Facing down IranIn an extraordinary show of global unity, the International Atomic Energy Agency has overwhelmingly approved a tough resolution on Iran, reporting its troubling nuclear behavior to the UN Security Council for possible action in March, unless the Iranian government can be persuaded to change course before then.
This one vote won't be nearly enough to prevent Iran from completing its drive of the last two decades to build nuclear weapons, or even to delay it. But it is a significant step in the right direction, and Washington deserves credit for agreeing to the modest and cosmetic compromises necessary to build such a broad diplomatic front. Tehran is now certain to use every conceivable ploy to try to shatter that hard-won unity. It should not be allowed to succeed.
Only three countries - Cuba, Syria and Venezuela - voted no, and only five abstained on Saturday in a 27-to-3 vote by the IAEA's governing board. All five veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, along with most major nonaligned nations, now recognize that Iran seems to be contemplating something more than nuclear power generation and that a nuclear-armed Iran could threaten their own security.
In a world where nuclear weapons technology and ingredients are alarmingly accessible, the methods available for stopping a nation determined to have nuclear arms are pathetically inadequate.
There are IAEA inspections, which are mostly voluntary and can therefore be cut back, as Iran has now said it will do. There are IAEA resolutions, which are unenforceable unless other bodies, like the Security Council, back them up. There are international economic sanctions, which hurt ordinary Iranians and risk creating a nationalist backlash. And there are military strikes, which would infuriate even the most moderate and pro-Western Iranians across the board, fail to disable hidden nuclear plants and invite Iranian retaliation in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The only sure way to move a country off the nuclear weapons path is to use a combination of threatened penalties and promised rewards to convince its leaders that they and their people would actually be better off not making bombs. That is the course the world has followed with Iran over the last few years, so far without much success.
Iran has walked away from the economic incentives offered by Europe. It has quibbled over Russia's offer to enrich uranium for use in Iranian power reactors. And it is now trying to ward off punitive steps by ending voluntary cooperation with IAEA inspectors. It is counting on China's thirst for energy, Russia's need for revenues and the nonaligned countries' resentment of a system that expects non-nuclear states to fully honor their nonproliferation commitments while the big nuclear powers continue to ignore the pledges they made in return to reduce their nuclear arms.
The world must not let Iran manipulate these divisions to its own benefit and everyone else's harm.
Even if the hard-liners now running Iran continue their weapons-building efforts in the face of threatened Security Council action, their efforts, still a good way from completion, may be slowed by concerted international pressure. That would at least gain time - time for energy conservation measures in the United States and elsewhere to lessen Iran's economic leverage, time for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to be strengthened in ways that make it both more enforceable and more equitable, and time for Iran to elect a government that would be more amenable to reason and more willing to put the economic welfare of its people ahead of building nuclear bombs.