Nuclear saber-rattling

The threat of an Israeli strike against Iran'snuclear facilities ratcheted up a notch last week when Israel'sdefense minister, Ehud Barak, issued new warnings that time was running out to stop Tehran's drive to build a bomb. If Israel waits much longer, Mr. Barak told a security conference in Jerusalem, it would no longer have the option of destroying the Iranian weapons program before it disappeared into newly constructed mountain bunkers where it would be invulnerable to attack.

Israel's escalating rhetoric is understandable: The nation's leaders have good reason to fear a nuclear-armed Iran would act on its vows to destroy the Jewish state. If the United States were similarly threatened, it would be unlikely to show restraint.

But Israel's saber-rattling is nonetheless worrying to President Barack Obama and other Western leaders, who fear a surprise strike on Iran by Israel could touch off a wider regional conflict with unpredictable consequences. They want the Israelis to hold off until newly imposed economic sanctions on Iran have time to coax Tehran back to the bargaining table. But Mr. Barak and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have refused to rule out acting unilaterally, or even to promise to give the U.S. advance notice of an attack. The likelihood is that, whatever intentions it may have started out with, the U.S. eventually would be drawn into any conflict that followed.

No one wants to see a nuclear-armed Iran. A nuclear weapon in the hands of the regime would greatly embolden it to threaten Israel and its other neighbors and to export terrorism around the world. It could also spark a regional arms race in which Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and the Gulf states all felt compelled to develop their own nuclear arsenals.

It's unclear whether Iran would ever give up its nuclear weapons capability, no matter how much pressure is brought to bear through diplomatic and economic means. President Obama came into office pledging to open a dialogue with the mullahs, but his overtures were rebuffed. At this late stage, if the administration wants to avert a dangerous conflict in the region that could derail the fragile economic recovery and send oil prices sky high, it must act swiftly to open a channel of communication with Iran that produces results.

Though the stakes are high, an agreement between the U.S. and Iran that would ensure Israel's security while allowing Tehran to pursue its nuclear program for peaceful purposes may still be achievable. It would require the U.S. to formally recognize the legitimacy of the Islamic republic in exchange for Iran's cooperation on regional issues in Iraq and Afghanistan, and both sides would have to agree to negotiate all their remaining disputes. Ultimately, Iran would have to agree to give U.N. inspectors unlimited access to its nuclear sites and to stop threatening Israel while the U.S. agreed to gradually lifting sanctions and working to create a nuclear-free Mideast.

There are, of course, huge obstacles to the realization of such a plan, not least of which is the profound distrust of each other both nations would have to overcome. Iranian leaders' fear of regime change is based on historical precedent: The U.S. was behind the 1954 overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, and it backed Saddam Hussein during Iran's eight-year war with Iraq. For its part, the U.S. has never forgiven Iran for the hostage crisis that began in 1979, in which American embassy personnel were held captive for 444 days, or the 1983 attack on an American barracks by Iran-backed militants in Lebanon that killed 241 U.S. servicemen.

Given that history of mutual hostility, even if a deal is possible, there's still the question of the timing of any agreement. The Obama administration will have to make a pragmatic calculation whether Iran will be more likely to reach a deal before or after an Israeli strike. Similarly, the Iranians will have to decide whether they think they can get a better deal before or after they build a bomb.

Both questions involve an intricate calculus of perceived intentions, motives and capabilities that leaves little room for error. But it may be the only way to avoid stumbling into a conflict that neither side wants, and that neither side can really win.