New York Times
One of the most serious questions raised by the debacle in Iraq is whether it has crippled the ability of the world's leading powers to contain dangerous states. Iran's nuclear program is a prime case in point: so far, neither threats nor inducements have persuaded its leaders to suspend their uranium enrichment program.
According to a stark assessment by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, based in London, Iran and North Korea, the other nuclear rebel, have been emboldened in their ambitions by the sorry plight of the United States and its coalition partners in Iraq. The perception is that the major powers no longer have the stomach, or the unity, to seriously threaten sanctions or military action. Nonetheless, the three main European powers - Britain, Germany and France - are trying one more time to reach a diplomatic agreement with Iran, and the United States is wisely keeping out of the way.
The issue is sufficiently fateful to warrant another round of diplomacy. But if this effort fails, it will be time to try a more punitive approach. At a meeting in Vienna, the Europeans told the Iranians that if they abandoned uranium enrichment, the Europeans would supply them with fuel for nuclear power reactors and trade. If the Iranians say no, the Europeans are likely to join the United States in seeking tough U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran. The Iranians did not respond immediately - with less than two weeks until the United States' elections, nobody expected them to.
What is critical is for the winner of the presidential race, and for the three European nations, to make it urgently and abundantly clear to Iran's president, Mohammad Khatami, and his mullahs that the West will brook no further delays, and that it is serious and united about imposing stern sanctions if Iran won't abandon its nuclear fuel enrichment efforts. Iran has already broken one deal with the Europeans, and it has drawn sharp criticism from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
If the ruling mullahs continue to sense indecision and disunity in the West, they will surely continue with their program. The result would be a disaster. Joschka Fischer, Germany's foreign minister and a strong proponent of diplomacy, warned earlier this week that a nuclear Iran could set off a Middle Eastern arms race. And North Korea would see no reason to abandon its weapons.
A strong signal that the Europeans are ready to get tough is also vital for another reason. After the mess caused by going it alone in Iraq, Washington may now be more willing to return to multilateral methods of combating nuclear proliferation, but only if it is convinced that the Europeans are capable of waving a stick as well as a carrot.