The Iranians' call for more nuclear talks is probably a snare, designed to knot up the West in fruitless diplomacy while they accelerate their drive to build atomic bombs. Yet President Bush should take them up on their offer—should, in fact, come to the table with a full negotiating agenda—not as an act of appeasement but as a hard-headed security calculation.
If President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's boast last week is true, the Iranians have now demonstrated the ability to enrich uranium. They're still at least a few years from enriching it enough to build A-bombs, but—again, assuming the announcement was for real—the crucial barrier has been breached.
A week has passed since Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker that the White House is contemplating the use of nuclear bunker-busters to attack Iran's underground nuclear facilities—and the idea is looking less practical, to say the least, with each passing day. The obvious drawbacks are compelling enough (an attack would strengthen the mullahs, alienate most of the world, incite terrorist reprisals, and, for all that, merely set back Iran's nuclear program by a few years). Last Thursday, the military option was dealt another blow. Ahmadinejad let drop that his scientists are conducting research on the P-2 centrifuge, a device that can spin, and therefore enrich uranium, much faster than the conventional P-1 model. If the claim is true, it suggests that Iran has a second, secret nuclear program separate from its main nuclear facility at Natanz (which had also been secret until an exile group revealed its existence a few years ago). If we don't know of the existence, much less the location, of crucial nuclear facilities, even an otherwise well-executed campaign of air strikes will have little effect.
The military option is so manifestly impractical that the Iranians don't seem to believe it. Their top officials dismissed Hersh's article as "psychological war." Even Iran's former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—who has criticized the current regime's harsh anti-Western stance—said in Kuwait today, "We are certain the Americans will not attack Iran because the consequences would be too dangerous."
The one thing that Iran's leaders genuinely seem to fear is economic sanctions. They sprinted to the bargaining table, and opened more facilities to international inspectors, only after France, Britain, and Germany—which had always tolerated Iran's nuclear deceptions in order to protect their trade relations—joined in with the Bush administration's criticisms and pledged to support United Nations sanctions if Iran continued to enrich uranium.
Western Europe, Russia, and China may depend on Iran for oil, but Iran depends at least as much on them for capital investment. The United States isn't involved in either side of this equation—we've been boycotting Iranian imports and exports ever since Ayatollah Khomeini's "students" took our diplomats hostage—which is why our sudden engagement in face-to-face talks, after all these decades, would make quite an impact.
Would the drama have a payoff? Would the Iranians accept some set of inducements—massive American investment, trade, security guarantees, or whatever—in exchange for giving up their nuclear program? Maybe not. However, the important thing for the United States to do, at this point, is to appear to be making an effort.
The other nations involved in this showdown—England, France, Germany, Russia, and China—would rather not impose sanctions. Their economic interests favor continued open trade with Iran. At the same time, they're deeply uncomfortable with the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran. Economic interests, in this case, have a natural tendency to trump security interests. The former are tangible and immediate, while the latter are hypothetical and off in the future. To turn this picture around—to elevate security interests above economic interests—requires deliberate action. To do so under the pressure of George W. Bush—in the wake of his false warnings on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and that subsequent disastrous war—also requires political courage. (One difference between the present confrontation and the lead-up to the war in Iraq is that virtually nobody disputes the finding that Iran really is seeking nuclear weapons.)
To get the other countries to unite around some sort of sanctions (or the threat of sanctions, which may be all that's necessary), President Bush not only has to threaten to penalize Iran for bad behavior but also has to reward Iran for good behavior. They will not go along with this pressure campaign—they will not undermine their economic interests—unless there are carrots as well as sticks.
In other words, Bush should commence direct talks with Iran not because they offer a hopeful chance for peace and good will, but because they're a necessary prelude to an international campaign of economic pressure—and because more drastic military pressure would likely backfire. There are two likely outcomes from serious American efforts to negotiate, both good. First, if Iran cooperates with the talks, then it might suspend its nuclear program in exchange for economic benefits. Second, if Iran doesn't cooperate, then the Bush administration will have made its case to China, Russia, and Europe that the regime is dangerous and untrustworthy. At that point it will be much easier to impose the economic sanctions that will scare the Iranians into better behavior.