No sane person should wish for the talks that started yesterday at a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva to fail. The half-hour meeting between William Burns, the US delegate, and his Iranian counterpart, Saeed Jalili, was the first official encounter the two nations have had in over 30 years. If this meeting marks the start of a substantive dialogue which has been so woefully lacking for three decades then that is, by a long measure, the most desirable outcome.
The alternatives to engagement are appalling. Bombing Iran's nuclear facilities – the option that Israel has been lobbying and training its pilots for – would, at the very best, only delay a nuclear bomb by a few years. It would turn the probability that Iran is making the bomb into a certainty. While there is evidence that Iran is gaining the knowledge and the capacity to build a bomb, that is different from saying that the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has taken the decision to go ahead with a military programme. A strike on Iran's uranium enrichment facilities would make that decision for him. An air strike would not be brief, nor surgical. It would be the start of a conflagration that would spread rapidly from the Strait of Hormuz to Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Gaza and Lebanon. Israel's military planners argue that this is a price worth paying. The price would be so heavy and the reverberations would be so wide that it is not for Israel to make that call.
Would tougher sanctions work? In a word, no. We have seen what effect they had on Saddam Hussein. They allowed him to pin a "Made in America" label on the misery Iraqis endured, while he carried on building all the palaces he wanted. When the oil price dropped to less than a quarter of its peak value last year, the revolutionary guards carried on regardless. Even if it could enforced – and with fuel imports from China and long, porous land borders it is doubtful that it could be – a fuel blockade would be manna from heaven for the supreme leader. His authority has taken a battering since the disputed election in June. The current furore is focussed on claims of the rape and abuse of detainees.
An Islamic regime involved in rape? The opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi accused "agents of the establishment" of using rape as a way of threatening detainees to keep silent. This is more of an issue in Tehran than the nuclear one. No candidate supported unilateral restrictions in Iran's nuclear programme, and yet few outside Iran have spoken out about the mass trials or the 200 people who remain in jail. If the US wants to support the cause of reform in Iran, it should start listening to what Iranians are saying. And then perhaps they might find levers that might work with their government.