Talks set to open Thursday between Iran and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (the G5+1) are bound to fail. All the earnest good faith in the world won't change the character of the Iranian regime.
The Iranian leadership doesn't appear eager to trade away its nuclear plans. Iran insists that the "nuclear talks" are not even about the nation's nuclear program. Tehran's unwillingness to address the nuclear issue could cause an instant impasse, forcing the meeting to a close before anyone can decide on the shape of the table.
Just as Iran prefers to avoid the issue, the Obama administration has been reluctant to confront the fact that Iran is trying very hard to obtain nuclear weapons. On Sunday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates tiptoed around the issue on ABC, saying it was his "personal opinion" that Iran intends to have nuclear weapons but may not have made the "formal decision" to move ahead. This hair-splitting comes just after the revelation of Iran's secret nuclear-enrichment plant at Qom, the latest evidence that Iran has a covert nuclear-weapons program.
It would be helpful if the United States would formally charge Iran with illegally pursuing nuclear weapons, but we suspect President Obama wants to avoid looking too much like President George W. Bush confronting Iraq. The expression "weapons of mass destruction" won't be heard in Geneva, even though Iran's program is vastly more advanced than anything Saddam Hussein ever had.
Leaving aside the inability to squarely confront the issue, the Obama administration continues to misunderstand Iran's objective. According to Mr. Gates, we're trying to "lead ... [Iran] to the conclusion that their security will be diminished by trying to get nuclear weapons, rather than enhanced." But Iran's efforts are not about "security" at all.
A nuclear arsenal would make Tehran a regional hegemon and deter the West from taking any military action. Iran would have the might to confront Israel and impose its will on neighboring states. The Islamic republic is bent on acquiring power.
The only way to deter Iran's quest for regional dominance should diplomacy fail is the threat of force. Mr. Gates essentially took that off the table when he told CNN that "there is no military option that does anything more than buy time." If Tehran does not think diplomacy is backed by the threat of force, there is no credible way to make the nation reconsider its ambitions.
The current administration's credibility with respect to military power is low to begin with. Iran can safely conclude that American force will not be used to pre-empt its nuclear program, and the United States will be deterred from using force once a nuclear weapon has been tested. But even if force can only buy time, it becomes the most sensible option when time is running out. This is what is driving Israel's planning with respect to Iran. Time is a luxury Israel does not have.
The need for a credible threat of force isn't the only historical lesson that is lost on the administration. The idea that Iran may face "crippling sanctions" assumes that sanctions will cripple. The spectacular failure of diplomacy in stopping the North Korean nuclear program should disabuse people of this notion. One of the poorest, most backward countries on the planet acquired nuclear weapons under intense diplomatic scrutiny and very harsh sanctions. If Pyongyang could do it, Tehran can too. Iran is already making contingency plans to deal with any of the proposed sanctions, and because shutting down Iran's energy exports is not being considered, it is difficult to imagine how crippling the sanctions could be. The most probable impact of sanctions will be to speed up the nuclear program so Iran can present the world with a fait accompli.
When the G5+1 talks fail to change Tehran's mind about pursuing nuclear weapons, Mr. Obama will have to choose between allowing Iran to gain nuclear weapons or rethinking his aversion to the use of American force. If long-term U.S. interests matter, that's not a hard choice.