It's beginning to look like peace had its chance with Iran and failed. Tehran is facing a Tuesday deadline to respond to the Group of Six offer to open talks on trade if Iran ends its nuclear enrichment program. The United States should make contingency plans for when Israel takes action.
Iran has remained obdurate on the key issue of nuclear development. In February, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran already had sufficient raw materials to build a nuclear weapon. On Sept. 7, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei said his agency's dealings with Iran have reached a "stalemate." The next day, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said at a press conference, "Iran's nuclear issue is over. We will never negotiate Iran's undeniable rights."
But he was at least willing to talk. On Wednesday, Iran finally issued a statement that announced Tehran's "readiness to embark on comprehensive, all-encompassing and constructive negotiations." Tehran called for "broad and collective participation in the management of the world," democratizing the U.N. Security Council, elevating the priority of environmental issues, sharing all space technology and "tackling the root causes of terrorism" -- which is ironic coming from the world's primary root cause.
The document barely touched on the nuclear issue, calling for more oversight over the pesky IAEA and "promoting the universality" of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, with which Iran is not in compliance, according to the United Nations.
The State Department said the document "is not really responsive to our greatest concern, which is obviously Iran's nuclear program." The United States has promised to push for a tougher line from the international community, but Russia has all but guaranteed to veto new U.N. sanctions. Venezuela has pledged itself to help Iran evade a gasoline embargo, which is seen by many as the most effective form of economic persuasion.
There are signs that Israel is planning a pre-emptive military strike should diplomacy fail. On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a secret trip to Moscow, ostensibly to discuss Russian shipments of advanced anti-air weapons to Iran and Syria. This is a critical issue because any Israeli attack on Iran would be based primarily on air power. Tel Aviv said last month that Israel wanted "substantive and prompt steps to halt Iran's military nuclear program." Nothing says "substantive and prompt" like an air strike.
Washington mouths platitudes about Iranian nuclear arms being unacceptable. But as the experience with North Korea has shown, it only takes one nuclear test for an unacceptable outcome to become an unchangeable reality. When Israelis say something is unacceptable, they mean it. Tel Aviv cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran, given Tehran's repeated calls for Israel's destruction.
It is possible -- though highly unlikely -- that Iran will begin to behave according to the norms demanded by the international community. It's also possible that a new round of sanctions will moderate Iran's behavior. At this point, however, the most likely scenario is that Israel will attempt to stave off the threat of a nuclear Iran through military action. This is not the best solution, but it is fast becoming the last resort. Iran's last-minute attempt to confuse the issue is simply a play for time while the mullahs push ahead with their nuclear program.
The United States should be mindful of Frederick the Great's dictum that "diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments." It would be nice if Iran would voluntarily play our tune, but the time for waiting is rapidly coming to an end.