Dueling dictates

September 27, 2007

Now that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has flagrantly dismissed a U.S.-led attempt to restrict his country's nuclear program and President Bush has reiterated his outrage at the repression of regimes such as Tehran's, is there anything left to discuss? All the bluster and rhetoric on display this week at the United Nations plays well to the two leaders' audiences at home, but Iran's race for nuclear proficiency remains deeply troubling, an intractable dilemma with no resolution in sight.

The Bush administration continues to push for stiffer sanctions against Tehran, and France's president and Germany's prime minister backed him up this week. But sanctions alone can't possibly resolve this matter. It will require a two-pronged approach: restricting Iran's ability to do business in today's world and reaching out to Tehran's pivotal leaders to pursue an accommodation on the nuclear issue. Each effort must be robust, even though dialogue in the past has been long and ultimately fruitless.

Mr. Ahmadinejad's attempt to "close" the discussion on Iran's nuclear ambition and leave it in the hands of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency doesn't bode well for any future discussion. But that is where Mr. Bush and his administration are going to have to push China and Russia to invest more of their time and political capital in engaging the Iranians.

The Iranian president's appearances at Columbia University and the U.N. should have reinforced for Americans the extent of his repugnant views and underscored what's at stake. Unfortunately, though Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger's dressing-down of Mr. Ahmadinejad may have won him points within the university community and greater New York, it played to his guest's characterization of America's arrogance and surely offended the Iranian public. And that's a constituency the U.S. and its allies need to cultivate, not alienate.

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