Confronting Iran

May 04, 2006

As the United States and its European allies rallied yesterday behind a U.N. resolution that could lead to sanctions against Iran, Tehran was busy enriching uranium, heralding its efforts and upping its threats. The Iranians don't seem the least bit fazed by the tough talk of U.S. officials and others who demand that Tehran shut down its nuclear program or face mandatory economic and diplomatic sanctions. And why should they be? For sanctions to be effective, the U.S. needs the support of U.N. Security Council members Russia and China, and neither has been willing to go that far. But the council can't simply ignore Tehran's defiance of its call to stop nuclear activities. It must use this opportunity to broker a compromise that would satisfy Iran's stated nuclear energy needs but protect against its development of weapons.

That may be a tough sell. But it is necessary because doing nothing is as unacceptable as responding with military force.

Despite President Bush's insistence that "all options" are on the table, there can be no military answer to Iran's belligerence. First, there's little to show that a bombing campaign would achieve its objective, because several Iranian targets are underground. Second, experts vary on how soon Iran would achieve a nuclear bomb because it has lied repeatedly about its capability, though some put it at within five years. So there's no immediate threat that would justify military action. And last, a military strike could have devastating consequences in that volatile part of the world. A top Iranian military leader has said Tehran would attack Israel if bombed.

Tehran's defiance in the face of international concern and criticism is infuriating. Iran's enrichment program - and claims that it will serve only peaceful purposes - doesn't square with the country's refusal to give international inspectors full access to its sites. For two years, Iran strung along European negotiators who tried to settle the dispute peacefully - and then cut off talks. It has rejected an overture from Russia to enrich uranium for the Islamic republic.

China and Russia should be wary of a nuclear Iran, even if they stand to profit from its enrichment work in the short run. Iran's ability to play havoc with international oil supplies could have repercussions for energy-needy China as well as the U.S. An emboldened Iran could use its sway over terrorist groups to strike wherever.

As the sanctions debate begins in the United Nations, the U.S. and its allies should continue to press their Security Council colleagues to engage Tehran. Russia and China should step forward and use their economic leverage with Iran to push for a compromise. Tough sanctions may further isolate Iran, but they won't likely eliminate Tehran's nuclear program, only delay it.

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