The Bush administration's hope of punishing Iran for hiding its nuclear-enrichment activities for 18 years will just have to wait.
Instead, three European nations, (Britain, France, and Germany) have used the lure of possible trade openings to win an Iranian promise this week to suspend the type of enrichment activities that can be used for both peaceful nuclear power and atomic weapons.
This troika of US allies are out to prove to Washington that the honey of incentives can catch more flies than the vinegar of sanctions (or even the threat of a preemptive attack by Israel). So far, President Bush is playing along.
The US had planned to ask a Nov. 25 meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to recommend to the UN Security Council that it impose sanctions on Iran. That move might have begun to put the UN and the US on a trail like the one that led to the long confrontation and eventual war with Saddam Hussein. But the US military is stretched too thin for any war-talk with Iran. And the Security Council isn't likely to go along with the US.
Still, Iran has bought time for itself with an easy give. By suspending its questionable nuclear project, its ruling Islamic mullahs are promised negotiations for special trade concessions from Europe. They need that economic boost to create jobs for a huge and restless mass of young people, many of whom are pro-American.
The IAEA, meanwhile, reported Monday that all nuclear material that Iran had declared in the past year has been accounted for, "...and therefore we can say that such material is not diverted to prohibited [weapons] activities." The report, however, was inconclusive about any undeclared material Iran may be hiding.
Distrust of Iran's intention runs deep in the West, which fears a nuclear-armed Iran could unsettle the region. A similar but weaker agreement to the one just reached was violated by Iran last year. This time, the fear of a US-Iran confrontation seemed more imminent, especially after Mr. Bush's reelection.
The result of all this will probably be months or even years of negotiations, similar to the multilateral talks with North Korea over its bomb-grade nuclear material. The crunch will be in whether Iran gives IAEA inspectors the freedom to probe anywhere they like to uncover any more clandestine nuclear work.
The Europeans and the US are playing effective good cop/bad cop roles for now. As long as the carrots are working, there's no need for a stick.