Avoiding critical mass with Iran

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Thumbing its nose at the West, Iran has resumed research on refining uranium into bomb-grade quality. Its crossing of a nuclear "red line" calls for a firm response because this may be the last chance to really stop creeping global nuclear proliferation.

But what kind of response, and how far? Iran's defiance suggests it's relying on a repeat of past weaknesses by the big powers in keeping other nations from obtaining atomic weapons (or setting an example by curtailing their own arsenals).

Indeed, the US record alone in preventing proliferation is quite mixed. Since 2002, the US has allowed North Korea's nuclear program to proceed with only minor sanction, relying instead on China and diplomatic talks to nip that nuclear bud. It let Israel develop the bomb in the 1960s, and gave weak and temporary sanctions after bomb tests by India and Pakistan in 1998.

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But the US did work with Russia after the cold war to keep former Soviet states from obtaining nuclear material and weapons left on their land. And because of good spy work, the US stopped Taiwan's nuclear-weapons program in the 1980s. The US bungled its spy work, however, in claiming Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program in 2003, one of the main justifications for an invasion.

Rolling back Iran's nuclear ambitions (which may be years from being realized as a working bomb) is essential to keeping Arab nations from going nuclear. It's also essential to prevent Iran from exporting any know-how or bomb-technology to others (as a rogue Pakistani nuclear scientist did for years until caught).

The genie's half out of its bottle but it can still be contained.

The proper response to Iran's ruling Muslim clerics should be based on working with their perceived weaknesses - a strategic worry at being in the neighborhood of nuclear powers (Russia, Pakistan, Israel) and the regime's worry about losing the support of its huge mass of unemployed youth.

For nearly two years, Britain, Germany, and France have negotiated with Iran to keep it from crossing the "red line." Their economic carrots failed when Iran received a flush of cash from high oil prices and saw a reluctance by China and Russia and perhaps some in Europe to support sanctions for fear of losing business and oil sales with Iran.

Europe's big three now need to develop a coalition with Russia and China in favor of sanctions, and design other nonmilitary ways of eroding the regime's legitimacy with its people. But it must also come up with ways to appeal to the pragmatists within Iran's divided leadership by offering security guarantees and assistance for Iran to become a major, nonoil economic power.

Any number of compromises are possible with a more robust set of carrots and sticks. Iran may agree to international inspections that firmly prevent it from making a bomb as long as it's allowed to develop the know-how to do so. Letting it live in a sort of nuclear limbo - as some nations probably already do - isn't ideal. But it's one way to prevent an Israeli or perhaps US military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.

Another weak response to a nuclear challenge like Iran's cannot be tolerated. The stakes for global peace are just too high.

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