Monday, June 30, 2008

The Europeans Step Up

It has been nearly two years since the United Nations ordered Iran to stop enriching uranium. Tehran continues to defy that order, and its scientists are getting closer to mastering a process that is the hardest part of building a nuclear weapon. So we welcome the European Union's decision — after much foot-dragging — to impose new sanctions on Iran that go beyond what the United Nations Security Council has mandated. That means that 61 Iranians or companies — all with alleged links to Iran's nuclear or ballistic missile programs — will now be subject to a European visa ban, a freeze on assets or both. European states must lose no time in rigorously implementing these penalties.

Coming after Tehran again cold-shouldered a package of economic and diplomatic incentives offered by the major powers, the European Union's decision reinforces the only strategy that might — might — have a chance of peacefully persuading Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

The strategy — initiated in 2006 by Britain, France, Germany, the United States, Russia and China — offers Iran a reasonable choice: suspend nuclear fuel production and cooperate with international inspectors in exchange for rewards from the West, or continue down the current road and face harsher penalties and deeper isolation.

Tehran has until now played a weak hand brilliantly. Even as it defies the United Nations, it has staved off significant international penalties by showing occasional interest in negotiations and deftly leveraging its economic power as an oil-and-gas producer.

Europe's patience, we hope, is finally wearing thin and the tightening financial squeeze may yet have an impact. It would be foolish for the Senate to threaten this cooperation by passing a bill, now under consideration, that could force sanctions on European companies doing business with Iran.

While we deplore Russia's and China's continued enabling of Iran, a Senate proposal to kill an American-Russia civilian nuclear cooperation agreement would also be hugely counterproductive. Washington must find other levers to persuade Russia and China to impose tougher Security Council sanctions that all United Nations members would have to enforce.

The major powers also must improve on the incentives offered to Iran. Specifically, the Bush administration must make a more credible offer of security guarantees and improved relations if Iran abandons its nuclear ambitions.

We strongly urge the administration to follow through on a proposal now being floated to open an American-interests section in Tehran.

There is no assurance that Iran's leaders would accept the offer, nor do we know if there is any mix of incentives or punishments that would change Tehran's behavior. The Iranian people need to know that the United States is serious about reconciliation — and who is responsible for their isolation.

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