Tuesday, March 9, 2004

The Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), currently meeting in Vienna, faces a tremendous challenge: what to do about a systematic, ongoing campaign of cheating and deception by Tehran.

It is already clear that once again, Washington and the European Union disagree about whether to take a forceful stance against Iran’s refusal to tell the truth about its nuclear program. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton sent a sharply worded letter to Britain, France and Germany stating that their soft stance toward Iran was undercutting common efforts to force the regime to give a full accounting of its efforts to produce atomic weapons.

Germany, France and Britain, representing the European Union, want to emphasize what they euphemistically term Iranian progress toward opening up and eventual dismantling these weapons programs. But their recent performance record is hardly encouraging.

Back in the fall, the three European countries announced that Iran had agreed to stop constructing uranium-enrichment centrifuges, which are used to build nuclear weapons. Then in January, Iran announced that it was building the centrifuges after all. In a remarkable act of impertinence, the regime claimed that the deal did not require that it stop all enrichment-related activities and that it had the right to continue amassing centrifuges. In short, the “EU 3” were hoodwinked.

Unfortunately, such behavior on Iran’s part isn’t new. In November, the IAEA issued a report documenting Tehran’s cheating on nuclear weapons dating back to the mid-1980s. As a Feb. 24 IAEA report explained: “It should be noted that, given the size and capacity of the equipment used, the possibility cannot be excluded that larger quantities of nuclear material could have been involved than those declared by Iran as having been consumed and produced during this testing and experimentation. However, it is very difficult to account precisely for the uranium involved in these processing activities after the passage of many years, especially when some quantities have been discarded.”

Tehran, emboldened by the willingness of the EU 3 to run interference against Washington, is digging in its heals. At the start of the IAEA parley, Iran’s chief delegate predicted that U.S. efforts to get the agency to pursue a more assertive approach toward his government would fail. The government-controlled press denies that Iran has done anything wrong, and, on Sunday, threatened to stop any cooperation with the IAEA. Hassan Rowhani, a senior official with the country’s Supreme Council for National Security, also demanded that Iran be recognized — along with the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France — as part of the world’s nuclear club.

But this would be an intolerable outcome. The world would be a much more dangerous place if a violent, paranoid regime like that in Tehran were to become a recognized nuclear power. The clock continues to tick on a successful diplomatic conclusion — and the hour is late.

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