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The Muscle of Diplomacy

October 23, 2003

Europe's "big three" split on war with Iraq but recognize that the threat of nuclear proliferation requires unity and deft diplomacy. Both were on display this week when the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany won Iran's agreement to allow more international inspections of its nuclear facilities and to suspend enrichment of uranium, a step needed for nuclear weapon production.

Britain backed the United States on war in Iraq and sent troops; France and Germany opposed the invasion. But they put those differences aside to persuade Tehran to exchange its nuclear weapons ambitions for good relations with Europe and potential technical assistance on nuclear power.

Iran understood that the alternative could be a U.S. "bad cop" pushing the United Nations to impose sanctions and isolate it from nations that it wants to keep as trading partners. Washington did not orchestrate a four-power approach to Tehran, but it coordinated its own strategy to match the Europeans'.

There are reasons for skepticism about Iran's intentions. With so much oil, natural gas and hydroelectric power, its claim to need nuclear power for energy is laughable. It is unfortunate that Tehran agreed Tuesday only to suspend, not end, its uranium-enrichment program and insisted that the suspension could last for "a day or a year," solely at its own discretion. It did not say when the suspension would start but said parliament must approve it first.

Nor is Iran's record encouraging. In June it claimed not to have experimented with converting uranium, then said it had. It denied importing nuclear equipment, then admitted doing so. The U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency stepped up its inspections of Iran and criticized the government for stonewalling. The agency also set an Oct. 31 deadline for Iran to agree to more inspections, suspend uranium enrichment and provide more information about its nuclear program.

Russia has resisted U.S. pressure to stop building Iran's first nuclear power plant but has opposed the spread of nuclear weapons. Last week, Russia said the plant start-up would be delayed a year, until 2005, for technical, not political, reasons. When the plant opens, Russia should insist on controlling spent fuel to prevent its conversion to weapons-grade material. Moscow's role gives it leverage; Japan, an important customer for Iran's energy, also is influential.

Washington has seen what the nations of scorned "old Europe" can do to advance interests they share with the U.S. The unified offering of potential rewards and punishments may not be enough to keep Iran from joining the nuclear weapons club. But if Iran is dissuaded, it will demonstrate that a willingness to flex diplomatic muscle can be as persuasive as the threat of military power.

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