LAST SPRING the Bush administration struck what looked like a clever diplomatic bargain with European governments, Russia and China on addressing Iran. The Islamic regime, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, would be offered a "clear choice" between a package of economic and political treats -- including the direct dialogue with the United States that Tehran has long craved -- and international sanctions, depending on whether it agreed to suspend its nuclear program. Bush administration officials said they agreed to back the incentive package because Germany, France, Russia and China all pledged that in the event of a negative answer from Iran, they would support sanctions.
Iran's answer is now in: It is unambiguously negative. The administration has consequently turned to its partners and asked for the response they committed themselves to. Their reactions -- at least in public -- have been almost as dismaying as that of the mullahs. "The parties involved should be cautious about moving toward sanctions," said Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, whose country imports almost 12 percent of its oil from Iran. "We cannot support ultimatums that lead everyone to a dead end," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose country is selling Iran hundred of millions of dollars in nuclear materials that might be affected by the proposed sanctions.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, whose country is reluctantly deploying troops to Lebanon within range of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia, cynically claimed the middle ground: "If the Americans want sanctions, and the Russians and Chinese don't, there will be no sanctions," he said last week. "We must continue more than ever to keep the dialogue with Iran open."
Bush administration officials maintain they are not alarmed by these declarations; better answers, they suggest, will come in closed-door negotiations among the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany that began Thursday in Vienna. They predict that a new U.N. resolution applying a first set of mild sanctions will be passed in the end -- though not before many weeks of negotiations among the allies.
Meanwhile, Iran's nuclear program will continue. U.N. inspectors reported last week that the uranium enrichment operation that began this year is proceeding more slowly than expected. At the same time, they came across new traces of bomb-grade uranium for which Iran provided no explanation -- just as it has refused to explain its president's public statement that work is proceeding on a new, advanced centrifuge that would greatly speed enrichment.
Russian and Chinese officials may fear that international sanctions are a prelude to more drastic measures, such as U.S. military action. In fact, their resistance to sanctions only raises the chances that President Bush will see force as the only way to stop an Iranian bomb.