The Path To War

From peaceful outreach to pledge of conflict. Inside Barack Obama's struggle to stop an Iranian nuke

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Pete Souza / The White House

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If both sides seem to be wishing for peace even as they threaten war, it's because the costs of conflict would be so high. An overt U.S. attack to set back Iran's nuclear program would likely mean the deaths of American service members--and civilians too, if Iranian-backed terrorist groups downed commercial airliners or launched other attacks against soft targets. The Federation of American Scientists estimates that the cost of open war to the world economy could be $1 trillion to $1.7 trillion, when spiking energy prices and trade disruptions are factored in. And war could wipe out the years of post-Iraq diplomatic repair work to the U.S.'s reputation. For Iran, a full-fledged American attack could mean the devastation of its nuclear program and much of its armed forces, plus unimaginable costs to its economy. And still it might not give up its nuclear ambition. Little in the latest round of talks changed that assessment. Secretary of State John Kerry, on his first trip abroad, warned that the failure of diplomacy could have "terrible consequences."

He, like every current and former official interviewed for this story, believes Obama will resort to war if necessary to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. But only Obama knows for sure. In his AIPAC speech last year, after ruling out containment, Obama said, "I have sent men and women into harm's way. I've seen the consequences of those decisions in the eyes of those I meet who've come back gravely wounded, and the absence of those who don't make it home. Long after I leave this office, I will remember those moments as the most searing of my presidency." One way or the other, as a former senior official says of the coming year, "we are entering the final stages of this drama."

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