Next Step on Iran

Sunday, May 27, 2007

AS THE U.N. Security Council's latest deadline for Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment passed last week, U.N. inspectors reported that 2,100 centrifuges were operating or under construction at the Natanz plant, more than triple the number of three months ago. Iran is on track to reach its stated goal of 3,000 operating centrifuges by sometime this summer; a plant of that size, if used to produce highly enriched uranium, could supply enough for a bomb in about a year. While openly defying the Security Council, the mullahs have begun taking de facto American hostages. Five U.S.-Iranian citizens are now reported in detention, including Woodrow Wilson Center scholar Haleh Esfandiari, a leading advocate of dialogue between the United States and Iran.

While Iran remains implacably belligerent, Western governments -- and the Bush administration itself -- are divided about how to proceed. Some U.S. officials seem to take their cue from Vice President Cheney's recent visit to one of the aircraft carriers cruising the Persian Gulf; military action against Iranian nuclear facilities, they say, cannot be ruled out. Others press for an expansion of the contacts that have begun between U.S. and Iranian officials on Iraq, which will continue with a meeting of ambassadors in Baghdad tomorrow. For his part, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, has begun arguing that the Security Council should simply concede that its three legally binding, unanimous resolutions ordering an end to Iranian enrichment have been "overtaken by events" and that it should give up the effort to enforce them.

None of these options look workable. Military action against Iran would be a desperate and probably ineffective measure. Barring an emergency, the Bush administration should not undertake it. While dialogue with Iran on Iraq is worth pursuing, there's no reason to abandon the administration's position that the opening of broader, strategic negotiations with Tehran should depend on a suspension of enrichment. Having sought such U.S. recognition for decades, the Islamic regime should not receive it in response to aggressive and illegal behavior. Finally, we can only marvel at the nerve of Mr. ElBaradei, an unelected international civil servant whose mission is to implement the decisions of the Security Council -- and who proposes to destroy the council's authority by having it simply drop binding resolutions. Were it to do so, any chance to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons through diplomacy would be lost.

Unsatisfying as it sounds, there is no better alternative than returning to the Security Council, as the administration says it will do, and forging another resolution with tougher sanctions. Iran is vulnerable to economic pressure. Its oil industry counts on foreign investment, and the automobiles that choke its cities are mostly fueled by imported gasoline. Sanctions that put real pressure on the Iranian economy, combined with a continuing offer of expanded trade and security guarantees when the nuclear program is suspended, might still crack Iran's hard-line posture. In the absence of such action, the options of surrender or war will only gain ground.

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