THE CHANCES that the West will succeed in peacefully restraining Iran from building nuclear weapons have been looking dismal at the meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency this week. The agency's staff reported that Iran was still not fully cooperating with its investigation into the secret uranium enrichment program Tehran began 18 years ago. Iranian officials, meanwhile, made it clear that their negotiations with the European governments that seek a long-term freeze on that program are going nowhere. A permanent moratorium, said the Iranian delegate, "was not on the table, will not be on the table and should not be on the table."
Bad as this sounds, there is some good news: The Bush administration and its European allies have taken steps toward mending their own, secondary quarrel over Iran. For this, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice deserve credit. During several visits to Europe over the past three weeks, they have stopped disparaging the European negotiations with Iran and suggested that the United States might be willing to join in offering concessions to Tehran. It is doubtful that the possible favors, including support for Iranian membership in the World Trade Organization and spare parts for its civilian aircraft, would move Iran's clerical regime. But the administration's shift of position, which Mr. Bush is said to still be considering, could remove a major obstacle to cooperation with Britain, France and Germany, which argue that the failure of the United States to join in their offer to Iran is undermining their diplomacy.
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A number of senior administration officials strongly oppose any negotiation that has the effect of bolstering Iran's current regime, which is deeply unpopular at home and possibly vulnerable to a pro-democracy uprising. Yet the advantage of the administration's new position, if sustained, is that it would allow the responsibility for the likely failure of diplomacy to fall where it should, in Tehran. The Europeans have said that if negotiations fail, they will be prepared to join the United States in referring Iran to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions. By cooperating now, Mr. Bush can create the opportunity for tougher action by the West in the months to come -- action that otherwise will be hamstrung by transatlantic discord. He will deliver a serious reverse to the mullahs, whose strategy has been to encourage a Western split that blocks any effective action against them.
For this strategy to work, European governments will have to deliver on their promises to support the use of sticks, and not just carrots, with the Iranian regime, if it maintains its present position. And if Tehran reverses itself, and agrees to consider a permanent end to its efforts to acquire the capacity to build nuclear weapons? Then the Bush administration will have plenty of opportunity to consider, and to consult with Europe, about whether such a bargain should be made, and on what terms.