FOR TWO years, Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency have been engaged in a delicate and dangerous balancing act. With last Saturday's unanimous resolution decrying Iran's covert nuclear activities and instructing Iran to suspend all its efforts to enrich uranium, the 35-member IAEA board of governors took a necessary step. The governors properly hinted that if Iran refuses to comply, the UN agency's next step would be to refer Iran's defiance to the UN Security Council, which could impose economic sanctions on Tehran.
Iran's provocative answer came Tuesday: a declaration that it had begun converting 37 metric tons of uranium oxide into the uranium hexafluoride gas needed for uranium enrichment.
The international community must be adamant in preventing the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons yet leave the door open for a continuing dialogue that could lead to a reasonable quid pro quo: commercial and diplomatic benefits for Tehran in return for a verifiable guarantee that Iran will abjure nuclear weapons.
Notwithstanding their hardball posture, Iran's ruling clerics are playing a weak hand. The domestic economy they have despoiled and mismanaged desperately needs foreign trade and investment to be able to employ the million new workers entering the Iranian job market each year. Having taken control of Parliament from reformers and preparing to capture the presidency as well, they will receive all the blame if resource-rich Iran continues down the path toward impoverishment.
They have a well-founded aversion to being censured by the UN Security Council and subjected to economic sanctions. Iran's corrupt clerics run multibillion-dollar conglomerates they call religious foundations. UN sanctions could threaten their wealth and, ultimately, their perch on political power.
They play their weak hand with finesse, it is true. They do this by threatening to defy the IAEA's resolution on enrichment, by insisting that they have a right to enrich uranium up to a certain level for peaceful purposes, and by saying they might withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty if their case is brought to the Security Council.
Their strategy seems obvious: to stay within the too-loose confines of the treaty until the moment they deem it propitious to drop out and declare Iran a nuclear power. They want to retain the benefits of being in the good graces of the International Atomic Energy Agency until they decide that the deterrent effect, the blackmailing potential, or the domestic prestige of becoming a nuclear power outweighs those benefits.
The rest of the world must offer proper incentives to prevent Tehran from reaching that status, but the international community must also be prepared to impose severe penalties if Iran insists on enriching uranium to the point that it can start making nuclear bombs.