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Getting tough with Tehran

IRAN’S RESUMPTION OF NUCLEAR research Tuesday puts it back on the road toward developing nuclear weapons. Its defiance of good-faith offers to boost international trade and help better its citizens’ lives in return for an end to its nuclear program warrants a tough, coordinated response.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government has been clever in its defiance of Britain, France and Germany, which have led the negotiations aimed at halting the research. For instance, on Tuesday it was careful to remove seals placed by the United Nations on the uranium enrichment plant in the city of Natanz under the watchful eyes of the International Atomic Energy Agency, a U.N. organization. To do so without U.N. supervision would have been to invite swift action from the Security Council.

Tehran also insists that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty gives it the right to conduct nuclear research. That’s technically true, but its record of hiding nuclear-related activities until exposed by anti-government exiles, along with Ahmadinejad’s recent anti-Semitic diatribes, are alarming. That history does not inspire belief in Iran’s claim that the oil-rich nation wants atomic power for energy, not weapons.

The IAEA said Iran is resuming research on refining uranium gas, which can be used for energy or weapons, depending on the degree of refinement. Tehran is believed to be years from the ability to make nuclear armaments. But that’s no reason to look aside; it’s better to stop the development now.

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The U.N. Security Council could impose economic sanctions on Iran if it continues its defiance. Russia, which has extensive trade ties with Iran and stands to reap a financial windfall by continuing to help Iran build and supply nuclear power plants, could veto sanctions. But Moscow said Tuesday that Iran’s resumption of research was cause for concern -- diplomats’ talk for getting close to a red line. Russia has offered to let Iran enrich uranium in Russia, but Tehran has so far refused.

Iran is not the poster child for paranoia and isolationism that North Korea is. It seeks international acceptance and regional prestige. But to meet that goal, it should be required to abandon its nuclear weapons research program. Argentina, Brazil and South Africa provide good examples of nations that decided to halt their nuclear weapons programs.

In October 2003, Iran said it would voluntarily refrain from enriching uranium. It reneged on that deal, but a year later it again agreed to stop enrichment in exchange for trade incentives and help with peaceful nuclear technology.

On Tuesday, Iranian officials said Natanz would be used only for research, not uranium enrichment. But their word is not good enough.

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If Iran is ultimately allowed to use nuclear technology to produce energy, it needs to be monitored by inspectors every step of the way.

And the Security Council should warn that it will impose sanctions unless the Natanz facility is again shut down.


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