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Bad news on Iran, and good: The bad news is the current regime's unabated determination to go nuclear. And a nuclear Iran would become a source of great global instability by bolstering radical elements in the Muslim world, which would constitute an existential threat for Israel.
The good news is that the international community, particularly the West, seems to realize the danger emanating from Teheran, and is adopting a more resolute approach to stopping its nuclear program.
Iran's nuclear program was initiated during the reign of the Shah with the intention of Iran's acquiring hegemony in the region and the ability to play the role of a great power in world affairs, a role commensurate with Iran's perception of itself as an ancient civilization and important global player.
Nowadays the program also seems designed to provide a strategic response to American political and cultural hegemony in world affairs. Teheran wants to be able to continue to oppose American policies and deter possible American action against the radical Islamic regime. Similarly, it wants to block the influence of American culture, perceived as decadent and particularly dangerous.
SOME AYATOLLAHS view an Iran armed with nuclear weapons as an instrument in Allah's hand enabling their regime to impose Islam upon the entire world. They believe they have been chosen to carry out Allah's mission.
The stakes, moreover, are very high for Iran's ruling elite since the nuclear program is inextricably connected to this elite's political, and even physical, survival. The regime may well have come to the conclusion that the speedy and successful conclusion of its nuclear efforts will guarantee its future at home. Destabilizing the regime of a nuclear state - which could lead to chronic domestic instability, civil war or even disintegration - is clearly a more risky enterprise than undermining a non-nuclear regime.
Iran's strategy of "talk and build" is meant to buy time until the ayatollahs can present the world with a fait accompli. Diplomatic talks drag on and, meanwhile, Iran continues with its nuclear program.
This kind of strategy capitalizes on the European and American reluctance to escalate matters. Deciding that negotiations are useless requires alternative action, which is not an enticing option.
Essentially, inconclusive talks preserve the status quo - a tense standoff in which Iran can go on nuclearizing. The talk-and-build strategy, accompanied by temporary concessions, postpones diplomatic and economic pressures and, most importantly, preventive US military strikes.
FORTUNATELY, there are signs that this Iranian strategy may no longer be working. Official statements by the leaders of Western countries indicate a growing exasperation with Iran's behavior on the nuclear issue and seem to indicate a greater determination to prevent it acquiring the bomb. American declarations on the issue imply a willingness to consider all options - including the use of force.
On several occasions President Bush has refused to rule out military action. Several senators have also recognized that a military strike on Iran must be a foreign policy option.
The changing atmosphere toward Iran in Washington's corridors of power has affected the national mood. A Los Angeles Times poll on January 27 indicated that 57 percent of Americans back an attack on Iran if its defiance persists. A Pew Research Center poll released on February 7 showed that public concern over Iran's nuclear program has risen dramatically in the past few months.
Today, 27% of Americans cite Iran as the country that represents the greatest danger to the United States - in contrast to just 9% in October.
Even if these trends do not hold for long, second-term presidents such as Bush are less susceptible to the vagaries of public opinion. The president's personality and world view are well suited to a muscular approach toward Iran.
American perceptions about Iran reflect a global phenomenon. A major BBC World Service poll exploring how people in 33 countries view various countries found not a single country - except Iran - in which a majority had a positive view of Iran's role in the world.
THE US is not alone in considering the use of force. After worldwide condemnation of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's call for Israel to be "wiped off the map," British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned that the West might have to take military action against Iran. France also seems to realize that the use of force may be necessary.
And as the threat perception in the West increases, more countries are likely to cooperate in or support military action against Iran.
Paradoxically, a readiness to use military force may create a situation in which it proves necessary. An ultimatum that includes an unequivocal American threat of force might be enough to convince the Iranians to freeze their nuclear program and await better times.
Since Iran practices brinkmanship as a regular part of its policy, only the threat of imminent American military action will define the line the Iranian leadership does not want to cross.
The writer is Professor of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University and director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.
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