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What's next on Iran?

September 01, 2006

TO NO ONE'S SURPRISE, AUG. 31 came and went without an agreement for Iran to stop enriching uranium. It says it is doing so for civilian purposes, but the international community fears that Iran's activity is a prelude to the development of nuclear weapons. So what happens now?

What must not happen is a collapse of the consensus that Iran abide by U.N. mandates or face consequences in the form of economic sanctions. The Iranians have done their best to unravel that consensus by cannily coupling their rejection of the Security Council's ultimatum with an amorphous offer of a "new formula" for negotiations. Iran's dusty answer is open to interpretation. It may be part of a deliberate and deceitful decision to stall for time while a covert nuclear weapons program is ramped up. Or it could reflect real disagreements within the Islamic Republic -- between political and religious leaders, for example -- about whether Iran should change course.

Either way, the Iranian response is unacceptable, and the Bush administration is right to press the Security Council to proceed with sanctions. The Aug. 31 deadline must not become the political equivalent of the bedtime hour that indulgent parents postpone when a truculent child protests.

Skeptics argue that, as with sanctions against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, curbs on commerce with Iran would be easily circumvented or abused. Yet the symbolism of sanctions is important to a regime in Tehran that craves international respectability. Nor, realistically, does the imposition of sanctions rule out continued diplomatic contacts with Iran.

Even President Bush, who famously included Iran in his "axis of evil," recognizes that preventing it from developing nuclear weapons will require both threats and engagement. The international community can impose sanctions while still offering inducements to Tehran. But a failure to impose sanctions would encourage Iran to continue temporizing.

At first glance, the situation seems to resemble the period in 2002 when the United States was pressing the Security Council to ratchet up the pressure on Hussein's Iraq for thwarting weapons inspectors, and France and Russia were only willing to go so far. But there are important differences that could make a united front against Iran easier.

For one thing, the Bush administration has eschewed unilateralism in dealing with Iran. The United States has acknowledged that Iran has the right to make peaceful use of nuclear energy, and it has promised to actively support increased European economic cooperation with Iran. Perhaps more important, it is hard to argue, as some did in connection with Iraq, that the administration is determined to take military action against Iran and is only going through the motions of advocating alternatives. It isn't just that Bush has dismissed as "wild speculation" reports that the Pentagon was considering an air attack on Iran. Such an attack would create a second front in the war with "Islamic fascism" and divide the U.S. from even its closest allies.

Ironically, the impracticality of a military response to Iran's obstinacy could make it easier for the U.S. to rally support for serious economic sanctions -- sanctions that, everyone knows, would be lifted if Iran came to its senses.

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