Jeff Jacoby
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RON PAUL, the Texas congressman and isolationist would-be president, is against using tough economic sanctions or military force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. How then, he was asked on "Fox News Sunday," would he persuade Teheran to abandon its quest for the bomb? "Well," Paul suggested, "maybe offering friendship to them."

Hmm, there's an idea. How might it work in practice?

Perhaps Paul could demonstrate his friendly intentions by announcing now, while still a candidate, that if elected he would be prepared to meet Iran's rulers without preconditions. Perhaps he could launch his presidency with an inaugural address urging "a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect," and promising the mullahs and their ilk "that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." Perhaps he could follow that up by taping a video greeting for Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, in which he quotes Persian poetry and assures the "leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran" of his eagerness for "partnership and commerce."

If the Iranian regime rigs an election or unleashes a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, Paul could continue "offering friendship" by muting criticism of its repression and violence, and reiterating his wish for "direct dialogue between our two countries." If Teheran repeatedly blows off deadlines to come clean about its nuclear program, a Paul administration could respond with wishy-washy messages that won't change the Iranians' behavior. And if, despite everything, the mullahs continue to flout international law, to pursue nuclear weapons, to ruthlessly mistreat dissidents, to sponsor terrorist proxies, and even to plot a high-level assassination on US soil, Paul could make sure that America's reaction doesn't go beyond ineffectual sanctions and vague assurances that all options, including a military strike, "are on the table."

Sounds like a plan. It sounds, in fact, a lot like Barack Obama's persistent attempts at "engagement" with Iran. The offer to meet without preconditions, the flowery New Year's wishes, the lack of support for Iran's domestic opposition, the loophole-ridden sanctions, the muddled signals on using military force -- for the better part of three years, the Obama administration's approach toward Iran has been indecisive and ineffectual. Its repeated diplomatic overtures have accomplished nothing. The Islamist dictatorship in Teheran is still a dangerous enemy, still a deadly threat to its neighbors and its people, still a profound force for evil in the world.

All that has changed on Obama's watch is that Iran has made steady progress toward nuclear weapons capability. As the International Atomic Energy Agency has been documenting -- its latest and most detailed report is due out today -- Iran now has more centrifuges enriching more uranium at a higher rate than ever before. "The new disclosures fill out the contours of an apparent secret research program that was more ambitious, more organized, and more successful than commonly suspected," The Washington Post reports. Despite a much-hyped 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded that "Tehran [had] halted its nuclear weapons program" in the fall of 2003, it is now clear that the regime's efforts never actually stopped.

For more than 30 years, the apocalyptic radicals who rule Iran have proclaimed an intense hatred of the United States and Israel, and hungered for "a world without Zionism or America." They have engaged in violent adventurism without scruple -- abductions, assassinations, terrorism, accompanied by genocidal rhetoric of Hitlerian bluntness ("There is only one solution to the Middle East problem, namely the annihilation and destruction of the Jewish state" -- Ayatollah Ali Khamenei). They facilitated the murder of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of US troops in Iraq. And even as the US role in Iraq winds down, the menace represented by Iran grows. Last week, Reuters quoted the warning of a "senior US military official" that Iran, not al-Qaeda, is now the biggest threat to America and American interests in the Middle East.

All this Iran has managed without nuclear weapons. How much more damage will it be capable of once it has nuclear warheads atop its ballistic missiles?

"The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close," Winston Churchill warned in 1936. "In its place we are entering a period of consequences."

We are too. The birth of a nuclear Iran would be the gravest development in world affairs since the post-Cold War era began. We will either abort that development in time, or face the consequences of our irresolution.

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Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for Townhall.com.