''It is not on the table. It is not on the agenda. I happen to think it is inconceivable."
That was British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in September, telling the BBC what he thinks about the use of military force to prevent Iran's homicidal theocrats from acquiring nuclear weapons. Last week Straw went further, declaring that even economic sanctions would be an overreaction. ''I don't think we should rush our fences here," he told a conference in London. Much better to turn the whole thing over to the UN Security Council, so long as any action it might take ''is followed without sanction." What he recommends, in other words, is a Security Council resolution with no teeth. That'll fix the mullahs' wagon.
To be sure, not every British politician has been so weak-kneed. Tory MP Michael Ancram has called for Iran to be brace yourself expelled from the World Cup tournament in June. Barring the planet's foremost sponsor of terrorism from soccer matches now there's Churchillian grit. Ancram says it will send ''a very, very clear signal to Iran that the international community will not accept what they are doing." Sure it will. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's rabid president, must break into a sweat thinking about it.
Not to be outdone by Great Britain in the going-wobbly department, Germany's foreign minister assured a television audience Sunday that Berlin ''will refrain from anything that brings us a step closer" to military action against Iran. Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned against ''a militarization of thinking" on how to keep one of the world's worst regimes from acquiring the bomb. ''Rather, we should see that we use and exhaust to the best of our powers the diplomatic solutions that remain available."
Fortunately, not everyone is off in Cloud Cuckoo Land when it comes to dealing with Tehran. The acting prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, put his government's position bluntly: ''Under no circumstances, and at no point," he said on Jan. 17, ''can Israel allow anyone with these kinds of malicious designs against us [to] have control of weapons of destruction that can threaten our existence." As the Jewish state has good reason to know, dictators who publicly vow to commit mass murder generally mean what they say and are generally not deterred by threats of ''diplomatic solutions."
Israel is widely assumed to be at work on plans to destroy Iran's nuclear program. Iranian rulers have repeatedly declared their intention to wipe Israel off the map, and Vice President Dick Cheney said publicly more than a year ago that Israel ''might well decide to act first" and attack Iran's nuclear facilities in its own self-defense.
But it isn't clear that Israel could pull off such an operation, which would be far more complex than its strike on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. Unlike Osirak, which was a stand-alone facility, Iran's nuclear facilities are dispersed among dozens of sites. Many are hidden underground. ''To attack them all with cruise missiles and fighter-bombers," notes The Economist, ''would require an extended campaign and hundreds of sorties. Corridors would have to be cleared through Iran's air defenses and the Iranian air force destroyed." Israel could not hope to carry off such a sustained military effort against targets a thousand miles away. Which is why, if Iran's nuclear program is to be demolished by force, it will have to be done by the United States.
That ''if" is still a significant one. It is not yet unreasonable to hope that Tehran can be forced to back down by a combination of economic sanctions, political isolation, and diplomatic heat. The best solution of all would be regime change, brought about by Iran's restive population of dissidents and democrats (aided by clandestine American support of the kind that helped dissidents behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s). But if a nonmilitary strategy is to have any chance of success, it must be very clear that military action is Plan B and that United States is quite prepared to wield that ''big stick" if Iran will not abandon its atomic ambitions.
The Bush administration and, increasingly, leading Democrats have been speaking out with growing urgency about preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear threat. What is not stressed enough is that Iran is not just a potential menace it is a clear and present danger right now. The radical Islamists in Tehran bankroll the world's deadliest terrorists. They foment violence in Iraq. They lied for 18 years about their nuclear activities. They persecute democratic activists and oppress women. They declare that their goals are ''a world without Zionism or America" and ''the destruction of Anglo-Saxon civilization." It was they who began the war we are in the global conflict between Islamofascism and the West with their seizure of the US embassy in 1979.
Fanatic, apocalyptic, totalitarian, the mullahs who rule Iran see their destiny as waging jihad and extending theocracy across the entire Middle East.
Under no circumstances can such enemies be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons or to doubt that we will do what we must to make sure that they don't.