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Common Cause on Iran

October 01, 2003

There are not many issues on which the United States, Europe and Japan are in close agreement. Restraining Iran from nuclear weapons development, however, is one. Last month the International Atomic Energy Agency set an Oct. 31 deadline for Tehran to prove it had no secret atomic weapons program. United Nations inspectors are due in the country starting Thursday. Coordinated diplomatic pressure by Europe, the U.S. and Japan would help the U.N. get a better look at what equipment Iran has imported to help it achieve nuclear-power status, and to assess how far Iran may be from building a weapon: one year, five years, a decade?

The Iranian government says it wants to develop nuclear power only to generate electricity. That's difficult to believe, considering the country's vast oil reserves. The government also undercut its own claim by first denying it experimented with enhancing uranium to make it more usable in weapons and then admitting it did so. It also claimed not to have relied on other nations for nuclear technology, then acknowledged it had imported some equipment. It barred inspections of a suspected uranium enrichment site until after it was cleaned up.

Britain, France and Germany have offered the carrot of assistance in developing nuclear energy if Iran were to give up its enrichment program. The U.S. has supplied the stick of threatened U.N. Security Council sanctions if Tehran were to continue its apparent efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Japan, a longtime trading partner, is holding back its promises of cooperation in a major oil-field development. As in the case of North Korea, which is thought already to have one or two nuclear weapons, the more nations willing to apply pressure, the better.

The U.S. would be happiest with Russia if it would stop giving assistance to Iran in constructing its nuclear power plant at Bushehr. The best President Bush could get last weekend in meetings with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin was a pledge to push Iran to comply with international inspections and safeguards against the use of atomic material for weapons. That is helpful but would be better if accompanied by the threat of Russian withdrawal of technology and expert assistance if Iran did not comply.

The presence of U.S. troops in two bordering countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, unsurprisingly disturbs Iran. Its chief delegate to the IAEA, Ali Akbar Salehi, said last week that the Bush administration "entertains the idea of invasion of yet another territory" and wants to "reshape the entire Middle East." Washington should assure Tehran that it has no plans for an Iranian regime change and values stability in the region as much as does Iran. If Iran meets U.N. demands for more inspections, the Bush administration should resume talks suspended after this year's Al Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia -- attacks that the U.S. believes may have been linked to elements in Iran.

The dangers of their government's current reckless course are clear to Iranians who are pushing for economic modernization and political reforms. The trick, for the rest of the world, is to give Tehran enough economic and diplomatic reasons to change.

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