Needed for Iran: U.S. muscle, European diplomacy

Earlier this month, the so-called EU Three--Britain, France and Germany-- achieved an important victory for global security, convincing Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing activities pending further negotiation on its nuclear question. Though Iran claims that it does not desire a nuclear bomb, the West has long been skeptical of the oil-rich state's contention that it seeks a nuclear fuel cycle for energy purposes alone. Europe and the United States (and of course Israel) will sleep better knowing that Tehran is not pursuing enrichment activities, whatever their alleged purpose.

But the EU3 agreement, which fails to discuss consequences for Iran if it breaks the deal, is vulnerable to being undermined not only by Iran but also by the United States; both have already raised eyebrows in the wake of the accord. Iran raced to produce uranium hexafluoride, a gas that can be enriched into bomb fuel, before it began to observe the temporary suspension on Monday. And both President George W. Bush and outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell have publicly aired their suspicions that Iran will continue its drive for nuclear weapons under cover of the deal.

At the moment, administration hawks are pressing to confront the mullahs at the United Nations Security Council, where economic sanctions could be considered; calls for using force and for regime change are likely to follow.

Military action is inadvisable at this point, because of a dearth of solid intelligence and the secretive, geographically diffuse nature of Iran's nuclear sites. If the issue reaches the Security Council with the United States and Europe continuing along divergent paths, the inevitable deadlock will deal a severe and lasting blow to international security. Therefore, the agreement must be fortified to keep the Iranians honest, the Europeans effectively engaged and the U.S. hawks bridled.

This can be achieved through a U.S.-European accord laying out trigger mechanisms for specified consequences if Iran violates certain benchmarks. For example, if Iran fails to allow inspectors the access accorded by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty's additional protocol--which Iran is provisionally observing pending ratification--or resumes enrichment and centrifuge-building activities, it could face severe economic sanctions, censure by the Security Council (necessitating cooperation from Russia and China), or in the event of hostility, a forceful response.

We don't know yet whether Tehran will play by the rules. The regime has mastered the art of behaving badly and then seeking rewards for getting back into line. To date, the Europeans have played into its hands, offering carrots for compliance without wielding sticks to punish violations.

Therefore, the Bush administration's apparent comfort with a military option can serve as an important deterrent against Iranian cheating, arming the EU3 agreement with teeth that it would not otherwise have. Iran desires economic incentives but does not yet desperately need them; without a credible threat of U.S.-backed sanctions imposed by the international community, the mullahs can simply decide one day that the restrictions have ceased to be worth their while, and break any deal as though it were merely a business contract.

For the United States, accepting the EU3's carrot-based approach (provided the benchmarks are added) will show the world that it still supports negotiated diplomacy and multilateralism, even in cases where military threats loom. Participating in this framework will also send a message to Iran that the United States is not ruling out renewed relations. This would resonate with the largely pro-American Iranian populace, who despise their regime and are seeking inroads to break free of it.

But if the United States instead presents itself as a unilateralist maverick, it will hinder its own interests; the only thing Iranians disdain more than the mullahs is outside meddling with their deeply nationalistic desire for self-determination. The more overtly hostile the United States acts toward Iran, the more the mullahs are able to spin America's posture to alienate Iranians against the "Great Satan."

The way to keep the Iranian regime in check while speeding its demise is to insure the nuclear agreement through benchmarks and triggers, and then give the mullahs exactly what they ask for in terms of increased access to international institutions like the World Trade Organization.

Such carrots can also be Trojan Horses, allowing the forces of democratic reform within Iran to blossom by enabling pro-democracy elements to make global connections. The U.S. and Europe should saddle up those horses together.