Given my relative hawkishness on Iraq (or at any rate my unrepentant support for the 2003 decision to invade), readers might assume that I'm hawkish on Iran as well. In some ways, after all, the case for war on Iran is stronger than the case for the war in Iraq was. The Iranians are much further along the path towards WMDs, for one thing. If it's a choice between fighting a war and letting Iran go nuclear-- maybe it's not, but I think there's a good chance that it is-- which should we do?
WMDs, in any case, were never very important in my support for the war in Iraq. I supported the war in Iraq, first because Iraq was one of the few states in the world that was truly totalitarian in the full Orwellian sense, second because through the Iraqi sanctions we-- America and the West-- were partly responsible for the sufferings of the Iraqi people in a way that we are not really responsible for most of the sufferings of poor and oppressed people in this world. Moreover, while they were morally unacceptable, there was a strong national security case for the sanctions: even if (though we didn't know it at the time) the inspections-cum-sanctions had succeeded in getting Saddam's WMDs eliminated, he would surely restart his programs as soon as he was freed from the sanctions. I didn't rule out unilaterally lifting the sanctions and relying on deterrence against Saddam. As far as I remember, I was almost indifferent between invading Iraq, and unilaterally lifting the sanctions and taking our chances, though I slightly favored invading.
When the Iraqis greeted us as liberators-- not all of them, obviously, but a plurality-- I was taken rather by surprise-- I thought Saddam's indoctrination would run deeper and take time to wear off; I was thinking of the Germany/Japan analogy-- and became 100% supportive of the war. So there's a difference between the weak ex ante case for the war that I held to before the war, and the stronger ex post case for the war that I believed afterwards, based on a more enthusiastic belief in the merits of liberating the Iraqi people. Nothing that has happened since has undermined my ex ante case for the war. It has undermined my ex post case for the war, but not really very much. Would I rather live in Iraq today, or Iraq under Saddam? That's not a difficult question: Iraq today. There aren't very many regimes that are worse than a state of war, but-- it is my conviction-- there are some.
So, if I still believe in the war in Iraq, why doesn't the same case apply to war in Iran? The US military is much more over-stretched today than it was in 2003, and less capable of carrying out an invasion of Iran. But that's not the reason. There are two reasons: (1) Iran is not nearly as bad a regime as Iraq, and has enough freedom that it's better to leave the task of implementing political change to internal forces rather than importing freedom from the outside, and (2) our desire to prevent nuclear proliferation is based on a double standard and therefore is not an adequate basis for war.
There is some leeway in Iran for citizens to criticize the government. Within the government itself, there are some checks and balances. There is a little bit of genuine democracy-- people's votes do matter, even if they're not sufficient to make a lot of desirable changes. And there is not much of the ruthlessly all-penetrating machinery of mind control that exists in Iraq. A Gandhi figure, or a Vaclav Havel, in Iraq, would simply disappear in the night. In Iran, he might have a chance. Iran-- unlike Saddam's Iraq-- is not desperately unfree enough to warrant an invasion from the outside.
And what about nuclear weapons? The trouble with this is that the US is basically trying to tell the world: we, the USA, and a few others, namely Russia, China, Britain and France, and maybe Israel quietly, and probably India, and Pakistan sort of, get to have nuclear weapons; nobody else does. This doesn't meet the Kantian criterion of holding others to standards that we ourselves live by. Iran can say that the system is unfair; they would be right. If this points logically towards the proposition that all countries have a right to nuclear weapons, I'll admit that it does, and that I find that disturbing. But just because the alternative is unappealing doesn't mean that the double standard is acceptable. How to control nuclear weapons needs more thinking through, not from the practical point of view (a secondary issue) but from the ethical point of view, from the point of view of justice. The crisis with Iranian nukes gives new urgency to the need to figure out a just way to regulate the spread of nuclear weapons. But in the meantime a war on Iran for anti-proliferation purposes runs too great a risk of being unjust. If we have to, it's better to let Iran get nuclear weapons and fall back on deterrence.