Let Russia Stop Iran

NINE months have passed since the United Nations Security Council approved its most recent resolution imposing sanctions on Iran. That resolution, like its two predecessors, has failed to deter Tehran, which will soon be in a position to create a working nuclear weapon. Western intelligence establishments estimate that date as not later than mid-2010.

The problem with any Security Council resolution is that Russia and China, two of the five permanent members, have refused to adopt biting measures. Without tougher sanctions, there is no hope that Iran will reconsider its determination to make a bomb and finally begin to negotiate seriously with the West. Sanctions that would hurt Iran, like an embargo on its imports of gasoline, could deter Tehran from pursuing the bomb.

The key to a tougher Security Council resolution is Russia, and this provides an opening for Barack Obama. After taking office, he should offer Moscow a grand bargain. For its part, the United States would suspend or even cancel its plans to set up the missile defenses in Eastern Europe that the Kremlin adamantly opposes, and also adopt a more cautious stance as far as admitting into NATO the countries that Russia views as part of its zone of influence.

Russia's side of the bargain would be to join in the West's tougher stance against Iran's nuclear military program and to stop supplying Iran with conventional weapons, many of which then find their way to Hezbollah in Lebanon and other militant groups in the region.

If Russia were to support much stronger economic pressure on Iran, Mr. Obama could proceed on a double track: first to put the threat of military intervention back on the table, but also to offer to conduct direct talks with Iran without preconditions. What would be asked of Tehran initially would be a gesture of good faith: it would, three months after the start of the negotiations, have to make an implicit commitment to halt its enrichment activities. (Tehran would not be required to make a public declaration, which it fears would make it look weak in the eyes of its populace and its neighbors.)

Negotiations would have to deal with issues that go beyond the nuclear file. Iran views itself as a regional power, proud of its history, its rich culture and its military and technological capacity. The dialogue would involve the Persian Gulf security situation in general, the future of the American presence in Iraq, Syria's role in Lebanon, and efforts to settle the unrest in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

If such a three-way deal could be pulled off, everyone wins with very little loss of face. The United States would gain a leading role in the international arena, reversing years of questionable Bush administration decisions. And, as it claims the missile defense system is intended primarily to defend against an Iranian nuclear attack, the deal would obviate its need.

Russia would give up its weapons and some commercial sales to Iran, but there is much more profit for Moscow to be made trading with a respectable Iran than a pariah state. The American reversal on missile defense would be portrayed as a victory for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and Moscow would gain international respectability by helping to avert the serious crisis that would occur should Iran develop the bomb.

Iran, in exchange for relinquishing its nuclear dreams, would avoid painful sanctions, be readmitted to the international community and eventually gain the economic and political benefits of being recognized as a regional power.

Unless something changes the dynamic soon, Iran will become a nuclear power, which will put the Obama administration in a terrible bind. Not only would it complicate America's projects in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would also certainly derail any peace negotiations among Israel and its Palestinian and Syrian neighbors.

The United States and Israel will both welcome new political leadership next year. We hope that the new prime minister of Israel can see the wisdom of such a deal among America, Iran and Russia, and persuade Mr. Obama that it could transform the Middle East and the entire international scene. The alternative is more stalemate and an Iran that grows more menacing by the day.