Without question, a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a terribly destabilizing threat to the Middle East and the rest of the world. Tehran has not yet acquired that capability, but its defiant behavior - including its recent breaking of United Nations seals at uranium-enrichment sites and its announced plans to resume nuclear research - raises the specter of atomic terror.
The international community has several options. It can ignore Iran and hope that country will keep its nuclear program peaceful - a very slim possibility. It can ratchet up the pressure on Tehran though a tough U.N. Security Council review and the threat of non-military sanctions. Or it can resolve the problem by using military force.
The first option would make no sense; indeed, it would invite trouble and portend eventual disaster. The third option would be too extreme at this moment, although individual countries could opt for that course if the international community fails to act within a reasonable period of time. That leaves the second option as my preferred one.
Of course, the Iranian leaders have no desire for the Security Council to take up the issue. Thus, they now are agitating for a resumption of "constructive negotiations" with Britain, France and Germany. The foreign ministers of those countries declared last week that two years of testy nuclear talks with Iran had reached a dead end. If the Europeans, who have bent over backward to encourage the resolution of this crisis, have run out of patience, the implication is clear: Iran is not serious.
Tehran is serious, though, about playing a disruptive role, which helps explain why it has threatened an oil crisis if the U.N. Security Council steps in. At a roundtable discussion in which I participated several months ago, that possibility was presented to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who responded, "I'd like to know what they're going to do with their oil. Eat it? We shouldn't be put off by these sorts of threats."
Indeed, we should not. Iran's behavior has created the problem, and the international community should not hesitate to respond forcefully and consistently. It should view Tehran for what it is - a rogue state - and deal with it accordingly.
In urging that the discussion of Iran's nuclear program be referred to the U.N. Security Council, British, French and German foreign ministers stopped short of calling for sanctions. That may be the best short-term strategy to prompt more serious and productive discussions with Iran. However, if those potential talks - which should be strictly limited by a timetable - yield meager results, the Europeans should muster the gumption to back non-military sanctions. Those could range from the severance of diplomatic ties to the interruption of economic relations.
I am not suggesting that such sanctions necessarily provide the desired results; the history of their use is mixed. But they do send a strong signal of the international community's discontent and create a foundation for the consideration of even stronger action.
For too long, Iran has thumbed its nose at the international community, sensing a degree of safety because of the world's preoccupation with Iraq and using its nuclear program as a bargaining chip. No bargain has emerged, though, only fruitless discussions.
The international community cannot afford to dawdle as Tehran edges closer to frighteningly dangerous territory. The time for patience and open-ended negotiations has passed. Iran must cease its unwarranted belligerence or face the consequences.