Monday, May 01, 2006

Editorial: Consensus needed over Iran

The International Atomic Agency's latest report on Iran goes some way towards confirming what most people have long suspected: Tehran is intent on building its own nuclear weapons. The report shows how the Iranians defied a United Nations Security Council deadline to halt the enrichment of uranium, a necessary step in the process of producing fuel for either power stations or nuclear weapons.

In itself this does not prove the case but legitimate suspicion is hardened by their less-than-frank dealings with the agency's inspectors, who were not allowed to find out enough about Iran's enrichment process to conclude that it was for peaceful purposes only. "Because of this and other gaps in the agency's knowledge, including the role of the military in Iran's nuclear programme, the agency is unable to make progress in its efforts to provide assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran," wrote the director-general, Mohammed El Baradei.

For three years Mr El Baradei and his team have been trying to get to the bottom of Iran's plans and the fact that they are being frustrated so effectively points to only one conclusion.

If this all seems depressingly familiar, then so is the reaction of the international community. Most agree that Iran should not be allowed the join the nuclear weapons club. However, there are deep divisions on how to prevent Tehran from achieving its dangerous objectives. The United States and Britain, as usual, want a firm policy; a resolution under the section of the UN charter that allows for sanctions and even the use of force.

But arrayed against them are two other Security Council members - China and Russia, who insist on diplomacy short of sanctions. Both of these countries have important economic links to Iran - the former buys oil from there and the latter is helping the Iranians to build a nuclear power plant. The importance of their role cannot be underestimated because, as permanent members of the council, both have the power to veto its resolutions.

The Iranians, of course, exploit the disagreements for all they are worth. Their leaders spout contradictory statements - on one hand insisting their intentions are purely peaceful, on the other loudly rattling their sabres - which play well at home, in the wider Muslim world and even in parts of the West.

However, if one thing is certain in this sorry mess it is that the United States must resist the urge to act unilaterally. There should be no pre-emptive strike - as was recently suggested - and there must be no attempt to bypass the United Nations. Rather than relying on its military muscle, the United States should bring its considerable economic and political influence to bear on both China and Russia so that a consensus can be forged and the world can speak with one voice to send a clear message to Tehran.

There are signs that the regime there would bend to such pressure. At the weekend, for instance, Iran appeared to be anxious to avoid having its case debated in the Security Council, despite the divisions between the members. In response to Mr El Barradei's report the Tehran regime offered to allow the resumption of snap inspections of its nuclear facilities. This, of course, was too little too late. Nothing less than the cessation of uranium enrichment should satisfy the international community.

Achieving that will be a difficult task made so much harder because the United States and Britain squandered so much political capital and goodwill by their conduct in Iraq.

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