The Best Option

Any Israeli leader serious about ?stopping? Iran should tear up those speaking notes about 1938 and have a quiet diplomatic word in Uncle Sam?s ear.

It may sound counterintuitive, even heretical, but it could just be that Israel is overlooking - or worse, helping to block - what is possibly the best option available for avoiding a nuclear Iran.

Direct American-led negotiations are not in play, and Israel is complicit in this omission. The United States looms largest in Iranian threat perceptions and only the U.S. - not the EU, UN, or the International Atomic Energy Agency - can deliver a deal for verifiable re-suspension of an Iranian nuclear weapons program.

In Jerusalem there is a perhaps understandable tendency to imagine that Tehran has an Israel obsession. Indeed, the Iranian president does have a particularly vile reverse infatuation with the Jewish state. But this should not be confused with the map of real threats and interests occupying Iran, in which Iraq, the Gulf, even Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Caspian Sea region all normally feature more prominently than Zion. Above all, there is America, with its talk of and support for regime change and an annual military budget 90 times that of Iran.

Over-simplifying Iran tends to lead to bad policy-making. President Ahmadinejad may be all of the things that the president of Columbia University accused him of being, and more, but he does not solely define Iran's national interest - far from it. Tehran hosts a complex web of competing power centers, and Ahmadinejad's brand of messianism does not necessarily translate into a suicidal or even nonrational state policy. There is widespread dissatisfaction with his domestic and especially economic policies, and his reelection in 18 months is far from assured. American and Israeli bellicosity only serve to boost his popular appeal.

The current policy approach is very unlikely to succeed. Lack of an agreed-upon objective is one reason: Is it regime change or weapons non-proliferation? The two are not interchangeable, and may even be incompatible. Iran is expected to curtail its nuclear program while remaining a target for regime change. The lesson of recent history as understood by Iran's leadership is that axis-of-evil membership plus nuclear weapons equals reasonable negotiating terms (North Korea); minus those weapons one's fate is less appealing (Iraq). Regime-change strategies seem hopelessly naive. The U.S. has been backing at least three proxy opposition groups to little effect: the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK, Iraq-based), the Baluchi Jundullah group (Soldiers of God) and the Kurdish Pejak. Other, more credible, exile and human rights groups recently shunned official U.S. support. Meanwhile the Islamic republic will soon have outlasted its fifth American president.

The nuclear prevention-focused policy revolves around sanctions backed with threats of more painful punitive measures. The impact of the sanctions, however, seems to be completely out of synch with the timeline of nuclear progress. Ineffective sanctions can serve to narrow the corridor leading to a military strike, and for some that is the precise intention. Washington has recently hardened its threats against Tehran, accusing it of being responsible for American deaths in Iraq. President Bush has a track record in dealing with "bad regimes" suspected of producing "bad weapons," yet U.S. military action need not be a given.

Most senior U.S. military are known to be actively opposed. The option of independent Israeli action against Iran is largely a myth. The long-standing "no surprises" commitment, the likely need for U.S. flyover permission, and almost certain targeting of U.S. assets in retaliation, makes any Israeli military calculation very much a joint affair. No military plan guarantees success, and the almost certain devastating consequences make the idea very ill-advised. An attack would likely provoke a military response in the region and beyond, notably in Iraq and Afghanistan, wreak havoc on oil supplies, enrage the Muslim (including Sunni) world, be a gift to jihadi recruitment, create new enemies and harden hatreds. Israel would face a particularly fierce backlash, conceivably for generations.

Although hard to stomach, a deterrence and containment strategy for dealing with a nuclear Iran are preferable to the military option, even for Israel. After all, India and Pakistan survived going nuclear.

Yet it should not come to this. Let's call the alternative double-dip diplomacy. The U.S. would offer Iran two negotiating tracks. The first focuses on the priority security concerns of each side: the nuclear file, Iraq, regime security, sanctions. The second would address all issues of mutual concern, region-wide. For Washington, the key emphasis should be securing a verifiable freeze in any nuclear-weapons program. The second track of grand bargaining seems unpromising in current circumstances, although, conversely, addressing all issues might be the only way for the Iranians to make progress on any issue and this option should always be on offer.

The U.S.-Iranian talks would be direct, not via proxy, and without preconditions. A genuine U.S. offer would most effectively give regime pragmatists a tool to work with and leverage the pressure that has been generated but that, absent diplomacy, leaves nothing constructive to navigate toward. Beyond the nuclear question, a U.S.-Iranian detente may best deliver on Israeli interests across a range of issues.

Variations on the diplomatic option have been advocated by numerous experts, think tanks and politicians in the U.S.; official Washington remains skeptical and split on this. An Israeli green light would greatly enhance the prospects of the U.S. giving diplomacy a try - helping to tip the balance inside the administration and providing political cover. Any Israeli leader serious about "stopping" Iran should tear up those speaking notes about 1938 and have a quiet diplomatic word in Uncle Sam's ear.

Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America and Century Foundations, was previously an adviser in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office and was the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative.