TWO MONTHS ago Russia and China blocked action at the United Nations against Iran's nuclear program. In deference to Russian and Chinese concerns, the United States and the European Union agreed to give diplomacy another chance, even though Iran had spurned an earlier attempt at negotiation. Yesterday, Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, rejected the idea of negotiation once again. "The Iranian nation will not retreat one iota on its way to realizing all of its rights, including complete nuclear rights," he declared, even as his top nuclear diplomat turned aside a European package of political and economic carrots that includes access to civilian nuclear technology.
For China and even more for Russia, this is a moment of truth. Both countries value their seats at the world's top table: Both are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and this weekend Russia will host the Group of Eight summit of leaders of the world's richest countries. But global leadership brings with it a responsibility to grapple seriously with global problems, of which nuclear proliferation is among the most pressing. If Iran is not ready to suspend its nuclear program in exchange for economic and political carrots, then it must face the stick of U.N. sanctions.
Iran received the latest European offer five weeks ago and was urged to accept it in time for this weekend's G-8 summit. In refusing to do so yesterday, Iran cited ambiguities in the offer and complained that it lacked guarantees. But neither excuse is persuasive. If there were ambiguities in the text, Iran could have sought clarification over the past month or in yesterday's four-hour negotiating session with European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana. As to guarantees, the European package would be endorsed by a Security Council resolution and its implementation would be overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Iran's excuses are designed merely to buy time for its uranium enrichment program. China and Russia now have to decide whether to tolerate this prevarication any further. As he hosts the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg this weekend, is Russian President Vladimir Putin going to contribute to the solution of Iran's nuclear crisis? Or will he instead prolong it?