A Fake Bargain With Iran

Wednesday, March 8, 2006

IF IT IS TO build its own nuclear weapons, the next technological challenge Iran faces will be to construct a system of connected centrifuges known as a cascade. The system is used to enrich uranium hexafluoride, which Tehran has produced from raw uranium. Once the process is mastered, industrial-scale enrichment can begin, and the core of two atomic weapons could be generated in perhaps a year by the factory of 3,000 centrifuges Iran says it is planning. But making the test cascade work is complicated, and it will take time, especially because some of the centrifuges Iran possesses are dysfunctional. Until the problems are solved, and thousands more centrifuges are built or acquired, any attempt to enrich uranium on an industrial scale would be pointless.

That explains the latest "compromise" being floated in Vienna this week to forestall consideration of Iran's nuclear program by the U.N. Security Council. Having rejected a Russian proposal to jointly enrich uranium on Russian soil, Iran has been talking with Russia about a deal under which Iran would be allowed to conduct small-scale research enrichment in exchange for postponing industrial-scale processing. In other words, Iran is offering to do exactly what it would do if it were under no constraint in its pursuit of nuclear weapons, in exchange for a promise by Russia and the West to stop trying to place constraints on it.

The proposal is so obviously unacceptable that it smacks a little of desperation -- in more than one capital. The Iranian government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- which has been trying to avoid Security Council action ever since its violations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty were discovered in 2004, and has been threatening an oil embargo -- faces the rattling prospect that its bluff will be called. Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn't want to yield his prized place as an international crisis broker. And the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, behaves as if he is even more frightened of the Security Council than the mullahs.

Having failed repeatedly to induce Iran to fully disclose its nuclear program or give up enrichment, Mr. ElBaradei is pressing governments to consider the phony Iranian compromise. The IAEA head says his motive is to avoid "confrontation" because "escalation is not going to help a situation that is highly, highly volatile in the Middle East." In effect, he would have Russia, Europe and the United States respond to Iran's refusal to freeze its bomb program by capitulating.

The Bush administration understandably has rejected the route of appeasement, as have Britain and France. That means other key nations, beginning with Russia, must decide whether they will remain a part of the international effort to stop the Iranian bomb program or fall by the wayside. After meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to retreat from the new proposal. That may or may not be the last word, but regardless of where Russia's maneuvering ends, the Bush administration should insist that debate on Iran's program begin in New York next week. Though there may yet be a diplomatic solution to this threat, it won't happen unless the pressure on Tehran is raised.


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