Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Unserious Consequences

The Wall Street Journal:
Iran's decision yesterday to resume what it dubs "nuclear research" is garnering stern criticism in unexpected quarters. Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), says he's "running out of patience" with Tehran. French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy urges the mullahs to "immediately and unconditionally reverse the decision." His German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, warns that matters cannot continue this way "without consequences," citing Iran's actions as a violation of the November 2004 Paris Accord in which Tehran agreed to suspend its nuclear programs.

It's almost enough to think the Europeans and their friends finally mean to get serious with Iran. Almost, but not quite.

Thus, even as Iran announced plans to break the IAEA seals on the centrifuges of its Natanz uranium enrichment facility, Austrian Chancellor (and temporary president of the European Union) Wolfgang Schüssel warned that it would be premature to discuss sanctions. Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, added that "every effort must be made to convince the Iranians to return to the previous situation, to negotiations." Mr. Solana's idea of getting tough with the Iranians is apparently to beg them to show up for lunch.

The Iranians have seen this European two-step before. The 2004 Paris Accord was itself a redo of an October 2003 agreement between Iran and Britain, France and Germany (the E3). The Iranians violated that agreement within months, but the only penalty Europe exacted was to offer even easier terms a year later. Last summer, Iran walked out of negotiations, spurning Europe's offer of technical assistance, security guarantees and trade deals as inadequate. Yet the harshest response the E3 could muster was to cite an "absence of confidence that Iran's nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes" in an IAEA resolution. READ MORE

Even Mr. Steinmeier's suggestion that Iran has violated the Paris Accord falls short. The IAEA resolution that formalized that agreement stated explicitly that Iran's decision to suspend nuclear activities was a "voluntary," "confidence-building" and "non-legally binding" measure. Put another way, the standards to which the Europeans have so far held Iran are so weak that Iran cannot even be fairly accused of violating them.

All this time the Bush Administration has played a conspicuously low-key role, noting Iran's repeated violations of its nuclear nonproliferation obligations while voting with the majority in IAEA resolutions. "You've got the lead," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the German newsweekly Der Spiegel last fall, referring to the E3. "Well, lead!" Whatever else one might say about this U.S. deference to Europe, the Administration can hardly be accused of bullying its way to some preferred "neo-con" solution, as it was accused in the run-up to the Iraq War.

What we are really witnessing is a demonstration of what happens when Iran's provocations are dealt with in a manner that suits Europe's feckless diplomatic "consensus." After more than two years of nonstop diplomacy and appeasement, the world is no closer to resolving its nuclear stand-off with Iran. But Iran is considerably closer to acquiring the critical mass of technology and know-how needed to build a nuclear weapon.

Now there are an increasing number of credible reports that Israel is well along in planning a pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear sites. And these reports have new urgency given the news of Iran's impending purchase of advanced Russian anti-aircraft missiles that would complicate any strike. Given that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has promised to wipe the Jewish state "off the map," an Israeli pre-emption would certainly be justified, though the regional consequences -- including a ballistic missile exchange between the two countries -- may well be severe.

It should not be Israel's lot to safeguard the security of the West in the face of a common threat, as it did when it destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981. But if we're going to avoid this grim scenario, both Europe and the U.S. need to threaten, and apply, stiffer penalties against Iran than they have suggested so far. As we learned in dealing with Saddam Hussein, so too with Mr. Ahmadinejad: Eventually, there's a price to be paid for trafficking in unserious consequences. The only question is, paid by whom?