Is Iran policy on the brink of a blunder?

Hold on to your seats, ladies and gentlemen. It sounds like the president and vice president are planning a war with Iran.

Never mind that our military is overstretched by two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Never mind that our latest National Intelligence Estimate says the main threat to our homeland lies with al-Qaida, whose leaders and bases are in Pakistan.

I’ll repeat. The main threat lies in Pakistan, which already has nuclear weapons, and whose political scene is being shaken by foreign and home-grown jihadis.

Never mind all that. Messrs. Bush and Cheney ratcheted up their rhetoric to such a pitch it suggested a decision had been taken on military action. For the sake of our national security – and our national sanity – I hope I’m wrong. But the latest White House words about Iran bear an uncanny resemblance to the 2003 case for the war in Iraq.

The message from the top is that Iran’s support for terrorism and its nuclear program present an imminent threat to America and the world. On Oct. 17, President Bush told the media that the way to avoid “World War III” was to prevent Iran “from having the knowledge needed to make a nuclear weapon.” U.S. intelligence agencies believe it will be several years before Iran has the ability to make a weapon, but the president’s pledge to foreclose the necessary “knowledge” advances the time frame for action to before the end of his term.

In a one-two verbal punch, Vice President Cheney railed against Iran as a “terror-supporting” state that had “direct involvement in the killing of Americans.” Then he upped the ante. Going beyond previous statements, he made this flat-out commitment: “We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.” Put that together with Bush’s words, and it sounds like pre-emption, soon.

How familiar the tone. Cheney’s words harked back to January 2003, when he said we wouldn’t “permit a brutal dictator” with terrorist ties and weapons of mass destruction “to dominate the Middle East and threaten the United States.” Cheney magnified the imminence of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and distorted its nature. And now comes Iran.

It’s no secret Cheney wants military action against Tehran. There has been strong pushback from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, and from Pentagon brass. They recognize another Mideast war could lead to catastrophe. As Adm. Mike Mullen, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said to the New York Times this week: “We have to be incredibly thoughtful about : getting into a conflict with a third country in that part of the world.” He meant Iran.

Mullen knows a bombing strike against Iran would have terrible reverberations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as on oil prices. It would bolster radicals throughout the Mideast and the Muslim world. And – here’s the crux – most experts doubt an air strike on Iranian facilities would end Iran’s nuclear program. Instead, they think it would strengthen Iran’s hardest-liners, and ensure they pursued a nuclear program with more zeal.

As for the Iranian threat, I’m sure the military is far more realistic than the White House about its nature. No one wants to see an Iran with nuclear weapons, which is why Europe and Washington are pushing for tighter economic sanctions against Tehran.

But Iran is a Third World country, whose faltering economy, despite oil, is only around the size of Greece or Argentina. Iran’s Shiite sect and Persian ethnicity are disdained by most Arabs. Iran can cause trouble in the Middle East, but it isn’t going to take over the region – or the world.

As for the threatening rhetoric of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad toward Israel, Iran’s military is controlled by its top clerics. Their worldly interest in their vast wealth makes it unlikely they would commit suicide by attacking the Jewish state.

What’s so astonishing is that Cheney seems to have learned nothing from his 2003 folly. He has the same advisers and consults the same experts who were so wrong about Iraq. In Cheney’s Saturday speech, he cited Princeton Professor Bernard Lewis, who wrote last year in the Wall Street Journal that an apocalyptic Iran was poised to destroy Israel on Aug. 22, 2006. I kid you not.

We know how unprepared this administration was for the post-invasion of Iraq and its unexpected consequences.

The latest general to spell this out was Ricardo Sanchez, the former U.S. commander there, who denounced the “catastrophically flawed, unrealistically optimistic war plan” for Iraq.

Can Bush and Cheney really be leading us down the same path in Iran?