THE TIME for diplomacy with Tehran may be over. Iran has flatly rejected an offer from European negotiators to ensure a steady supply of nuclear energy to meet its civilian needs and head off development of new nuclear weapons. Despite the claims of its new president, Iran can't be truly interested in continued bargaining - not unless some international pressure can be brought to bear.
Iran wasted little time in revving up its nuclear facility near Isfahan to renew its uranium conversion process, albeit with international inspectors watching. After a year-long process, it now appears that the mullahs have been playing the European negotiators and their not-so-silent American backers. The United States relied on this surrogate diplomacy to move Iran but now the focus must be on frustrating the Iranians' efforts to produce a bomb.
The Iranians must have decided that they could survive a United Nations sanction vote. To punish Iran through the international body would require support from Russia and China. While the former has been more cooperative in urging Iran to reassess its nuclear pursuits, China has no interest in punishing Iran, with which it has a $100 million oil and natural gas deal.
Iran takes the position that it has every right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to enrich uranium for civil - and peaceful - purposes. But its 17-year deception on many of its nuclear activities and its continued support for terrorist networks have undermined its credibility with members of the international community. Complicating the issue is the matter of how far away the Iranians are from developing a nuclear weapon. Five years? Ten years? Does the intelligence community know for sure? Can its information be trusted?
If it's only a matter of time until Iran has that capability, whether it's a decade or less, then the United States and its allies will have to convince the world that an Iran with a bomb is a threat to everyone. The European negotiators offered Tehran economic, political and technological enticements to curtail its nuclear program - to no avail.
Many Iranians support the country's pursuit of nuclear energy, not out of allegiance to the regime but because of national pride. More attention should be paid to educating the Iranian people on the potential gains from rapprochement with the West on the nuclear issue. At the same time, the United States and Europe must also devise a response - most likely including sanctions, and if necessary outside the framework of the United Nations - to Iran's apparent pursuit of nuclear weapons. Then they must work to win Russian and Chinese cooperation.
The tough stance taken by the Iranian regime isn't going to change under the new hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It will have to be met with as tough a stand.