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On Thursday, CBS News reported that a new US intelligence report says Teheran has "overcome technical difficulties in enriching uranium and could have enough bomb grade material for a single nuclear weapon in less than three years." Since Iran must overcome additional technical problems, the official US estimate of when it would become a nuclear power remains 2015, according to CBS.
Other observers are less sanguine. "Iran can get enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon sooner than that," nuclear expert David Albright told CBS. "I think the 2015 number reflects too much skepticism about Iran's technical capabilities, and they are making progress."
Also on Thursday, US Gen. David Petraeus said in Iraq that terrorists who killed five US soldiers in Karbala in January received substantial funding, training and munitions from Iran.
US forces captured members of the group and a 22-page plan of the attack. "Our sense is that these records were kept so that they could be handed in to whoever it is that is financing them, and there is no question again that Iranian financing is taking place through the Quds Force of the Iranian [Revolutionary] Guards Corps," Petraeus said.
So Iran is building a bomb faster than expected, and direct Iranian involvement in attacks on Americans is becoming more obvious. Yet these reports were followed on Sunday by the news that Iran would attend a regional meeting on Iraq hosted by Egypt, which is expected to include US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
What is going on here? Why is the US, which has refused to engage in direct talks until Iran suspends uranium enrichment, attending a high level meeting with Iran? Why would the State Department, according to The Washington Post, be "open to direct talks with... Iran over Iraq"? Is this not like inviting the fox to discuss security in the hen house?
This is even more mysterious given White House criticism of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for traveling to Syria. The US, with good cause, accuses Syria of joining with Iran in supporting terrorist groups in Lebanon and Iraq, and refuses to engage with Syria on that basis. So why engage Iran?
The only reason the Iranian regime might agree to stop destabilizing Iraq would be if the US dropped its objection to Teheran's nuclear program. But even if Iran could be trusted to keep its side of such a deal, which it cannot, why would this be in America's interest?
A nuclear Iran, as the US has repeatedly pointed out, would allow Teheran to support terrorism throughout the region with impunity and would lead to multiple Arab states obtaining nuclear weapons. It would also mean that Iran could squeeze the price of oil upward at will and, last but not least, pose a mortal and unacceptable threat to Israel.
It is not clear how it is possible to both isolate and engage a rogue regime at the same time. This is essentially the White House's argument with respect to Syria; that if isolation and sanctions are the strategy, then engagement is the opposite of that strategy at least until sanctions have a chance to work.
The mistake, in other words, of engagement advocates is one of timing. In the case of Libya, it was obviously necessary to engage once sanctions had worked and the regime decided that its pursuit of nuclear weapons and support for terrorism were costing more than abandoning those policies.
It should be equally clear, with Iran forging ahead ever faster with its nuclear program, that now is the time to change Teheran's calculus through a dramatic tightening of international sanctions. Europe, in particular, must catch up with the US in imposing financial and trade sanctions that have already been successful at increasing pressure on the regime. Sanctions, not diplomacy, will be the primary means to avoid the twin dangers of a nuclear Iran and the necessity of military action.