Credibility, like virginity, can only be lost once and never recovered. Hence, the problem the Bush administration has in dealing with Iran is that having been so wrong about Iraq, who can believe it now?

I recognize that a majority of Americans shrugged off going to war on false premises. The rest of the world is not so forgiving. The Bush administration’s unprofessional, undiplomatic approach to the question of Iran’s nuclear intentions sounds too much like the Iraqi dialogue. That dialogue consisted of American officials calling the Iraqis liars and the Iraqis denying they had weapons of mass destruction.

Now we’re hearing the same childish dialogue directed at Iran. Iran insists it is not attempting to build nuclear weapons, and the United States replies with name-calling.

It’s sad to say, but the Iranian government currently has more credibility than the Bush administration. All credibility was destroyed by the administration’s militant insistence that it had "factual evidence" of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. "We know where they are," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said with his smug grin. Everybody from the president and the vice president to the national-security adviser to the secretary of state kept belligerently insisting that those weapons existed and scoffed at everyone who expressed any skepticism. And every one of them was 100 percent wrong.

So, I’m sorry, but merely saying that Iran intends to build nuclear weapons without a shred of proof just doesn’t cut it. The Iranians might well be lying about their intentions, but the Bush administration has offered us no proof that they are. Two things favor the Iranian position. One is the Iranians’ explanation for building nuclear plants. Their only export of real value is oil. They recognize that they have a limited supply of oil. So, rather using up their high-value export for domestic power, they decided to employ nuclear energy for their domestic use and thus stretch out their ability to export oil. That makes perfect sense.

Second, Iran has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and Iran has repeatedly called for a nuclear-free Middle East. Guess who opposes that idea? The United States. Guess why? Israel is the only country in the Middle East that really does have nuclear weapons. Israel has also refused to sign the nonproliferation treaty and refuses to allow international inspections. And it is Israel that views Iran as a threat.

But in the perverted world of Washington, a Muslim country that has signed the nonproliferation treaty, which allows international inspections, and that has called for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East is the villain, while Israel, which refuses both the treaty and inspections and has actually built nuclear weapons, is the hero.

And you wonder why we have problems with the Muslim world.

Furthermore, the attempt by Israel to maintain a nuclear-weapons monopoly in the Middle East explains quite well why Iran has dispersed its nuclear facilities. The Iranians haven’t forgotten that the Israelis bombed the nuclear reactor in Iraq, nor are they unaware that the Bush administration has agreed to sell Israel our biggest bunker-buster bombs.

In the meantime, Iran has agreed with Europeans to suspend its enrichment of uranium, an operation Iran has a legal right to perform.

If Israel attacks Iran, the Iranians, who have missiles capable of reaching Israel, will fire back. Then we will probably get into it, and if the Syrians have any sense, they will attack Israel, and, to use a quote from an old movie, "This situation is out of control."

"Out of control" is a phrase no rational person would ever want to apply to the Middle East. There are just too many possibilities, and all of them are bad.

Rather than repeat the bad handling of the Iraq situation, the Bush administration should be joining the Arabs and Iran in calling for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. But as John Wayne would say, "That’ll be the day."

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969—71, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.