe not completely. Mr. Bush and top administration officials are known to believe that to renounce force unequivocally beforehand — as a general diplomatic rule, not just in dealing with Iran — would render the United States powerless diplomatically.

Mr. Putin, on the other hand, has his own reasons for playing up to the Iranians at this point, including a huge Russian interest in developing the Caspian region’s oil resources. But that does not mean Russia wants Iran to develop nuclear weapons.

President Bush said he and Mr. Putin actually agree on a lot of issues. “Iran is one,” he said. “Nuclear proliferation is another.”

That may have been an overstatement. Mr. Putin has reportedly called for “deeper” relations between Russia and Iran.

In any event, taking everything into context, the hyperbole about world war last week does not make it less remote than it already is. The maneuvers so far have been diplomatic, more like chess, a game Russians love, than war games.

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