Avoiding an Iraq in Iran

Pundits, politicians, and the press are still so possessed by President Bush's handling of Iraq that they're not hearing the drumroll to a potentially bigger confrontation in the Middle East.

Iran has been given just five weeks to comply with a demand by the International Atomic Energy Agency to show it's not making bomb-grade nuclear material. On Sunday, the IAEA will send inspectors to Iran for the first time since the Vienna-based body set an Oct. 31 deadline. They will attempt to look over uranium-enrichment facilities at the city of Natanz.

If Iran's ruling mullahs bar the inspectors or miss the deadline, the IAEA could quickly ask the United Nations Security Council to impose economic sanctions on Iran - much like the sanctions on Iraq that never really worked.

Iran is blaming the United States for this showdown. But it was Australia, Canada, and Japan that led the IAEA to take a tough stance.

Still, the US and the UN-affiliated body are working together - in contrast to the UN-US split over Iraq. The West knows an Iranian bomb would push a nuclear arms race in the region, endangering Israel. And in fact, a lively debate has opened up in Tehran over how to react to the IAEA.

The West may try using both sanctions and incentives to bring Iran around. In fact, France, Britain, and Germany have offered to help it develop safe nuclear power - and this despite Iran's vast oil reserves.

But there's tension over whether to keep one card on the table: the threat of a military strike on Iran, or at least on its nuclear facilities. The US and Europe should avoid splitting over this issue and do everything short of war to make Iran comply.

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