Iran is years from building an atomic bomb, if that's what it really wants to do. But recent verbal threats and the pace of diplomacy in coming days indicate that the question of "an Iranian bomb" is coming to a head, with a peaceful conclusion in everyone's interests.
A crisis was ignited last Friday when a deadline passed for Iran to meet a UN Security Council "request" that it halt uranium enrichment with centrifuges and improve its cooperation with inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Not only did Iran thumb its nose at the UN, but the IAEA stated in a report that Iran had barred inspectors from sites that might reveal a military use of Iran's civilian nuclear program. It also failed to explain how it obtained material for experiments with plutonium. That, plus Iran's threat to pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), raise the credibility of US claims that Iran is bent on gaining nuclear-weapons capability.
That increased US credibility will help it in talks Tuesday, and again next week, with Europe (including Russia), China, and other nations, in deciding how to raise the pressure on Iran at the United Nations or, if the UN falters, then through a US-led coalition of "like-minded" nations.
Parallels with the Bush administration's diplomatic build-up to the Iraq war cannot be ignored. But such a comparison is weakened by two other examples: the West persuading Libya to give up its nuclear program, and a patient three-year effort by the US and four Asian nations to talk North Korea out of its atomic bombs.
Both those examples suggest to some that the US talk directly to Iran. With Libya, such talks worked because it wanted economic benefits for its people. Talks with North Korea are failing because it prefers to brandish nuclear weapons as a way to wield power over its neighbors.
Iran, too, appears more interested in extending its regional and global power rather than lifting its people out of massive joblessness. If it wants nuclear weapons, then that goal doesn't appear to be defensive.
Iran's intent then offers yet another parallel to previous US diplomacy: applying the kind of economic isolation used against the Soviet Union and white-ruled South Africa to force public pressure on Iran's clerics.
To do that, the next step for the US is to ask the Security Council to "require" (rather than request) that Iran comply with the IAEA standards, citing a UN Charter provision known as Chapter 7. If Iran again ignores that tougher message, then the US would have UN authority to gather support from many nations for penalties such as sanctions.
Iran's breaking of its NPT obligations, as well as a US State Department report on terrorism worldwide that describes Iran as the most active state sponsor of terrorism, gives it little global support against sanctions. With Europe's help, the US could put public pressure on companies doing business in Iran, such as Royal Dutch/Shell and LG Construction, as well as banks supporting them.
Iran said it wouldn't turn off its oil spigot in response. But if, as OPEC's second-largest producer, it did so, the West would need to contend with prices above $100 a barrel. Striking a deal before such a game of chicken plays out seems like the most sensible course for all sides to take.