THE TICKING CLOCK
Even as the United States struggles to fix the troubled reconstruction of Iraq, the next big national security crisis has already descended on Washington. Investigators from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have discovered that Iran is trying to acquire the capability to enrich uranium and separate plutonium, activities that would allow it to make fissile material for nuclear weapons. Revelations of Iran's massive secret program have convinced even doubtful European governments that Tehran's ultimate aim is to acquire the weapons or, at least, the ability to produce them whenever it wants.
It is an open question whether the United States could learn to coexist with a nuclear Iran. Since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, Tehran's behavior has conveyed some very mixed messages to Washington. The mullahs have continued to define their foreign policy in opposition to the United States and have often resorted to belligerent methods to achieve their aims. They have tried to undermine the governments of Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies in the Middle East; they have waged a relentless terrorist campaign against the U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace process; and they have even sponsored at least one direct attack against the United States, bombing the Khobar Towers--a housing complex filled with U.S. troops--in Saudi Arabia in 1996. Although Tehran has been aggressive, anti-American, and murderous, its behavior has been neither irrational nor reckless. It has calibrated its actions carefully, showed restraint when the risks were high, and pulled back when threatened with painful consequences. Such calculations suggest that the United States could probably deter Iran even after it crossed the nuclear threshold.
There is no question, however, that the United States, the Middle East, and probably the rest of the world would be better off if they did not have to deal with a nuclear Iran. The hard part, of course, is making sure that Tehran never gets to that point. It appears to have made considerable progress in many