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Opinion: It has become more difficult to bomb Iran

People power has upset Israel’s careful calculations about the pros and cons of air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities

Images have proved inconvenient to war planners ever since the first photographs of the Crimean War were published in London in the middle of the 19th century. Censors did their best to prevent the carnage of war from sapping public morale — something they're still doing, as the Bush administration's ban on showing the caskets of troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq attests.

Aerial bombing destroyed the line that previously protected civilians from such carnage. The ability of images to raise public questions about war policy thus grew enormously. From Guernica to Nanking, Coventry to Dresden, to Hiroshima and the use of napalm in Vietnam, this has happened to varying degrees across many cultures. Sometimes, the impact is emotional but has no policy outlet. Other times, the world steps back, takes a breath, and seeks a way — often through negotiations — to prevent more of the same.

Are we there now with Iran? In some ways, this is a bit like 1988. Not 1989 — there's no revolution, the bad guys still run the show, and there is no guarantee at all that tolerance will win out in the long run. Still, the dynamics have changed. By 1988, the Soviet Union was still regarded as a superpower, and the Warsaw Pact still intact. Yet once Mikhail Gorbachev's Glasnost had finally made it impossible for hawks to portray all residents of the Soviet Union as godless automatons bent on world domination, all-out war became almost impossible for the United States and its allies to contemplate.

As late as 1988, the U.S. military had nuclear-tipped Pershing II missiles standing at the ready inscribed with the names of Prague, Warsaw, Budapest and dozens of other cities soon to be swollen with people demanding their freedom. Early that year, talks to remove the missiles were underway, and after the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty was signed in May, they were withdrawn, along with the Soviet SS-20s that prompted their deployment in the first place.

Could the world be close to something similar in Iran. Might serious talks finally be possible? Maybe, though Gorbachev actually ran the Soviet Union in 1988, whereas the moderates in Iran remain confined, so far, to the streets.

For now, as in Eastern Europe in 1988, the outside world will largely be confined to watching. Unless the hardliners are actually toppled in Iran, which at this point seems hard to imagine, the question probably becomes something like this: After all the unrest and bravery, did the backlash of 2009 force Iran's regime to fundamentally rethink its foreign policy, or did it simply crack down and jail dissidents, writing them off as dupes and fifth columnists for the Great Satan?

We just don't know at this point. But, as Meir Dagan's comments show, the weather is changing.

More by Michael Moran:

The madness of George

Opinion: Will Obama stand up to North Korea?

More on Iran:

 The flight from Tehran

Iranian rockers find their voice

Protester vs. protester in Iran

Young, Iranian and ready for change