These are strange days for New York City’s finest. Over the weekend, they deployed in force to find the terrorist who tried to bomb Times Square. Yesterday, they deployed in force to protect the terrorist who is president of Iran. One of these guys works in propane, fireworks and gasoline; the other guy in enriched uranium, polonium triggers and ballistic missiles. ~Bret Stephens

This is how Stephens begins his column, which he presumably would like his readers to take seriously. Before getting to his treatment of non-proliferation, I find Stephens’ sloppy use of the word terrorist to be quite telling. On the one hand, there clearly was an attempted terrorist attack averted in New York, which threatened to maim and kill civilians for the purpose of sending some sort of political and/or religious message. Whoever was responsible for the attempted bombing was engaged in terrorism. Ahmadinejad is a demagogic politician with cronies in Iran’s military and security services. By what definition of terrorism can one seriously refer to Ahmadinejad as a terrorist? Of course, the purpose for using this word is not to describe Ahmadinejad when many other derisive labels would work even better, but to identify him and the supposed threat the (non-existent) Iranian bomb could pose with the threat of terrorist attacks in the U.S. From the start, Stephens’ analysis is propagandistic and misleading.

Stephens continues:

That other guy—the one who didn’t roll into town in a Pathfinder—was in Manhattan to unload on this month’s U.N. review conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. And unload he did: on the Truman administration, on the Obama administration, on “the Zionist regime,” on U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, on the NPT itself. For all this, Iran is still considered a member in good standing of the treaty, entitled to its seat at the International Atomic Energy Agency and its right to the nuclear reactors [bold mine-DL].

This will probably be hard for Stephens to follow, but Iran’s status as a signatory to the NPT doesn’t depend on whether or not its weak president gives an inflammatory, annoying speech somewhere. Until Iran produces nuclear weapons, it will continue to have “its right to the nuclear reactors” guaranteed by the treaty. Fundamentally, Iran hawks don’t like the treaty because it allows Iran to develop and to have some nuclear technology, and the hawks regard Iran’s mere possession of any form of this technology as unacceptable because of what it might lead to at some point in the future.

One of the hurdles Washington has encountered in rounding up international support for a new round of sanctions is the obvious hostility the U.S. and some of our allies have to the Iranians’ possession of any nuclear program. Other developing nations see this hostility as an expression of the one-sided nature of the non-proliferation regime and as an attempt to deny a developing country access to energy that it has every legal right to seek. Many of the world’s emerging-market democracies and even some of our allies do not share our obsession with curtailing Iran’s nuclear program, because they do not believe that it will lead inevitably to a bomb. In the past, much of the rest of the world has been skeptical when Washington has cried wolf about potential international threats, and the rest of the world was right to be skeptical. Why are all these other governments wrong this time?

It is worth noting here that Ahmadinejad recently repeated his government’s formal opposition to the possession and use of nuclear weapons. Obviously, no one takes this at face value, and most of us assume that Iranian officials must be lying whenever they say this. Nonetheless, it could be useful to consider the possibility that what we assume about Iranian intentions is simply wrong. Just as “everyone” agreed that Iraq had WMD programs (even though there were actually quite a few vocal skeptics), practically everyone in the U.S. is quite sure that Iran is working on building a bomb. In almost everything I have written on Iran for the last five years, I have taken this for granted, but as more time passes the claim that Iran is eagerly working toward a bomb and will have a nuclear weapon very soon becomes less and less credible. Everything else in the debate on Iran policy centers around what is a fairly questionable assumption. If it is wrong, we are all making sanctions vs. containment vs. military strike arguments about something that may not be happening at all, and we are throwing away any chance of opening up normal relations with Iran on account of what could be a fantasy.

P.S. Race for Iran has some relevant comments from Mohammed ElBaradei.