The Iran Impasse

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

THE FUROR that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has created in New York this week has served his repugnant purposes in a couple of ways. First, like other anti-American demagogues, he has managed to use a visit to the U.N. General Assembly to convey an image of himself as engaged in mano-a-mano ideological combat with the U.S. enemy. Hugo Ch¿vez, who pulled the same stunt a year ago, called to congratulate the Iranian president after his performance at Columbia University; unlike the university's leaders, the Venezuelan strongman understands that every acrimonious exchange with an American audience only makes Mr. Ahmadinejad more popular across the Middle East.

Even more important, the Iranian president, who is not his country's principal leader, has managed to distract attention from a question more urgent than his rhetoric about the Holocaust and Israel. That is, what can now be done by the U.N. Security Council or Western governments to revive the flagging diplomatic campaign to stop Iran's nuclear program? Three Security Council resolutions and two rounds of sanctions have failed to prevent Iran from installing and testing thousands of centrifuges to enrich uranium. As France's new foreign minister has recognized, the danger is growing that the United States and its allies could face a choice between allowing Iran to acquire the capacity to build a nuclear weapon and going to war to prevent it.

The only way to avoid facing that terrible decision is effective diplomacy -- that is, a mix of sanctions and incentives that will induce Mr. Ahmadinejad's superiors to suspend their race for a bomb. Yet the governments that claim to be most opposed to war are also standing in the way of more effective sanctions. Russia and China are resisting another U.N. resolution and instead have seized on a diversion supplied by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei. Mr. ElBaradei struck a separate deal to obtain by year's end Iran's answers to questions about its nuclear work.

Even if Tehran provides satisfactory answers, its uranium enrichment -- and thus its progress toward a bomb -- will continue. That doesn't trouble Mr. ElBaradei, who hasn't hidden his view that the world should stop trying to prevent Iran from enriching uranium and should concentrate instead on blocking U.S. military action. Do Russia and China share this judgment? If so, they are more likely to precipitate a U.S. or Israeli military strike than to prevent one.

An alternative to more U.N. action, floated by the Bush administration and embraced by France, is a tough set of sanctions by an ad hoc coalition that would include the United States, the European Union and perhaps Japan. But here, too, there are difficulties: Germany's foreign minister has been reluctant to endorse strong economic steps. European diplomats say they are worried that escalating tensions between the United States and Iran, if fueled by more sanctions, could lead to war. What they don't make clear is how the government Mr. Ahmadinejad represents will be induced to change its policy if it has nothing to fear from the West.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company