Don't Jump the Gun in Iran

The Bush administration demands that a Middle East country admit it has a program to develop weapons of mass destruction. European foreign ministers argue against taking needless, provocative actions. Sound familiar?

Now it's Iran -- not Iraq -- being pressured to disclose any secret work on a nuclear program.

At the International Atomic Energy Agency meeting this week, which is expected to conclude today or Saturday, the administration has pushed for a resolution to report Iran to the United Nations Security Council for nuclear violations. The Europeans, including Britain, President Bush's closest ally, rightly warn against assuming the worst before inspectors investigate. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has persuaded only Canada, Australia and Japan -- of 35 agency members -- of the need to censure Iran.

There is reason to worry about Iran's nuclear ambitions. It has acknowledged concealing for two decades its atomic research, apparently including uranium enrichment -- the key to building a nuclear bomb. U.N. investigators have found traces of weapons-grade enriched uranium in some Iranian equipment. Tehran said this was just residue on imported machinery. But it also promised to suspend all uranium enrichment.

Moderate Iranian leaders, like President Mohammad Khatami, want to avoid a confrontation with Western powers; they're eager to outflank religious hard-liners who want to defy the United States. In an important agreement worked out in October with the British, German and French foreign ministers, Iran assented to unannounced inspections of suspected nuclear sites. The documents have yet to be signed, but IAEA head Mohammed Baradei is working as if they were. He also is investigating Russia, China and Pakistan as likely suppliers of technology that Iran employed to enrich uranium.

The U.S. should give Baradei room to work. Instead of insisting on sending the Iranian case to the Security Council, Washington should wait for his findings. He says it's unclear whether a nuclear program exists, adding there is "no evidence" yet to support U.S. allegations. But he would investigate further. Baradei is no weakling: Though France, Germany and Britain wanted to just chide Iran, he insists that any U.N. resolution deplore Iran's past breaches. This, coupled with U.S. pressure, helps to ensure that any Iran resolution has teeth. A resolution noting Iran's lapses but also acknowledging its present cooperation would strike the right balance.

The U.S. must avoid undermining the U.N once again before it finishes inspections. Had the U.S. found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Washington would have greater credibility and global backing to press its case for action on Iran. Instead of widening the transatlantic rift, the Bush administration should compromise with Europe on Iran and avoid premature action that could end cooperation before it has a chance to begin.

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