Iran's potential nuclear threat took on ominous meaning after several recent fiery speeches by its new president. In stating Israel should be moved elsewhere and claiming the Holocaust is a myth, Mahmud Ahmadinejad deserves condemnation. But after that, then what?
It's widely known this former Revolutionary Guard, who was elected in a flawed election last June, is fighting for more power within a theocracy controlled by an unelected "supreme leader," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Reading the Islamic regime's real intentions about harming Israel or assembling a nuclear weapon has been like watching a group of men wrestle in a tent - from the outside. Transparency isn't one of Iran's traits.
But the chance that Mr. Ahmadinejad and other hard-line radicals might win the upper hand in the power struggle is a possibility both the West and Israel cannot ignore.
To react smartly, though, the United States, the European Union, Russia, and Israel must provide a united front for a peaceful confrontation against the Ahmadinejad faction in Iran, while quietly forging ties to "pragmatic" leaders such as Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, chairman of the all-powerful Expediency Council.
A military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, as Israel continues to hint it might do, remains highly premature. There's still time to influence Iran's power struggle, or let it play out, especially because more and more Iranians are fed up with a sputtering Islamic revolution and a mismanaged economy.
Tehran's factional power plays are still very much in flux. In a slap at the new president after his election, Supreme Leader Khamenei gave more power to the Expediency Council and Mr. Rafsanjani. Parliament also gave the new president a rough time by rejecting his first three choices for oil minister. Who knows where else he's being sidelined.
No wonder then that he's resorted to elevating common street rhetoric about Israel and the Holocaust in an attempt to appeal to the masses, defying all diplomatic sense and violating United Nations principles. Long gone are the conciliatory gestures like those of his reformist predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, who sought a "dialogue of civilizations" with the West.
In dealing with this dying Islamic revolution, the West must recognize that Iran's elite still are united in asserting influence in the region. They see Israel and the US as an obstacle and their nuclear program as a prime tool for power. They also see Israel gaining more recognition from Islamic nations.
So far, three interlocutors, Britain, Germany, and France, have failed in trying to persuade Iran to forswear nuclear weapons. They now need to take the matter more seriously - by taking Iran's defiance to the UN Security Council and threatening to deny visas and financial access in Europe to Iran's elite. Iran has cheated on its international nuclear obligations for too long.
Iran's leaders can't resort to the old trick of creating external enemies to appease their restless and alienated people. They need Western trade and investment, and their moderates know it.
With that carrot, and calm but firm diplomacy, the frightening rhetoric just might stop.