The Russian option

February 22, 2006

Iran's obstinacy in controlling its nuclear future has left the Russians with little to show for their efforts to broker a compromise on international concerns over the Islamic Republic's nuclear capability. Talks between Moscow and Tehran ended Monday with an agreement only to talk again, nothing more.

If Russia remains the West's best bet to monitor Iran's nuclear interests, the odds of co-opting Tehran aren't looking good. With Iran refusing so far to accept Russia's offer to develop nuclear material on its behalf, the United States and its allies should prepare to defend a new round of sanctions and enlist others in punitive measures against Tehran.

It's hard to see this dispute ending any other way. After two years of talks, Tehran rejected a European-brokered deal of economic and political incentives to give up its nuclear program. It has since resumed its uranium enrichment program, which could lead to production of material for a nuclear bomb, the real concern of the U.S., Israel and the European Union. Iran's belligerence on this issue and its harsh anti-Western rhetoric in other matters make it hard to believe that its nuclear intentions are entirely peaceful. Although Tehran has taken steps to protect itself against a freeze on its assets, a round of sanctions would lay the foundation and prepare support for tougher measures later if it presses ahead with its nuclear work.

The Bush administration's decision last week to commit $75 million to promote democratic reform in Iran was a constructive and needed addition to its tough sanctions talk. In the past, we have advocated such a two-pronged approach. Iranian reformers need support, especially after the presidential election of hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a font of invective against the U.S. and anything Western.

But democracy promotion at best will be a slow, steady process, and any new U.S. aid to Iranian human rights groups and increased Farsi-language broadcasts can be viewed only as a long-term investment.

In the short term, the International Atomic Energy Agency has yet to put its full force behind sanctions, even though Iran has been uncooperative with it. A report is due in early March from IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei on how to proceed with Iran. But even if this matter goes before the U.N. Security Council, Russia and China remain uncommitted on punishing Iran.

Russian and Iranian officials are scheduled to resume talks again tomorrow. The Iranians want more control over any Russian effort to enrich uranium on their behalf, which sounds like another delaying tactic. As the new chair of the Group of Eight nations, Russia would improve its standing by reaching an agreement with Iran. But in the absence of any compromise, the Bush administration and its allies should look to India and others that provide Iran with a precious commodity - a third of its gasoline - as another way to end this standoff.

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