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Heeding the experts on Iran

It's become a cliché of presidential debates: Facing any question about Afghanistan or other national security issues, the candidates declare that they would heed the advice of their "commanders in the field." It is striking, then, how willing they are to dismiss outright the opinions of America's national security professionals when it comes to Iran.

At a recent conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Republican candidates played a game of rhetorical one-upmanship in expressing their willingness to take America to war in Iran. By contrast, virtually all of America's most experienced national security leaders have advised caution.

While our best intelligence shows that Iran is developing the capacity to make nuclear weapons, military professionals report that it has not decided to actually do so. They warn that an attack will at best delay Iran's nuclear program, and at worst will encourage it to acquire nuclear weapons to deter further attacks.

The candidates' willingness to ignore the Pentagon's strategic advice is surprising. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently said that while intelligence shows Iran is "developing a nuclear capability," it also "makes clear that they haven't made the decision to develop a nuclear weapon." But Christian Whiton, a senior adviser to Newt Gingrich, accused Panetta of not "telling the truth" about Iran's nuclear program.

Yet Panetta's views are echoed by his immediate predecessor, Robert Gates, who cautioned that simplistic talk of military strikes is counterproductive: "This is, I think, one of the toughest foreign-policy problems I have ever seen since entering the government 45 years ago, and I think to talk about it loosely or as though these are easy choices ... is irresponsible."

In congressional testimony in January, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence and a retired lieutenant general, said that while U.S. officials believe Iran is preserving its options, there is no evidence that it's making a concerted push to build a nuclear weapon. Former Gen. David Petraeus, the CIA director, concurred.

But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) proved as willing as the presidential aspirants to contradict the security professionals. He told Clapper in a subsequent hearing, "I'm very convinced that they're going down the road of developing a nuclear weapon." Is Graham ignoring the best intelligence of the U.S. government?

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently that because the Iranian regime is a "rational actor," the current U.S. approach "is the most prudent." But Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum all dismissed his view.

The current policy of careful diplomacy and steady expansion of international sanctions against Iran's nuclear program has its roots in the Bush administration and in long-term assessments of the best way forward. Gen. Michael Hayden, who was CIA director under George W. Bush, summarized the view of that administration's intelligence team by saying "the consensus was that would guarantee that which we are trying to prevent: an Iran that will spare nothing to build a nuclear weapon and that would build it in secret."

We can agree that the Iranian nuclear program represents a major challenge. But overheated rhetoric and glib threats of military action aren't likely to help us address it. Before we launch another major Middle Eastern war, we'd better listen to the advice of our commanders and intelligence professionals.

Gen. Joseph P. Hoar is a former commander in chief of U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for military operations in the Middle East.