THE U.N. SECURITY COUNCIL issued another ultimatum to Iran on Monday: Give up on your nuclear weapons program by Aug. 31 -- or we'll hold yet another meeting to discuss your fate. As ultimatums go, it wasn't especially effective. It may even play into Iran's hands by allowing it to keep stalling.
The leaders of Iran's extremist regime have repeatedly played the Security Council and other international bodies, making occasional cooperative noises and claiming that they're only interested in civilian power while continuing to accelerate their nuclear activities. Most experts think the country is still years away from being able to produce a nuclear weapon, but with each passing month it enriches more uranium -- which can be used for power and weapons -- and increases its capabilities. Even if Iran eventually suspends this work, the more progress it makes now, the more dangerous it could be later.
Tehran's response to a European offer in June, said to include such incentives as advanced technology and an end to the ban on sales of U.S. aircraft parts, was typical: It simply didn't respond. The day the offer was made, Iranian engineers began enriching more uranium. Weeks later, Tehran announced that it would make a decision Aug. 22. On Tuesday, Iran responded belligerently to the U.N. resolution, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saying his country would never give in to such threats.
Given the obvious dangers of further delay, it's particularly disappointing that Russia and China continue to act as enablers for Iran's nuclear ambitions. The Security Council resolution was originally intended to impose sanctions Aug. 31 if Iran refused to suspend uranium enrichment. But Russia and China insisted on changing the wording. Now the council will only consider sanctions after that date.
These longtime backers of Iran have so far managed to block progress at little cost to themselves, but that may be changing. Russia is particularly vulnerable. Last month, President Bush reversed decades of U.S. policy by backing a civilian nuclear power agreement with Moscow, under which spent fuel from U.S. reactors around the world might be stored in Russia. The deal, which could mean billions of dollars for Russia, isn't tied to Moscow's cooperation on Iranian sanctions, but the connection was implied. Negotiations could easily collapse if President Vladimir V. Putin's regime continues to block sanctions.
In a month, Russian leaders will have to decide whether their economic and strategic interests lie with Iran or the West. They're not going to be able to delay forever.