The war the United States and Iran just fought in Lebanon through their proxies, Israel and Hezbollah, produced surprises and miscalculations. The war they could wage, if negotiations over Iran's nuclear program fail, would yield infinitely more uncertainties. It need not happen.
Hezbollah now knows - and has publicly acknowledged - that it erred in underestimating Israeli willingness to mount large-scale offensives. Is Iran listening, or is it placing too much emphasis on how overextended Washington appears in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan?
Critics also tended to focus on what they called Israel's use of "excessive" force in Lebanon without mentioning self-restraint. Israel easily could have leveled Lebanon to rid it of Hezbollah. The United States could do the same in Iran and argue that the national interest compels such action. After all, Iran's leaders - like Hezbollah's - espouse a transnational, revolutionary ideology bent on domination, not coexistence. Is Iran listening, or has it allowed its rising influence and power in the Middle East to produce delusions of invulnerability?
The war also reminded us of the limits of air power, which is ideal for crushing buildings but not insurgents. Hezbollah's capacity to resist was impressive, as was its increasing use of relatively more-sophisticated devices such as drones. Is Washington listening, or has it persuaded itself that U.S. forces could overwhelm any Iranian defenses?
And let's not forget the possibilities of embarrassing manipulation. In the Lebanon war, Hezbollah again demonstrated that it will stoop as low as necessary, including the purposeful endangering of civilians, if it causes casualties that discredit Israel. The same is true of Iran. Indeed, Tehran's placement of Iranian nuclear-research sites near civilian areas signals a similar strategy. Is the United States listening, or is it betting on the precision of its technology to target surgically Iran's nuclear sites?
Those kinds of discussions should make all of us more than a bit nervous, given that both President George W. Bush and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad view themselves as right and mission-bound. Neither has shown any inclination to bend or fear of approaching the brink. The potential for surprises and miscalculations in such an environment is rife.
Again, though, war is not inevitable. The Iran conundrum offers at least three other future scenarios.
One would be for Iran to come to its senses. No one disputes Tehran's right to develop nuclear energy. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons clearly allows "research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes." If Iran's intentions are pure - and I remain unconvinced of that - it should open its nuclear facilities to full international inspection.
Another scenario would be for Iran to suffer global sanctions for a time before it comes to its senses. If that occurs, Tehran will have no one to blame but itself, although the penalties will cause disproportionate pain to average Iranians - not the mullahs and other elites. Granted, sanctions do not always work, and they can backfire to the extent that they stimulate nationalism. But in many cases - including South Africa under apartheid - they have bolstered global condemnation and encouraged change.
Third - and this is my preferred outcome - the Iranian people will stop allowing themselves to be squeezed between their rulers and the international community, and stand up. Iranians have more experience in such matters than most people. They overthrew a tyrannical shah in the late 1970s, and they should not hesitate to take similar action against the tyrannical mullahs today.
Without a self-inspired reversal, a sanctions-prompted about-face or a revolution, Iran will further isolate itself, heighten its pariah status and invite a war beyond proxies.