Iran has yet to become a political volleyball in the US presidential campaign, as Iraq and North Korea have been. But it should.
Either John Kerry or George W. Bush will need to deal with this problem nation by next year, and the solutions won't be easy. A national debate might help prevent many of the mistakes made over the war with Iraq.
The latest irritant in US-Iranian relations is a revelation in the Sept. 11 commission report, due out Thursday, that Iran purposely let eight of the 19 hijackers transit through Iran from neighboring Afghanistan.
Iran probably didn't know exactly what Al Qaeda was up to, but its history of dabbling in terrorism to gain strategic advantage, combined with an ambition to become an atomic power, puts the Persian patriarchy running Iran under dark suspicion.
The next US president might also face pressure from Congress to deal with an Iran that poses a long-term threat to Israel. In May, the House overwhelmingly passed a resolution authorizing the use of "all appropriate means" to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. That's disturbing war talk. A similar resolution may be taken up by the Senate this fall.
Iran has also shocked three US allies in Europe - Britain, France, and Germany - by being deceptive during international inspections of its nuclear facilities. The three allies tried to engage Iran, but now they lean toward the US view that Iran can't be trusted.
Another warning sign: Iraq's interim government has accused Iran of meddling with Iraq's majority Shiite Muslim community and of helping to import Hezbollah guerrillas from Lebanon.
But despite these events, a bit of calm advice was issued this week by a few former top US security officials in a report from the Council on Foreign Relations. The advice: Don't let events spin out of control. Warm up to Iran by engaging it on topics of mutual interest. If Iran remains hostile, then the US would gain international support for tougher action.
For now, though, President Bush is keeping up steady pressure on Iran with economic sanctions - although some in his administration argue for a covert program to overthrow the regime. Openly, Bush places his hopes on the rising resentment of Iran's hard-line clerics by their people.
The US is in no position to confront Iran militarily. And little more can be done to simply contain it. The option of engaging Iran on friendly issues was tried last year, but failed. Is it time to try again?
Let's hope for a meaty Kerry-Bush debate on Iran, one that airs the issues so the right decision is made.