WASHINGTON - Any moment now, the Iranian challenge will be added to the list of things too serious to be left to politicians.

"Iran, Cuba, Venezuela - these countries are tiny compared to the Soviet Union," Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has said. Factually, he is correct. They are much smaller in area than the Soviet Union was. That did not stop the Republican candidate, John McCain, from accusing him of "reckless judgment." And Obama says: The minuscule size of these rogue countries makes easier the decision to talk with their leaders directly, because if the U.S. sat down with the USSR even at the height of the Cold War, why not Iran? And McCain says: That is a bogus equation. And he is right as well.

A fateful strategic issue - certainly for the State of Israel - became a plaything this week for the American election circus. The Iranian threat is now the Iranian debate: to threaten or talk, to attack or wait. On the one hand, it's a fascinating discussion that clarifies the difference between the viewpoints and approaches of the two presidential candidates. On the other hand, it's a barren discussion that underscores how disconnected the election campaign is from the reality determined in Tehran and Washington.

President George W. Bush has nearly eight months left, and anyone who presumes to say at this point whether he will use force to stop Iran's nuclear program, or will pass the problem on to the next administration, is suffering from baseless presumption: It's doubtful whether Bush himself knows the answer to that question.

Tehran announced this week that it is willing to listen to additional offers from European envoy Javier Solana, but American nervousness in view of apparent Iranian pressure is growing. The transition from another round of dialogue to an offensive move can be quick, and it is safe to suspect that an advance press release will not necessarily be forthcoming. Signs that this possibility remains on the table are readily found. "The current situation is unstable," a source who has delved deeply into the Iranian issue for several years said a few days ago. "And a situation like this cannot last long; it invites change." Iranian overconfidence now seems like a possible spur, even a likely one, for a "change" of that kind.

The American secretary of defense, Robert Gates, appeared Tuesday before the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee. Last week he found himself, to his detriment, at the center of the political arena, when things he had said created the impression that his position is closer to Obama's than to McCain's. He therefore took the opportunity to clarify: Talking to the Iranians might be possible, but "the key here is developing leverage, either through economic or diplomatic or military pressures."

Gates' analysis is not marked by unusual flights of fancy. He is a cautious man, not an ideologue who preaches regime change in rogue countries. What he said is similar to what senior Bush administration officials, such as Vice President Dick Cheney, and outside advisers such as former secretary of state Henry Kissinger are saying: Iran has to take a beating, return to its natural size, before it is possible to hold useful talks with it.

Gates said an opportunity for such talks may have been blown a few years ago. That is also what many critics of the Bush administration think, and they are angry about it. Did such an opportunity really exist? It is an interesting question for history buffs. For decision makers it is irrelevant now. The Iran with which it might, perhaps, have been possible to talk in 2003 is not the Iran of today. More importantly, the United States is not the same United States. Then it was at the height of a lethal display of power - following victory in Afghanistan and a speedy occupation of Iraq. Libya's leader, Muammar Gadhafi, got scared and decided to forgo his nuclear program. Maybe dialogue with Iran would have enabled a similar achievement. Way back when, in 2003.

But the Iran of today is in another bargaining position, while the U.S., worn down by years of war, suddenly seems a lot less intimidating. Level-headed people - in the top level of the military and State Department, who have reservations about another belligerent clash in the Middle East - also see a problem: The Iranians can't take a hint. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, told the Senate that Iran's Revolutionary Guards are deliberately jeopardizing peace efforts in Iraq. Cool-tempered Condoleezza Rice watched Iran's allies bring a Lebanese government - to which Rice is personally committed - to the brink of collapse. And Gates, as mentioned, is also one of the more cautious. If he said "military," he meant surely that such a possibility exists.