Photo: Getty Images; Illustration by Bloomberg View
Photo: Getty Images; Illustration by Bloomberg View

The U.S. doesn’t want to see a nuclear-armed Iran, because it would propel a Middle East arms race and threaten the Israelis. Arab states in the region also dislike the idea, especially Saudi Arabia, whose leaders would further resent the one-upmanship.

Only one country, however, fears imminent harm from the prospect, and that is Israel. Israel is the only nation Iran’s leaders have deemed a “cancerous tumor” that must be eliminated, and a significant nuclear arsenal could give them the wherewithal to make that happen.

So it makes sense that the current wave of enthusiasm for a negotiated end to the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program disturbs Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “It’s a ruse, it’s a ploy,” he told the United Nations General Assembly today, describing recent Iranian suggestions of openness to talks.

His wariness is useful, in reminding the Iranians that Israel may still use force against them if the Jewish state feels deeply threatened. And Netanyahu is right to be skeptical of a deal with a regime that almost certainly has lied about trying to build a bomb in the past and may still be cheating on its international obligations not to do so. The Iranians may be faking enthusiasm for an agreement now in order to buy time to advance their nuclear program. As Netanyahu pointed out, President Hassan Rouhani himself has admitted using such a tactic in the past.

The alternatives to a negotiated settlement are worse, however, and talks should begin whether or not Netanyahu approves.

Suppose the deep sanctions imposed against Iran in recent years had the desired effect of compelling its leaders to genuinely seek a settlement. Wouldn’t that look like the charm offensive we’re seeing from them today?

The U.S. and other world powers won’t know whether Iran’s leaders are ripe for a deal unless they seriously engage with them. The opening Rouhani has provided makes that possible.

Israel doesn’t oppose a negotiated settlement per se but insists that any terms prohibit Iran from enriching uranium in the future. That would be a sweet deal, but it’s make-believe.

Iran regards the ability to enrich uranium as a matter of national identity and pride. However, its leaders might agree to cease enrichment above 5 percent. Currently, in facilities regularly inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran produces uranium enriched up to 20 percent, which can be further upgraded to bomb-grade material fairly quickly.

Agreeing to a 5 percent cap, of course, wouldn’t guarantee Iran would abide by it. Iran could enrich further to make bomb fuel, but the IAEA would detect it, and the slower process would give world powers time to organize a diplomatic or military intervention.

As things stand, Iran is producing about 16 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium a month and may be able -- as early as mid-2014 -- to make sufficient fissile material for a bomb so quickly that inspectors wouldn’t detect the work until it was done. So remaining stuck with no agreement is a poor option.

Alternatively, U.S. and/or Israeli military forces could destroy as much of the Iranian nuclear program as possible, presumably through air attacks, an option Netanyahu has repeatedly broached. At the UN, he emphasized that Israel would act alone if it had to. Putting aside the potential costs of such an operation in terms of retaliation, diplomatic fallout and loss of civilian life, such strikes would probably set back the Iranian effort by only a few years.

Then, the Iranians would almost surely eject IAEA inspectors, leaving world powers to depend on far less reliable intelligence services to monitor Iran’s capabilities.

If Iran refuses to come to a reasonable settlement, military action will remain an option. For now, the focus should be on a deal.

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