The new agreement worked out between Iran and Germany, France and Britain could be the first step toward solving the problem of Iran's efforts to develop a nuclear weapons capability, but there is still a very long road ahead before the United States can declare the issue resolved.
Iran has shown itself quite adept in the past at concealing illicit nuclear activities and evading its agreements, and the Europeans have shown a distressing unwillingness to hold Iran's feet to the fire whenever it has done so. That's why it is imperative that the U.S. take a bigger leadership role.
The problem with the new agreement lies in three bundles of uncertainties. The first is that Iran has agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment activities only until the Europeans provide a formalized package of economic incentives. The Iranians have reiterated that this is not a permanent suspension. Yet we do not know when these negotiations will be complete, nor do we have any guarantee that Iran will accept the new incentives.
Second, even if Tehran does accept the new incentives, we do not know how long it would continue to suspend its nuclear activities. In the past, the Europeans repeatedly tried to give Iran ever bigger carrots in the misguided hope that this would dissuade it from continuing to pursue nefarious activities. It never worked. What guarantee will we have that once Iran has reaped the benefits from this deal it will not break its promise (overtly or covertly), given the well-demonstrated reluctance of the Europeans to hold Tehran accountable for doing so?
Finally, it is unclear how Iran's continued suspension of its nuclear activities would be monitored and verified. The Iranians have shown that they can hide very substantial nuclear activities from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Until an Iranian resistance group revealed their presence in 2002, the world was unaware of Tehran's massive uranium enrichment plant at Natanz or its plutonium separation plant at Arak. Similarly, during the 1980s, Iraq concealed at least four vast nuclear weapons plants from the IAEA and Western intelligence until a far-more intrusive inspection program uncovered them after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Because of the poor track record of Europeans and Iranians on these issues, it is vital that the U.S. take a more active role. Washington should not simply try to usurp or wreck the negotiations, as the Bush administration has had a bad habit of doing. Washington's presence is desperately needed.
The U.S. should be amenable to the notion of providing Iran with economic incentives if Tehran is willing to accept the kind of agreement that would have a reasonable prospect of guaranteeing Iranian disarmament. However, positive inducements cannot be the entirety of the policy.
Because Iran has typically pocketed all of the benefits offered by Europe for good behavior without actually changing course, it is crucial that there be a clear threat of negative incentives -- economic and political sanctions -- should Iran refuse or renege on such a deal. On something as important to Iran as its desire for a nuclear deterrent, it is not enough to assume that economic benefits will be enough to hold Tehran to any agreement.
Of equal importance, the U.S. must push for a far more comprehensive and intrusive inspections regime. Iran has agreed to sign the additional protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows the IAEA to conduct "challenge inspections" of sites Iran has not declared to be part of its nuclear energy program. This is important but hardly adequate. It merely allows the IAEA to inspect a facility it considers suspicious, but before 2002, no one considered Arak and Natanz suspicious.
What we need in Iran is something closer to what we had in Iraq: a much larger inspection regime that has a considerable presence on a regular basis. None of this is going to be easy. The Europeans have steadfastly refused to countenance even the threat of sanctions against Iran, despite the fact that their nothing-but-carrots approach has so consistently failed, while the mere whiff of multilateral sanctions has often caused Iran to reverse course immediately. Similarly, we should expect that the Iranians will fight any expansion of the IAEA inspection program. But none of this is impossible either. It ought to be the first challenge taken up by Condoleezza Rice's State Department.
The U.S. cannot afford to continue to ignore the problem of Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, nor can it continue to outsource dealing with it to the Europeans. It has to be a player.