The deadline came and went Thursday for Iran to cease its enrichment of weapons-grade uranium with nothing more than the stock incredible claim that the country's nuclear program has only peaceful ambitions.
Iran, which sits atop one of the world's great oil and gas reserves, no more needs to import and enrich uranium for nuclear-powered electricity plants than Cleveland would need to pipe ocean water to a desalination plant on the Lake Erie shore to provide the city with drinking water.
Iran intends to build a nuclear bomb, and it's only a matter of time until it drops the pretext and, like North Korea, openly challenges the rest of the world to do something about it.
The first question is, how much time remains? U.S. intelligence estimates say it will be five to 10 years before Iran has enough enriched uranium to build a bomb. Israel estimates it could be as early as 2008. British intelligence says it could be even sooner. Unfortunately, each of those intelligence forces has demonstrated an ability to be spectacularly wrong in recent years, so there's no real answer to the timing question.
The second question is, what is the civilized world willing to do to dissuade Iran from its nuclear ambitions? This question, too, may have no real answer.
The United States and its European allies want to impose U.N. sanctions on Iran for defying the deadline. But Russia and China are major trade partners of Tehran, both hold Security Council veto power and neither seems eager to punish Iran for its defiance.
Besides, sanctions or the threat of sanctions did not dissuade North Korea, India or Pakistan from developing nuclear weapons, and Iran, given its strategic position in the Persian Gulf and its oil reserves has infinitely more bargaining power on the international market than Pakistan or North Korea ever had.
Airstrikes are not a viable option because Iran has learned from Iraq's experience to diversify its nuclear facilities and to hide them more effectively. Bombs might buy time, but they would also galvanize the population in Iran and would give Iran victim status throughout much of the Middle East.
The United States and any other western nation inclined to take military action would do well to consider the recent experience of allied forces in Iraq and the more recent experience of Israel against the Hezbollah in Lebanon. Ill-conceived military action doesn't make a situation better; it makes it worse.
The Middle East today is a mess. Mishandling the Iranian situation would make it a disaster.
President Bush told an American Legion convention in Salt Lake City that, "we know the depth of suffering that Iran's sponsorship of terrorists has brought. And we can imagine how much worse it would be if Iran were allowed to acquire nuclear weapons."
On the other hand, Iran must be aware that while having a nuclear weapon would put it in an exclusive club and give it a certain degree of enhanced bargaining power, using a nuclear weapon against the United States or an ally would guarantee its destruction.
How large a price is Iran willing to pay to develop a weapon that it can never use except in an act of suicide? The United States and Europe must find the answer to that question through negotiations and diplomacy. Name calling and idle threats won't get the job done.