Iranian protocol: A win?

October 22, 2003

IRAN'S DECISION yesterday to temporarily forgo its uranium enrichment program and open its nuclear sites fully to United Nations inspectors shows the Islamic republic's willingness to deal - when dealing is in its interest.

The agreement, reached with the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Great Britain, should spare Tehran a confrontation with the international community over possible sanctions. And if Tehran holds up its end of the deal, it will gain greater access to European technology for its nuclear energy needs.

Concerns over Iran's nuclear weapons capability surfaced earlier this year with reports of a uranium enrichment program - a critical component of making a nuclear bomb. They intensified when inspectors for the International Atomic Energy Agency recently discovered evidence of weapons-grade uranium at two sites in Iran. The IAEA set an Oct. 31 deadline for Tehran to disprove the Bush administration's claim that it had a secret nuclear weapons program in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The standoff could have ended with the Iranians choosing to join their "axis of evil" counterpart, North Korea, and ignoring the international community's demand for a full accounting.

Surprisingly, Tehran entertained European efforts to settle the dispute diplomatically. Its willingness to immediately implement an additional protocol to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty suggests a good-faith move.

But the true test will be in the timeliness of its compliance with the European-brokered deal. That includes Iran's offer to provide the IAEA with information to prove its claim that the traces of uranium found in a recent inspection derived from contaminated equipment.

The Europeans will reap more than laudatory comments and diplomatic kudos if the Iranians comply with the agreement. Britain, France and Germany have business interests in Iran, interests that would have suffered without this deal. The same could be said of a pending trade agreement with the European Union.

So will the protocol restrain Iran's nuclear ambitions? It's too early to say. Remember, Iran's agreement on its enriched uranium program is only temporary. Additionally, the protocol says nothing about Iran's nuclear power plant under construction near the Persian Gulf city of Bushehr. But there are politicians inside Iran who recognize that a heady pursuit of a nuclear weapons program could isolate Tehran internationally, antagonize neighbors in the region and jeopardize business with the Europeans.

If the European agreement signals a willingness on the part of Iran to join a dialogue with the West, the United States can't ignore it. The Bush administration should closely monitor Tehran's compliance with the IAEA and prepare for a potential opening with this member of the "axis of evil."

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