As an ancient Persian proverb wisely reflects, “Even with the strength of an elephant and the paws of a lion, peace is better than war.” It is time for Iran to heed this thousand-year-old lesson and relinquish its nuclear ambitions before a doomsday scenario occurs.

Iran is caught in a flurry of defiant moves that cast doubt over its short- and long-term intentions. In the face of economic sanctions by President Barack Obama and the European Union, Iran threatened to cut off the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, thus crossing a “red line” which the US then warned would invoke a military response. It has blundered in assassination attempts on Israeli diplomats and their family members in India, Georgia and Thailand. It has begun enriching uranium at a second site, Fordo, buried deep under a mountain, with the intent of tripling the production rate of uranium enriched to 20 percent, taking it to 90% on the way to bomb-grade material. And now it has stopped oil exports to British and French companies in anticipation of the planned halt by the EU of all Iranian oil purchases starting on July 1, and it has warned of cutoffs to other European customers.

Despite these grave developments, there is still a last chance for diplomacy to inject sanity and compromise as options in the growing crisis. Yes, Iran’s recent letter to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton offering to reopen negotiations with the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China and Germany on nuclear issues without any preconditions offers some promise. But still, there is one unique opportunity that has not received the full attention it deserves.

Later this year, countries of the Middle East will meet in Helsinki to take the first steps toward establishing a weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) free zone in that region of the world – a Middle East eventually free of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The call for this gathering was made as part of the final agreement at the 2010 review conference for Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and it is to be held under the auspices of the UN secretary- general and the United States, Russia and Britain. Already there are five nuclear weapon free zones in other parts of the world.

The 2012 WMD conference will offer Iran an opportunity to enter into constructive dialogue with other states in the region. Faced and the growing body of restrictive sanctions from the UN Security Council, the US and the European Union on key individuals, banks, companies and countries doing business with Iran and with the upheaval in the Muslim world, and the loss of its key ally Bashar Assad in Syria, Iran should take stock. Already over the past month the value of the Iranian rial has dropped precipitously. The situation for Iran is urgent.

In the meantime, it needs to respond fully to the IAEA’s questions about its nuclear activities instead of mocking them, and it must reinstate the Additional Protocol to its safeguards agreement with the IAEA to permit a broader range of inspections.

It is incumbent on Iran to explain and clarify the dual civilian and military aspects of its nuclear program and ultimately to provide assurance for everyone that the program is peaceful. The sharpened focus on Iran and its intentions will add to the immediacy of the WMD conference and take some of the pressure off of Israel that would be routinely expected from other Middle Eastern countries. In fact, a recent University of Maryland poll of Israeli public opinion shows significant support for the idea of both Iran and Israel forgoing nuclear weapons. When faced with the prospect of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, nearly two-thirds of Israelis favor the establishment of a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East.

Employing diplomacy in considering every possible path toward a peaceful resolution to Iran’s nuclear dilemma is a matter of urgency. It is the last realistic option for Tehran’s national self-preservation and hope of becoming a constructive regional power. Should Iran shun the 2012 WMD conference, this will be seen as one more act of defiance, but if it wisely chooses to participate, this could usher in a new era of opportunity.

Yonah Alexander is a professor emeritus of the State University of New York and currently director of the International Center for Terrorism Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies (Arlington, Virginia). Milton Hoenig, a nuclear physicist, is a Washington, DC-based consultant. They coauthored the book The New Iranian Leadership: Ahmadinejad, Terrorism, Nuclear Ambition, and the Middle East (Praeger Security International, 2007).

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger