Almost every month, extreme actions and utterances by Iran make it easier for nations to join the US in trying to block the ruling mullahs' nuclear ambitions. This week, in defiance of the UN, Iran boasted it had enriched uranium on an industrial scale.
Whether that claim is true or not doesn't really matter. The UN Security Council has given Iran a deadline of April 30 to show it has suspended any enrichment-related activities - not enhanced them.
If Iran doesn't meet UN demands, the Council will soon face a difficult choice: Drag out negotiations using only a hint of a threat, or make good on real threats.
The UN isn't the first to be in this predicament with Iran. In recent years, Britain, Germany, and France, or the "EU-3," discovered that Iran's rulers would only come to the table to discuss its clandestine program once the EU-3 threatened to cut off a trade deal with Iran (a country with a bedraggled economy where 70 percent of the population is under 30 and demanding jobs).
Alas, Iran, which has violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, only manipulated those talks to buy time. Frustrated, the EU-3 helped hand off the issue to the UN. Now the UN's own credibility is at stake - not to mention Middle East stability if Iran does indeed make a bomb or hands one to terrorists.
What threats might the UN consider? The US has suggested targeted and graduated economic sanctions, such as a ban on foreign investments in Iran. The country desperately needs billions to improve its oil industry and create jobs. Without that, its rulers will further lose popularity. They may resort to more jingoism and threats against the US and Israel to rally the masses and keep power.
Other nations are preparing for a spike in oil prices if Iran reacts to sanctions by reducing its oil exports. Last week, Japan's Nippon Oil Corp. said it would curb oil imports from Iran by about 16 percent.
Sanctions have a mixed record in global affairs. They worked on Libya, Vietnam, and apartheid South Africa but not yet on Burma, North Korea, or many other countries. They helped persuade Saddam Hussein to eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, but they hurt Iraqis.
Avoiding any immediate damage to common Iranians would be difficult. Initial sanctions would need to be selective, such as travel and banking bans, aimed first at Iran's elite. Russia and China, however, may block UN-approved sanctions. That would push Europe, Japan, and the US to impose their own. Such a step, says Iran expert Kenneth Pollack, would be a "nightmare" for Iran.
It needn't come to that. Iran's leaders may see that a growing economy and supportive populace is more vital to maintaining their regime than Iran becoming a nuclear-capable military power. The regime's vulnerability, after all, is really internal, not external. Its legitimacy is quite shaky.
Designing sanctions that would raised domestic pressure on the clerics would be difficult. The wrong kind may backfire on the West, leading to further speculation about a US military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.
Sanctions have long been a tool of diplomacy to avoid war. And Iran has shown it will talk seriously under economic duress. The UN and the West don't have an easy choice.