Iran continues to challenge international efforts to hold it accountable for its suspicious nuclear activities. Later this month, the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors will meet to address the issue against the backdrop of growing fear that time to contain the country’s nuclear ambitions is running out. This leaves little doubt that Iran will be high on the Bush administration’s foreign-policy agenda in the months to come.

To date, the IAEA has relied on public shame to force Iran’s compliance. In the past two years, agency inspectors laid bare much of Tehran’s nuclear program. But suspicions remain that Iran’s ruling mullahs have not revealed all. Should Iran continue to waffle, the international community must decide if it must take more aggressive steps to force the revolutionary state to accede. The following options suggest that there is no clear path.

The most benign approach would be to continue current IAEA efforts. Arguably, agency inspections and quarterly public reports will, in time, embarrass Iran to resist the nuclear-weapons temptation. This butts against two facts, however. First, suspicions persist that Iran has not come clean about all its nuclear activities. Second, Iran’s enrichment and reprocessing endeavors make no sense apart from nuclear weapons. For example, the solitary power reactor Tehran hopes to initiate in 2005 or 2006 does not justify the economic investment in facilities to recycle nuclear fuel into weapons-grade material.

Believing that diplomacy had not run its course, Britain, France and Germany opened a dialogue with Iran outside the IAEA framework. In October 2003, the three European powers sent their foreign ministers to Tehran. The diplomats offered economic carrots and peaceful nuclear-energy assistance as a quid pro quo for Iran to halt its developing enrichment program. The meeting prompted cautious optimism: Tehran announced that it would suspend the manufacture of nuclear centrifuges. Nine months later, the mullahs reversed themselves.

Chagrined, the Europeans renewed the dialogue. The Iranians stonewalled. They declared that “no country has the right to deprive us of nuclear technology.” The Europeans remain undaunted. They continue to try. Today, for instance, they are sitting down with the Iranians in Paris, where they will likely continue to dangle economic incentives in exchange for Tehran’s promise of a halt to Iran’s enrichment program. Tehran’s probable, coy response: It might suspend – again – its enrichment activities, but just for a short time, to give diplomacy a chance.

Unimpressed, the Bush administration remains convinced that Iran is using diplomacy to buy time for its nuclear ambitions. For months, the administration has pushed the IAEA to declare Tehran in violation of its nuclear nonproliferation obligations. The result would place the matter before the U.N. Security Council, which could impose sanctions.

But this is another path to nowhere. Iran’s critical vulnerability to sanctions – reliance on the hard currency earned through oil exports – is a double-edged sword. The United States is unlikely to generate Security Council support for measures that will restrict the already tight oil market. Washington also is stuck on its own petard – the Iraq WMD intelligence debacle. In the absence of a nuclear weapons “smoking gun” – certified by the IAEA – the Security Council is unlikely to issue more than a rhetorical slap on the wrist that calls upon the mullahs to reconsider their transgressions.

Among the dwindling options is confrontation. One option would galvanize members of the Proliferation Security Initiative – which includes a core group of a dozen or so nations that have agreed to intercept WMD contraband – to isolate Iran until it disgorges its nuclear weapons capacity. However, building the PSI into a serious new “alliance of the willing,” in the absence of a clear and present danger, is unlikely.

Then there is military action. Only military occupation can guarantee Iran’s nuclear disarmament; limited military strikes will not destroy hidden nuclear facilities. But, in the Iraq aftermath, either option would be a hard sell to the American public. On the other hand, Israel, which considers Iran a mortal enemy, does not require a sales job. Jerusalem repeatedly has declared that it will not allow Iran a nuclear weapons capacity. But Israel is in no better position than the United States to destroy the program.

This leaves two factors that may impact Iran’s nuclear future. One is peaceful regime change. Although there is some hope that a new generation of Iranians – who might be more nonproliferation compliant – will replace the mullahs, there appears to be little prospect in the short term. In time, impetus could come from a thriving democratic Iraq. Unfortunately, Baghdad’s political future will not be resolved anytime soon.

On the flip side, the United States and its allies could concede that little can be done to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions. By accepting this prospect, the challenge will be to keep the nuclear peace. The solution must include an explicit warning to Tehran from Washington and Jerusalem: Any Iranian nuclear threat or act – or any complicity in a terrorist nuclear act – would result in the elimination of the revolutionary regime by any and all means. The time to issue this warning is now, before the mullahs realize their nuclear ambitions. The result might have a sobering impact as Iran weighs a nuclear armed future.

Bennett Ramberg served in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the administration of President George H.W. Bush.

First published by the San Francisco Chronicle.