NINE MONTHS AGO, as a confrontation loomed between Iran and the United Nations over Iran's illicit nuclear programs, three European governments staged a preemptive operation. Flying to Tehran, the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany struck a deal with Iran's Islamic regime: The Europeans would block a referral of Iran's violations to the U.N. Security Council and provide technical cooperation, and in exchange Iran would stop its work on uranium enrichment, fully disclose its nuclear programs and accept a new U.N. protocol giving inspectors greater access. The Bush administration was upstaged; some in Paris and Berlin smugly suggested that it had been given an object lesson by the Europeans in how "soft power" could be used to manage the rogue states in President Bush's "axis of evil."

This week, with the world's attention focused on the troubled situation in Iraq, the European version of preemption is yielding its own bitter -- if less bloody -- result. Inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency have reported that Iran never honored its agreement; it has stalled and stonewalled the inspectors while continuing to work on elements of a nuclear program that could soon allow it to produce weapons. The Europeans have responded by drafting for approval by the 35-member IAEA board a stern statement demanding Iranian cooperation; Tehran has replied with threats to restart uranium enrichment and suspend negotiations with the West.

Probably there will be no such rupture, and IAEA inspectors and European officials will resume their efforts to obtain Iranian cooperation. But there can be no disguising the fact that the European strategy for handling one of the world's most dangerous proliferation problems is proving feckless. It has not produced the daily casualties and chaos now seen in Iraq. But it could, within a year or two, lead to an outcome as bad as or worse than any now foreseen in Baghdad: possession of nuclear weapons or the means to quickly make them by a hard-line Islamic regime that sponsors several anti-Western terrorist organizations. Both the United States and Israel have said they will not tolerate such an outcome.

For now, military action is not an option in Iran, at least for Western countries. But if a crisis is to be avoided, a better strategy is needed. The Bush administration, which once advocated referral of the Iranian matter to the Security Council for consideration of sanctions, now is merely pressing for a deadline for Iranian compliance. The Europeans reject even that as too aggressive. Yet it should now be clear that if Iranian nuclear ambitions are to be checked, Europe -- and Russia -- will have to forcefully employ the leverage of their diplomatic and economic relations with Tehran. So far, only carrots have been offered -- and they have produced no results.