If North Korea, then why not Iran?
That's the geo-puzzler of the week after the Bush administration - with the help of China - finally began talks with North Korea about its not-so-secret nuclear program.
Talking with Iran about its nuclear program would be just as logical. Its ruling Muslim clerics probably learned the same lesson from the Iraq war that the Communists of North Korea did: The US is resolved to do something about nations that both seek weapons of mass destruction and support terrorism.
While Iran denies both those charges, it stands to lose much if it doesn't work out its differences with the US. It needs American approval in its quest to join the World Trade Organization. And at least some of its reformist factions would rather focus the nation's energy on creating jobs for millions of unemployed Iranian youths than on building nuclear bombs that only isolate the country.
A hopeful sign came last week when Russia announced that Iran has essentially agreed to return the nuclear fuel that Moscow is selling it for a nuclear-power station after the fuel is used. Assuming the deal is honored, the spent fuel will go back to Russia for reprocessing and not be available for Iran to extract weapons-grade plutonium.
Russia's announcement means it, like China, may be helping the US rein in countries like Iran and North Korea from going nuclear.
But Russia doesn't have as much sway over Iran as China does over North Korea, which is highly dependent on Chinese oil and other aid. So it's essential that the US and its allies find ways to persuade Iran to forgo nuclear weapons.
Which allies? Well, France's foreign minister was in Tehran last week calling on Iran not to extract plutonium from its own uranium deposits.
Iran recently announced that it was mining uranium, and in February news leaked that it also had a covert uranium-enrichment plant that appears to violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Now France and others want Iran to agree to allow surprise inspections of any suspected nuclear plant by the International Atomic Energy Agency. At present, Iran can control IAEA visits.
The same issue of surprise inspections will also face North Korea and its nuclear program, if it wants more money and aid. But unlike North Korea, Iran has not yet made bomb-grade nuclear material and may not have made a final decision to do so.
Talking Iran down from that decision would be better than talking it out of nuclear weapons.