Is Prime Minister Stephen Harper preparing the Canadian public for a possible conflict with Iran? In two recent interviews (here and here), he has “raised the alarm” about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, which he views as the “world’s most serious threat to international peace.”

Mr. Harper is right to be concerned about the possibility of Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons. Any proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is bad news, and there are few more odious regimes in the world than the one that has ruled Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

But is he justified in saying that Iran would have “no hesitation of using nuclear weapons if they see them achieving their religious or political purposes”?

This is an important point. If Mr. Harper is correct, virtually all measures, up to and including a military attack on Iran, might be warranted or perhaps even required to prevent that country from building such weapons.

The problem, however, is that the prime minister’s assessment flies in the face of what we know about the behaviour of the Iranian regime. For all their revolutionary jihadist talk, Iran’s ruling mullahs have consistently worked to realize one goal above all others: keeping themselves in power.

Yes, Iran’s leaders have made the most repugnant and threatening statements about Israel, and it’s an open secret that they support organizations that use terrorist tactics, including Hezbollah and Hamas. But the regime shows no sign of being suicidal itself, which is what Mr. Harper is suggesting when he says the country’s leaders would “not hesitate” to use nuclear weapons. Most experts who watch Iran reject the assumption that its leaders would bring about their own certain destruction in this manner.

On the other hand, this is not a reason to be complacent about the Iranian nuclear program. It is genuinely worrying that Iran seems bent on developing such weapons, or at least the capability to build them. Although the International Atomic Energy Agency still lacks definitive evidence of a nuclear weapons program, there is more than enough circumstantial evidence to warrant the aggressive diplomatic and economic squeeze that Canada and other western countries are putting on Iran – provided it is also combined with creative diplomacy that gives Iran a way out, should it chose to take it.

The question, however, is how far we might be willing to go in stopping such a program, if and when hard evidence emerges that Iran is close to building a functioning, deliverable nuclear device. If misperceptions about Iranian behaviour inform our answer to this question – if we succumb to fears based on caricatures, rather than facts – we risk making terrible strategic mistakes.

Some might say: How can we afford to wait much longer before considering preemptive military action to avert this looming threat? We’ve heard versions of this argument from candidates for the Republican presidential nomination and from some conservative American commentators, among others.

But exactly how would such an intervention work? Could bombing, alone, really stop or even significantly delay Iran’s nuclear efforts? Would a limited attack not serve to strengthen the Iranian leadership’s domestic power? Might it not also reinforce the regime’s commitment to acquire nuclear weapons as a deterrent against future attacks? What if outside intervention inflamed the entire region? What if it bogged down into another grinding war of occupation?

Let’s also recall that former U.S. President George W. Bush, in responding to concerns about the case for attacking Iraq, used some of the same arguments we are hearing today. “Facing clear evidence of peril,” he said in 2002, just months before the U.S. invaded Iraq, “we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” Unfortunately, this frightful yet unfounded message, which went largely unchallenged by some of the country’s most respected media organizations, resonated with a great many Americans.

It should go without saying that political leaders need to be very cautious when they invoke nightmare visions of nuclear catastrophe. Few rhetorical tools are more powerful, or have more potential to mobilize public passions, than allusions to possible mass destruction. That’s why we need to subject these claims to extra-close scrutiny.

Mr. Harper acknowledges that he is frightened by Iran. So am I – and so are many others. But at this critical time, as tensions mount between Iran and the west, our prime minister needs to keep a level head. He should step back from the rhetorical brink.

This post first appeared on the CIC’s Roundtable blog at opencanada.org.

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