When — not if — is the only mystery about an Iranian nuclear bomb. All the warning signs are there.
In 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama on two occasions went out of his way to warn the Iranians that the development of a nuclear weapon "would be a game-changing situation, not just in the Middle East, but around the world." Mr. Obama later added, "It is unacceptable for Iran to possess a nuclear weapon; it would be a game changer."
Strong language. Mr. Obama twice this year again used "game changer" in reference to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, warning him not to dare to use chemical weapons. In March, Mr. Obama announced to Mr. Assad that "the use of chemical weapons is a game changer." A month later, Mr. Obama again warned Mr. Assad not to resort to weapons of mass destruction: "That is going to be a game changer."
The Iranians must conclude that Mr. Obama's oft-used sports metaphor is more a verbal tic than a serious red line. What should they fear next from Mr. Obama — a really, really big game changer? Do we really expect them to show us either that they have lied in the past about their weapons of mass-destruction aims, but have now renounced them, or that they have been misunderstood and will prove to the world that they never have sought a bomb in the first place?
Not long ago, Mr. Assad was hailed by the American foreign-policy establishment as a "reformer." John F. Kerry as a senator was widely praised for his visits to Damascus, Syria. Mr. Kerry's inspired engagement supposedly stood in stark contrast to the Bush administration's mindless ostracism of the misunderstood dictator, who was sending terrorists into Iraq, planning the assassination of a prominent politician in Lebanon, aiding Hezbollah and exploring all sorts of weapons of mass-destruction avenues.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gleefully contrasted Mr. Assad the "reformer" with the late Moammar Gadhafi, the murderous Libyan dictator, when she explained why the Obama administration was going to bomb the latter but not the former, which had only committed "police actions."
When the murderous Mr. Assad appears on Western media, he certainly does not sound like his now-deceased, uncouth father. Instead, in smart Western suits, he speaks softly in French-accented English. His chic wife, Asma, was fawned over in a 2011 Vogue magazine puff piece, "A Rose in the Desert."
The latest Middle East "moderate" and "reformer," Hasan Rouhani, the new president of Iran, follows Syria's script. As in the case of Mr. Assad, he appears a pleasant change from his immediate predecessor, the coarse Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Yet, like the phantom moderate Mr. Assad, there is no evidence to support Mr. Obama's assertion before the United Nations that "[w]e are encouraged that President Rouhani received from the Iranian people a mandate to pursue a more moderate course." There was no free election in Iran. Mr. Rouhani has a hard-liner background and once enjoyed close ties to the now-deceased Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He has bragged about deceiving the Europeans over Iran's nuclear-enrichment program, and was instrumental in hiding it.
Last month, Russian strongman Vladimir Putin wrote a letter to the American people that was published in The New York Times. It was full of sugarcoated half-truths, charming fantasies and bald historical distortions — and largely worked in portraying both Russia and Syria as voices of moderation and subject to unfair Western bullying.
Not long after, Mr. Rouhani copied that ruse by writing an op-ed for The Washington Post. His piece hit every American therapeutic chord imaginable — from the sappy "identity," "win-win outcomes" and "for the sake of their legacies, and our children and future generations" to the overly dramatic "Cold War mentality," "zero-sum game" and "cultural encroachment." Mr. Rouhani sounded part local T-ball coach, part campus diversity czar and part peace-studies facilitator.
If it once seemed impossible that Iran could have sanctions weakened, avoid a Western pre-emptory strike on its nuclear facilities and obtain weapons of mass destruction, after Syria, it suddenly seems likely. The model is now Mr. Assad staring down a blinking United States.
For the Iranians, getting the bomb is now well worth the risk.
The upside was always undeniable. The West — as in the case of its treatment of North Korea and Pakistan — usually gives more financial aid to rogue proliferators than to nations that play by the rules.
Without nukes, Islamabad and Pyongyang are hardly newsworthy. Neither would earn attention and deference from countries such as China, India, Japan and the United States.
Even better for Iran, its nuclear Sword of Damocles will make life miserable for both of its hated enemies, the Israelis and its Arab Sunni rivals. The more a nuclear Iranian theocracy sounds unhinged with its accustomed apocalyptic and messianic rantings, the better it can protect its terrorist franchises.
It is old news that for Iran, the long-term advantages of obtaining a nuclear bomb have always outweighed the temporary downside of economic sanctions.
What is new is the Syrian model that has excited the Iranians as never before. "Game-changer" threats are now seen as empty. Posturing as a "moderate" works. Sugary op-eds in American papers beguile the public, and Mr. Putin is always ready to come to the rescue.
No wonder Iran thinks it can finally have its weapons of mass destruction and woo us, too.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.