Here's a puzzle for you to ponder. For more than a decade, Americans have been repeatedly told that Iran is a Grave, Imminent, Deadly Serious Threat to us, our allies, and the security of the whole world. Why? Because it is enriching uranium, which it is entitled to do as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. U.S. intelligence services still maintain that Iran has no active nuclear weapons program. Even if Iran did acquire a nuclear weapon someday, it couldn't do anything with it without courting its own destruction at the hands of the United States, Israel, or possibly some other countries. Possession of a few bombs wouldn't give Tehran any more leverage than the United States gets from having a vast nuclear arsenal, and we get hardly any. Yet in response to this vastly inflated danger, the U.S. has organized an extensive program of multilateral sanctions, conducted aggressive covert action programs, and repeatedly hinted that it might launch a preventive war if Iran crossed some ill-specified "red line."
Meanwhile, the government of Laos has announced that it has broken ground for a giant dam on the Lower Mekong River, a step that many experts believe will permanently harm the ecology of the Mekong Delta and affect the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. What Laos is openly doing poses a more immediate and pressing danger to human well-being than the hypothetical possibility that Iran might someday acquire a small nuclear deterrent. So my question is: Why isn't the United States organizing "crippling" sanctions against Laos, conducting cyberattacks on the civil engineering firms who are planning the dam, and threatening to bomb the construction sites if Laos continues the work?
Of course, I don't think the United States should do any of these things. I'm not in favor of war with Iran either. But why do some hypothetical possibilities get enormous (and counterproductive) attention, while some real and tangible problems remain on the backpages?
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.