Fencing with Tehran

The Iranians are riding high these days. While the United States is hemorrhaging $5 billion a month in Iraq trying to stabilize Iran's flattened former enemy, Tehran is hauling in $5 billion a month in oil revenues. Iran is making life miserable for the United States in Iraq by allowing weapons to flow to Shiite fighters who are attacking U.S. troops there, if it isn't arming and training the insurgents itself. And Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite who lived in exile in Iran, held hands with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last week during a chummy visit to Tehran, to the annoyance of President Bush.

Meanwhile, Iran's centrifuges are probably spinning away, enriching uranium that could be used for nuclear weapons. Although Russia has taken the welcome step of refusing to deliver fuel to Iran's Bushehr civilian nuclear reactor, countries with commercial interests in Iran continue to balk at imposing U.N. Security Council economic sanctions with teeth. People who have met unofficially with senior Iranians recently describe them as self-confident, even cocky, and uninterested in bettering relations with the U.S.

In response, the Bush administration has been ratcheting up its rhetoric. On Thursday, the president warned that "there will be consequences" for those delivering the sophisticated explosives that have been killing and maiming U.S. troops. And on Friday, McClatchy newspapers reported that Vice President Dick Cheney has advocated U.S. airstrikes on suspected training camps for Iraqi insurgents in Iran.

Whether Cheney's alleged desire to attack isa deliberate administration leak aimed at warning Tehran that it is going too far, or a leak by Cheney foes who fear that the vice president is willing to go too far, the possibility of a U.S. strike cannot be ruled out. But resorting to force while 160,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Iraq would invite disaster. Tehran could easily retaliate with a campaign of terror, and a U.S. strike might be the only thing that would rally the Iranian people around the increasingly unpopular Ahmadinejad and distract them from his ruinous policies.

The U.S. must push back against Iranian provocations in Iraq and elsewhere. But it must also be mindful of the unintended consequences of escalation.Battling Iranian operatives inside Iraq is necessary but could lead to clashes on the Iranian-Iraqi border or in the Persian Gulf. As the Iranians proved by their capture and mistreatment of British sailors earlier this year, things could easily get even nastier.

U.S. presidential candidates in both parties have seized on Iran to show how tough they'll be on foreign policy. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has already sung "bomb Iran" as a pop ditty. What the candidates probably won't tell the American people is how little leverage the United States has. It is faring badly in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Iranians know it. There is much talk about "containing" Iran, but U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states address only Iran's conventional military threat. Its ability to deploy Hezbollah and other proxies to destabilize its neighbors is undiminished.

The most powerful weapon against Iranian adventurism is economic. Perhaps in part because the United States is so disliked at the moment, it has yet to convince the rest of the world that a nuclear-armed Iran is so dangerous as to warrant genuine economic sacrifice. Germany, Russia and China in particular would have to put global security over their national commercial interests to agree to the kind of tough and targeted economic sanctions that would raise the price of Iran's continuing nuclear intransigence. Over time, unilateral U.S. sanctions will limitIran's access to international credit markets and financial services. But without much broader international cooperation, Iran could well succeed in making nuclear weapons long before international sanctions bite.

To avoid making an anti-American hero of Ahmadinejad and further alienating allies, U.S. politicians should stop talking about bombing Iran. Instead, they should set about repairing America's international standing and figure out what diplomatic deals could induce other nations to sign up for the serious financial penalties that offer the best chance of stopping Tehran's nuclear breakout.

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