Last Saturday, the UN atomic watchdog agency threatened to seek sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. The move represents a diplomatic failure by France, Germany, and Britain to persuade Iran not to build an atomic bomb.
Credible evidence has mounted in the past two years that Iran has cheated for two decades on its international agreement not to develop technology for nuclear weapons. The "EU-3," as the three nations are called, wanted to head off any possible military action by the US (or Israel) against Iran. So they dangled economic carrots, such as entry to the World Trade Organization, before Iran's reigning Muslim clerics in hopes they would end their pursuit of bomb-grade material.
The Bush administration was skeptical of this approach, but reluctantly agreed anyway, working with the EU-3 behind the scenes. After the trio made its final offer of economic incentives, however, Iran rejected them. The only apparent choice was to secure approval by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ask the UN Security Council to impose sanctions.
Most of the IAEA's 35-nation board went along, but only in principle. The actual request for sanctions was put off in hopes that Iran finally might see that much of the international community was against it.
The problem, though, is that Russia and China are on Iran's side. Any chance of Security Council action is slim, just as it was for the US in seeking UN approval for the Iraq war.
The EU-3 had wanted to show President Bush that the UN could be a viable tool in the war on terrorism. France and Germany, especially, had recoiled at Mr. Bush's post-Sept. 11 labeling of Iran as "evil" for its support of terrorists; those two nations also have criticized Bush for not gaining full UN approval for the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
The EU-3 may be correct that Iran's leaders might somehow see the light, but they're whistling in the dark trying to invoke any UN legitimacy to solve this dangerous situation. The UN, which operates more on national interests than principles, is the wrong forum for tough action against a terrorist-supporting nation.
The European Union itself has the means already to impose meaningful sanctions against Iran. The easiest step would be to stop issuing visas for Iran's elite to travel to Europe or to conduct business there. (The US already has such sanctions.)
The EU needs to form a coalition of nations willing to send a stern message to Iran that enough nations of influence will neither tolerate nuclear proliferation in the Middle East nor risk the possibility of Iran giving atomic weapons or their know-how to other nations or terrorists.
The EU would have to put these goals ahead of its considerable business interests in Iran. And they would have to give up trying to prove the US wrong in not always seeking UN approval for every military action.
While the UN conducts many worthwhile activities, it often cannot enlist nations such as China or other dictatorships into action, or nations, such as Russia, with mercantile interests in hot spots.
An Iranian atomic bomb would be very hot indeed, and the time for real diplomatic action is now.