On Thursday, the date by which Iran has been warned to suspend its enrichment of uranium, the day will presumably pass with Iran doing no such thing. The United Nations Security Council will probably be divided on what to do about it. The United States will be pondering what its next nonmilitary options might be, designed to make Iran see the error of its nuclear ways.
In the days leading up to the ultimatum, Iran's leaders have fired a broadside of defiant statements. Iran's predictably provocative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, pointedly inaugurated a new heavy-water reactor over the weekend as a rebuff to those who want his country to stop its uranium processing.
Mr. Ahmadinejad says the reactor will be used only for peaceful purposes. Given Iran's long record of duplicity about its nuclear ambitions, Western European nations and the US believe it will be used to produce nuclear weapons.
A House Intelligence Committee last week warned: "A nuclear-armed Iran would likely embolden the leadership in Tehran to advance its aggressive ambitions in and outside of the region, both directly and through the terrorists it supports – ambitions that gravely threaten stability and the security of US friends and allies."
Russia and China have substantial economic interests in Iran. While they have paid lip service to the UN Security Council's demand that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment, they are weak sisters when it comes to joining with the other permanent members of the Security Council – France, Britain, and the US – in giving Iran anything but a tap on the wrist for defying the UN.
Thus the dilemma for the US is how best to contain the potential nuclear threat Iran poses, either alone, or in concert with others who have the resolve to join it.
While the White House routinely declares that everything, including military force, is always on the table, there is clearly little appetite in Washington for any military action against Iran in the near future. Public opinion at home would be unlikely to sustain it. US forces are already fully extended in Afghanistan and Iraq. Midterm elections loom, and another major military venture could tip an uneasy electorate against the Republicans.
Thus diplomacy, for the moment, rules. First, the US must determine whether the Iranian response last week to a generous Western package of inducements, offered in return for ceasing uranium processing, is just a time-buying ruse to continue moving its nuclear weapons program forward, or whether there is yet a slim prospect of some negotiated agreement.
If Iran is really rejecting the carrot, then the stick must come into play, in the form of sanctions and other economic measures, all short of military action. An obvious early move would be to block Iran's importation of any equipment that would further its nuclear program. Another would be a blockade to halt Iran's imports of petroleum; ironically, while Iran is a major producer of oil, it does not have enough refinery capacity to meet its petroleum needs.
In the meantime, public diplomacy might be an adjunct to traditional diplomacy. Iran has a huge, restless, youthful population frustrated by its government's failure to produce jobs and prosperity. They have a considerable curiosity about, and often admiration for, American culture. That curiosity could be met by increasing the budget for US broadcasting to Iran.
Also, a stepped-up program of exchanges that would bring Iranian students, professors, journalists, musicians, and artists to the US would do much to give Iranians a more accurate picture of America and Americans than is offered by their present rulers.
The US could also support and highlight the efforts of reformers in Iran who protest the ruling regime's deplorable human rights record. Dissenters are imprisoned and sometimes tortured. Newspapers are censored. Shirin Ebadi, the courageous Iranian woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, is being harassed and is in danger of being imprisoned for her defense of students and dissidents who face prosecution for criticizing their rulers.
The Iranian regime sees itself as the fundamentalist Islamic force competing against the US superpower for dominance in the Islamic world. It taunts America with its nuclear ambitions. Its Hizbullah proxy in Lebanon defies the Israeli Defense Forces. In Iraq, where the people clearly support democratic government, Iran fosters insurgent violence that could send that troubled country back into darkness. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, which have no love for Iran, look on nervously.
It is a contest – the outcome as yet unknown – of enormous consequence. Whatever option the Bush administration opts for, multilateral support will be essential.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.