Editorial: Talk tough, but talk with Iran
Iran's erratic behavior in recent days only underscores the importance of keeping that country from going nuclear. But it also highlights the dangers of the situation, and the need to pursue every possible avenue of negotiations, while keeping the pressure on.
At first blush, the latest developments don't inspire a lot of hope for compromise. A trio of inept Iranians accidentally detonated explosives in Bangkok that were intended for Israeli diplomats -- just a day after bungled attempts to blow up Israeli diplomats in India and in Tbilisi, Georgia. Tensions with Iran have helped drive up oil and gasoline prices.
Iran has responded to a planned European oil embargo by threatening to cut off oil to six European countries pre-emptively. At the same time, Iran announced stepped-up nuclear enrichment practices that can only bring a bomb closer -- even as it told the European Union that it's ready to reopen the nuclear talks suspended a year ago.
How should the United States respond? With restraint, a willingness to talk, and a sharp eye on the domestic politics of all participants. Hard-liners are major players in all three countries involved in this drama -- Iran, Israel and the United States -- and the key to a peaceful resolution is neutralizing them.
First, Iran: Its contradictory actions and words reveal a deepening chasm in its leadership and increasing desperation at the bite of international sanctions, which are producing political pressure that could help persuade Iran's leaders they have more to gain from negotiation than from nuclear weapons. U.S. policy should be aimed at bolstering the position of moderates in Iran.
Hard-liners in Israel, meanwhile, are pushing for a military strike before Iran builds a bomb or puts its facilities out of reach. Israel has been able to use these hawks to create a sense of international urgency and support for tough sanctions. The challenge for U.S. policy is to use Israel's hard-liners to pressure Iran while heading off an actual attack by Israel, which could have disastrous consequences for the region and implicate the United States in a shooting war.
In this country, the rhetoric of some Republican presidential hopefuls has increased election-year pressure on President Barack Obama to look tough. But there is simply no good military option for averting a nuclear Iran, and the situation is far too dangerous for political posturing.
That's why it's essential now that the U.S. pursue every opportunity for talks -- regardless of Iran's provocative words and deeds, some of which are intended mainly for domestic consumption, and agitation from various quarters for more aggressive action. Prospects for productive talks aren't hopeless. While Iran is building a nuclear capability, there are signs it hasn't yet made the momentous decision to build a bomb. Its leaders surely know that doing so will carry a high price.
The only safe and sensible way out of this mess is to negotiate a solution that allows Iran nuclear power while preventing its erratic regime from getting hold of an atomic bomb. If talk is cheap, in this case it's a real bargain.