The Home Stretch

A nuclear Iran means a nuclear Saudi Arabia, a nuclear Egypt, a nuclear Turkey and a nuclear third world. A nuclear Iran means the 21st century will be the century of terror.

The basic facts have not changed: Iran is galloping toward nuclear weapons. The Iranian clock is currently ticking at the rate of three kilograms of enriched uranium per day. Despite impressive successes in the realm of prevention, prevention is not preventing the Iranian bomb, it is merely postponing the assembly date. Delay is important, but it is not enough. Fact: Again and again, the Iranians have deceived those who are trying to thwart it. When its storehouses contain enough raw material for 30 nuclear bombs and enough semi-processed material for one bomb, the Shi'ite power is on the threshold. Its distance from full nuclear-power status ranges from one year in the worst-case scenario to three or four years in the best case.

Nor have the strategic implications of the basic facts changed: If one fine day Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announces he has a nuclear bomb, the world will be a different world. Morning coffee in Tel Aviv's Florentine neighborhood will not be the same coffee; Kir Royale in the Place de la Bastille will not taste like the same champagne. Even if we assume that Tehran will behave rationally and refrain from using its doomsday weapon directly, the very fact that it has nuclear weapons will cause the entire Middle East to go nuclear. A nuclear Iran will also change the balance of power between Middle Eastern radicals and moderates. It will turn the Middle East into a multipolar nuclear system sitting atop a seething, unstable region.

No Cold War-era situation will resemble the new situation. A nuclear Iran means a nuclear Saudi Arabia, a nuclear Egypt, a nuclear Turkey and a nuclear third world. A nuclear Iran means the 21st century will be the century of terror.

And yet, something fundamental has changed: The events of the past week proved that with regard to Iran, the West of fall 2009 is different from the West of spring 2009. The Pittsburgh declaration issued by Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown was merely the visible tip of the iceberg. Beneath the water, the United States has been engaging in energetic and enthralling diplomacy for the last few months. The fact that the Democratic administration's senior officials feel close to Europe lets them tighten the North Atlantic alliance. Their willingness to woo and appease Russia wins them a measure of cooperation from Moscow. In China, too, the Americans have been doing a good deal of legwork.

Thus, if at the beginning of the summer it was still possible to wonder whether Obama had internalized the Iranian problem, today the picture is clear: Very belatedly, the U.S. president, French president, British prime minister and German chancellor are trying to impose a real diplomatic siege on Iran. They are doing everything that can be done via diplomatic efforts to try to stop the catastrophic centrifuges of Natanz and Qom.

In this situation, there is no genuine fear of an imminent Israeli attack on Iran. There are five reasons why this is so: The optimal moment for a military strike has passed, the last possible moment for a military strike has not yet arrived, the international community is finally waking up, the Iranian regime suffers from deep political and economic weaknesses, and the current Israeli leadership is a responsible leadership that does not rush into battle and is not quick on the trigger.

But the fact that, for now, Israel is showing restraint and even lowering its profile should not mislead anyone. Today, in Geneva, the diplomatic confrontation between the Western world and Iran is entering the home stretch. In previous heats, the Iranian athlete proved he is both faster and more determined than his pampered, lazy opponents. This time, the outcome must be different. The moment the talks have exhausted their usefulness, the Western powers must impose immediate, aggressive sanctions on Tehran. They must exploit the Iranian regime's lack of legitimacy and the Iranian economy's vulnerability to the fullest in order to keep Tehran from producing a nuclear weapon.

If the international community does not employ harsh diplomacy now, it will put itself in an impossible dilemma: an Iranian bomb or bombing Iran. And if that happens, the quartet of Obama, Sarkozy, Brown and Angela Merkel will bear personal responsibility - not only for the emergence of a new Middle East, but for the emergence of a whole new world.