THE BUSH administration and its European allies have managed to take a small step toward holding Iran accountable for its secret and illegal steps aimed at the production of nuclear weapons. On Saturday the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency finally voted to refer Tehran's well-documented violation of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to the U.N. Security Council. Because of opposition from Russia, China and nonaligned states, the measure was watered down, and the actual report was delayed for an unspecified period. Consequently, the prospect that Iran will be induced to give up its weapons program by a U.N.-led process looks no better now than it did two years ago, when secret facilities for enriching uranium were first reported. But the Bush administration is slowly advancing toward a more promising strategy: the construction of an ad hoc international coalition that could have the muscle and willpower to apply real pressure.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice laid the foundation for this approach earlier this year when she abandoned the administration's self-defeating opposition to European negotiations with Iran and instead embraced them, with the understanding that the Europeans would support tougher steps if they failed. When the talks predictably broke down in August, Britain, France and Germany followed through on their commitment and supported the referral of Iran to the Security Council. Administration officials say they recognize that the prospects for Security Council action are dismal, largely because of the interest China and Russia have in keeping their economic deals with Tehran. But the important thing, they say, is preserving the working transatlantic alliance. If the U.N. process reaches a dead end, the Western allies will be faced with a choice of conceding an Iranian nuclear weapon or building their own coalition against it, like the five-party group that now presses North Korea.
It's possible that European governments will then blink, rather than disturb oil markets or risk their own multibillion-dollar investments in Iran. But the chances that they will stand firm have been greatly improved by Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. After buying a few weeks' time with a promise of new proposals, Mr. Ahmadinejad delivered a crude and provocative speech at the United Nations in which, in between absurd anti-American conspiracy theories, he asserted three times that Iran would resume the enrichment of uranium. In a stroke Mr. Ahmadinejad shattered the illusion, so popular during the term of reformist president Mohammad Khatami, that the Iranian regime had embraced pragmatism.
Concerted pressure by Western states, which means economic and political sanctions, could eventually force the ruling mullahs to abandon the hostile intransigence that Mr. Ahmadinejad represents. At the very least, sanctions could, at last, place the United States and Europe on the right side of Iran's domestic struggle between an isolated and increasingly incompetent clerical elite and a growing population that yearns for freedom. There is time for such a strategy to work, since Iran is thought to be at least five years away from building a bomb. For Washington, the trick will be to continue building the coalition over the coming months. That may mean supporting further long-shot European efforts at negotiation. But it should not mean allowing diplomatic failure to be followed by paralysis.