More huffing and puffing about war with Iran, this time from Anne Applebaum of the hawkish Washington Post, but first some words of caution from Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

At a news conference with Secretary of Defense Gates yesterday, Mullen once again reiterated his long-standing caution about a military attack on Iran, even as he laced it with concern about Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s "hegemonic" goals in the area of the Persian Gulf. Said Mullen:

"I maintain my conviction that Iran remains on a path to achieve nuclear weaponization, and that even this very pursuit further destabilizes the region.

"But like us, it isn’t just a nuclear-capable Iranian military our friends worry about — it’s an Iran with hegemonic ambitions and a desire to dominate its neighbors. This outcome drives many of the national security decisions our partners there are making, and I believe we must be mindful of that as we look to the future, post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan.

"Let me be clear: We owe the secretary and the president a range of options for this threat. We owe the American people our readiness. But as I’ve said many times, I worry a lot about the unintended consequences of any sort of military action. For now, the diplomatic and the economic levers of international power are and ought to be the levers first pulled. Indeed, I would hope they are always and consistently pulled. No strike, however effective, will be, in and of itself, decisive."

Applebaum, not exactly an Iran expert, used her ink in the Post today to warn that President Obama had better start preparing for an Israeli strike on Iran. In fact, that was the title of her op-ed: "Prepare for war with Iran." In it, she suggests that "at some point" Israel’s restraint vis-avis Iran could evaporate, partly because President Ahmadinejad "makes(s) the Israelis paranoid." An Israeli strike, she says, "would be followed by retaliation, some of which would be directed at us, our troops in Iraq, our ships at sea." And she adds:

"I do hope that this administration is ready, militarily and psychologically, not for a war of choice but for an unwanted war of necessity."

 That, of course, is exactly what Obama should not be doing. Instead, as I suspect they’ve done already — indeed, even during the Bush administration, Admiral Mullen did this — is make it clear to the Israelis that under no, repeat no, circumstances will an Israeli strike on Iran be tolerated by the United States. Bombing a would-be reactor in Syria, as Israel did three years ago, is one thing, but attacking Iran, a powerful regional actor and oil exporter with lots of muscle in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gulf, is another. The United States simply has to let Israel know that attacking Iran would be considered an act of unprovoked aggression by Washington, resulting in a suspension of military assistance and a vote to condemn Israel at the UN.

Iran, meanwhile, isn’t helping things along by blustering about its intent to build another ten nuclear enrichment sites, including two inside mountain redoubts. Analysts argue back and forth about whether or not Iran is determined to become a military nuclear power. On this, I’m an agnostic, but it does appear foolhardy to assume the best about Iran’s goals, especially given the ascent of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in Tehran. It’s another thing, of course, to panic, for two reasons: first, Iran does not appear to be that close to acquiring the bomb, and its research is running into important snags, at least some of which may involve covert technological sabotage by the US, Israel and the Europeans; and second, because even if Iran does manage to acquire a small number of bombs, it can be contained and deterred.

As Fareed Zakaria wrote the other day:

"Can we live with a nuclear Iran? Well, we’re living with a nuclear North Korea (boxed in and contained by its neighbors). And we lived with a nuclear Soviet Union and Communist China.

"The most significant recent development in Iran has been the displacement of the clerical elite by the Revolutionary Guards, a military organization that is now the center of power. Clinton confirmed this when she warned of an emerging ‘military dictatorship’ there. I’m not sure which is worse for the Iranian people: rule by nasty mullahs or by thuggish soldiers. But we know this: Military regimes are calculating. They act in ways that keep themselves in power. That instinct for self-preservation is what will make a containment strategy work."

Other thinkers, including relatively hawkish ones, are already thinking ahead about a strategy to contain a nuclear Iran. James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh, no doves, have a piece in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs entitled: "After Iran Gets the Bomb." Summarizing their argument in the Post, Lindsay and Takeyh say that a containment policy, backed up by a credible threat of US military action, could contain Iran even after it gets a bomb. In my view, they seem to regard the use of force against a nuclear Iran with less than the dread that such a scenario implies, but in any case their argument bolsters the case for rejecting military action against Iran, now. They say:

"It would take considerable American political skill and will to contain [Iran’s] regional pretensions. Washington would need to be explicit about its red lines: no initiation of conventional warfare against other countries; no use or transfer of nuclear weapons, material or technologies; no stepped-up support for terrorist or subversive activities. Washington would need to be just as explicit about the consequences of crossing those lines: potential U.S. military retaliation by any and all means necessary."

And they conclude:

"If Tehran remains determined to go nuclear and preventive attacks prove too risky or unworkable to carry out, the United States will need to formulate a strategy to contain Iran."