Iran's Nuclear Challenge

Thursday, January 12, 2006

IRAN'S RESUMPTION of uranium enrichment dramatically narrows the options of Western governments that hope to prevent its Islamic regime from acquiring nuclear weapons. The breaking of seals at its Natanz plant Tuesday directly violated an agreement Tehran struck with Britain, France and Germany in 2004 to suspend its enrichment program; that should end European hopes that economic favors could be exchanged for a permanent freeze. A Russian offer to enrich Iranian uranium has no greater prospect of success: Tehran announced its new, supposedly experimental work before it had responded to Moscow. Notions of a broader "grand bargain" between Iran and the West have been rendered ludicrous by the rantings of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has denied the Holocaust more vigorously than he has Iran's plans to become a nuclear power. And thanks to better footwork by the Bush administration, European governments no longer have the option of blaming the United States for the failure of diplomacy.

That leaves the strategy that the United States has been pressing all along, which is referring Iran's case to the U.N. Security Council. Such a referral, which must come from the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, probably won't change Iranian behavior or lead to Security Council action; North Korea has been before the council for three years without result. But having promised that consequence in the event of a resumption of enrichment, European governments must now move forward. To shrink from referring Iran to the Security Council now would strip the West of its remaining credibility in Tehran and all but eliminate the possibility of a peaceful solution.

As it is, the weak response to Iran's last provocation, the reopening of a uranium conversion facility in August, probably encouraged this week's escalation. European governments issued angry statements and helped pass an IAEA resolution that spoke of bringing Iran to the council at some indefinite time. In the following weeks, however, the Europeans returned to the same negotiating strategy that had already failed, offering to resume talks with Iran and backing Russia's intervention. The Bush administration, too, supported this course, in keeping with its strategy of building a coalition rather than squabbling over tactics with allies. The net result was that Iran's belligerence was answered with more appeasement.

The mullahs are gambling that the same will happen in this case: that European governments will once again temporize or that Russia and China will prevent any meaningful Security Council action. Even if the Europeans respond firmly, and a resolution is adopted by the IAEA, the latter calculation is probably a good one. Russia, which just signed a $1 billion arms sale agreement with Iran, is increasingly hostile to Western initiatives, and China is a major consumer of Iranian oil. So while the means of the Security Council must be tried, Western governments should also begin fashioning a policy of sanctions and containment for Iran that can be applied by a coalition of the willing. That should be coupled with a more concerted effort to support the large part of the Iranian population that yearns to free itself from repressive clerical rule. If there is to be a credible alternative to military action against Iranian facilities -- or the concession of nuclear weapons to a regime that openly advocates wiping Israel from the map -- now is the time for Europe and the United States to agree on it.

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