Iran's mixed message

August 23, 2006

Iran's refusal to suspend its nuclear activities as a condition of talks on a package of United Nations-backed incentives to halt its nuclear program shouldn't come as a surprise. Not after the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia held its own against Israel in a bloody war in south Lebanon. Its staying power gave the Islamic fighters - and their Tehran supporters - bragging rights in the Arab and Muslim world. The United States is already talking about pressing a sanctions resolution, but that would be premature.

The Iranian response yesterday included a purported "new formula" to resolve the crisis over Tehran's insistence on pursuing nuclear work. The United States, Britain, France, Russia, Germany and China, the sponsors of the U.N. package, must carefully evaluate the Iranian response to see whether there is real potential for serious dialogue, or the same old subterfuge to forestall U.N. sanctions. The sextet shouldn't waste time making that assessment.

If the consensus is that Iran is up to its old tricks, the Security Council shouldn't delay confronting Tehran by its Aug. 31 deadline. The regime's public posture has been stridently clear: Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said Iran will press on with its nuclear research. The Iranians also this week refused to let international inspectors visit an underground site where uranium enrichment is believed to be under way.

The U.N. has insisted that Tehran put a halt to its program even though, as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran is entitled to develop nuclear technology. But the Iranians secretly worked for 18 years on developing a nuclear capability, which, when discovered, convinced the United States that their so-called peaceful aims were a ruse for mastering the bomb.

The Security Council members worked hard to put together a proposal that Iran would seriously consider, even persuading the United States to enter into six-member talks. The package contained inducements for a peaceful resolution of the issue - and punishments. It may take closed-door meetings to determine Iran's true intentions. We don't expect in this climate that Tehran is going to accede to the U.N. proposal willingly. But if the Iranians have no interest in a settlement, the sextet should stand firm.

Not to follow through would empower Iran and embolden its zealous, and potentially troublesome, followers.

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