If Iran were to acquire nuclear arms, the world would be forever changed. The most active state sponsor of terrorism could, and possibly would, wield the most terrifying weapon of all.

Iran’s mere possession of a nuclear capability would be transformative in the Middle East and beyond. As a member of the nuclear club, Tehran’s destructive leverage in international diplomacy would increase immensely, even vis a vis the United States and the West. Sunni Arab states would be intimidated, and more likely to follow Iran’s lead. Achieving nuclear status would exponentially increase Iran’s influence and the appeal of fundamentalism throughout the Islamic world.

Tehran’s terrorist offspring such as Hezbollah and Hamas would constantly clamor for access to Iran’s nuclear know-how – and can we comfortably rule out the possibility that they would acquire it, through direct or indirect means? We can’t even assume that Iranian nuclear security, even with the best of intentions, would be airtight against theft by these groups or their sympathizers in Iran’s paramilitary services. The international nuclear arms control regime would be effectively dead, as numerous states in the Middle East would rush to acquire nuclear arms to counter-balance Iran. In short, this would be a world in which the United States and its friends and nations throughout the region would be constantly under threat of nuclear attack and never at rest.

The deadline for solving this looming problem is fast upon us, as Iran daily inches closer to the point where it can produce enough weapons-grade uranium to make a nuclear bomb. No one knows precisely when that will happen, but most experts say it will be soon. Some predict as early as the end of this year. The NIE published earlier this year said it would be sometime in the 2010-2015 time-frame and possibly as early as the end of next year. When it does happen, a threshold will have been crossed; once Iran is producing nuclear weapons-grade material, the difficulty of keeping it from becoming a nuclear power will be massively increased.

For one U.S. ally, Israel, the threat posed by a nuclear Iran would be existential. To illustrate the immediacy of this point, we need look no further than today’s news of an Iranian long-range missile test – a missile capable of carrying a nuclear payload to Israel. This, coupled with the belligerent talk from Tehran of "enemy targets" being "under surveillance," could not make it any clearer that we need to use every diplomatic and economic tool available to steer Iran away from developing nuclear weapons capability.

There are optimists who believe that Iran, were it to acquire nuclear arms, could be deterred, just as the Soviets were. But given the martyrdom mentality of the Iranian leadership, one cannot be sure. The risks are too great to hope that an Iranian government that frequently calls for the end of Israel’s very existence will be calmed and pacified by a nuclear arsenal.

Stopping Iran’s nuclear quest is our most urgent strategic challenge. The United States should give this threat the priority it deserves.

We need to impose sanctions on companies that invest in Iran’s energy sector. We’ve had a law on the books for a dozen years that requires such sanctions, but it never has been enforced. Some of these companies are based in Europe. It’s time for our European allies and their corporations to cease investing in Iran.

Major EU states acknowledge that Iran is trying to acquire nuclear arms, and the EU has begun slowly to ratchet up sanctions, including, most recently, on Bank Melli, Iran’s leading financial institution. But it’s time for them to take far more significant steps along the lines of cutting off all significant commerce with Iran, as we did years ago – or at least I thought we did. I’m not so sure, after yesterday’s Associated Press report that U.S. exports to Iran have increased nearly twenty-fold during the Bush Administration years, up to nearly $150 million in 2007.

Iran should also be at the top of the agenda in our bilateral relationship with Russia. Some believe Russia’s major foreign policy priority is to thwart U.S. policy at every turn. I question that, and Secretary Burns’ perspective on that issue would be of great value. At the least, we should test the proposition through disciplined prioritization of our goals – followed by hard bargaining – with Moscow.

Last month our country again joined the “EU-3” -- Britain, France, Germany -- along with Russia and China, in offering Iran generous trade and even certain types of assistance. Iran, which brushed aside a similar offer two years ago, responded to the latest offer just last week. That response has not been made public, but perhaps Ambassador Burns can enlighten us today about its contents. Nevertheless, my understanding is that our offer has once again followed our tradition of making dialogue with Iran conditional on Iran’s suspension of its uranium enrichment program.

Perhaps Iran is determined to go nuclear, but we need to make a direct, unconditional effort to engage them and to dissuade them from that course, as the international community has demanded. Moreover, I’m convinced we won’t be able to rally world opinion to our side if we don’t make clear our willingness for unconditional engagement with Iran, and I reject those who believe that talking is tantamount to surrender.

So we should agree to join the “EU-3”, Russia, and China in an unconditional dialogue with Iran – or, if our partners prefer, we should meet with Iran bilaterally -- on the understanding that our partners would fully support crippling sanctions if Iran rejects our dialogue offer or ultimately refuses to cease enriching uranium.

Administration policy towards Iran has been a failure, veering from one approach to another. Iran has made continuous progress in its nuclear program throughout the Bush years, international support for sanctions has not gathered much steam, and our allies still do far less than they should. It is time for us to give the Iran problem the priority it deserves and the creative policy it requires -- before it is too late.

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