Iran Stalls

Thursday, August 24, 2006

IT'S BEEN four years since the existence of Iran's nuclear program was confirmed, and since then Iran has succeeded in stalling the world's efforts to ensure that the country's enriched uranium is used exclusively for peaceful purposes. Sometimes inspectors from the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency have been granted permission to enter the country; sometimes they have been denied access. Sometimes Iran's leaders have bluntly pledged never to give up their program; other times, as on Tuesday, they have called for immediate negotiations. By sending conflicting signals about its intentions, Iran has divided its critics and staved off sanctions, all the while continuing with its efforts to amass enriched uranium. The question now is whether the world will allow itself to be manipulated once again.

Iran's latest gambit comes in response to a two-pronged initiative from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany. The first prong consists of a package of economic and political incentives to Iran to give up its nuclear program; the second consists of a U.N. resolution threatening sanctions if Iran fails to suspend uranium enrichment by the end of this month. Both the carrot and the stick have the support of Russia and China as well as the United States, Britain, France and Germany. They are designed to give Iran a clear choice: Freeze enrichment and rejoin the international community or continue enrichment and face sanctions.

Not surprisingly, Iran is trying to fudge this choice. Its response on Tuesday did not offer a freezing of the nuclear program but rather advanced what it called a new formula to resolve the crisis. While it's predictable that Iran should try to wriggle out of its box, it would be scandalous if it were allowed to do so. Iran was told to suspend enrichment. It has not suspended enrichment. Therefore it must face sanctions until it rethinks its position.

The Bush administration appears likely to seek a sanctions resolution at the United Nations. Britain, France and Germany seem ready to go along with that. But Russia and China are said to be wavering, and if they can be persuaded to support sanctions, the price may be that the sanctions are mild. Why this maddening lack of nerve? It's true that Russia and China have investments in Iran and that both may derive a mischievous pleasure from Iran's efforts to undermine U.S. policy in Iraq and elsewhere. But if Russia and China want to be accepted as the forces for global stability that they claim to be, they should not undercut Western efforts to defuse the Iran crisis by peaceful means. No responsible power has anything to gain from further tension in the Middle East, still less an eventual war over Iran's nuclear ambitions.


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