Preventing a Nuclear Iran

As if North Korea were not challenge enough, Washington must decide what to do about mounting evidence that Iran will soon have a nuclear bomb. Its program is much farther along than Iraq's ever was.

The Los Angeles Times reported Monday that the French government has concluded Iran is "surprisingly close" to having a bomb. The newspaper said UN inspectors have found samples of uranium enriched enough to build a nuclear weapon. It detailed evidence that Iran is hiding secret weapons labs and hosting large numbers of North Korean scientists working on nuclear and missile projects. And it reported that Russian scientists, without Moscow's approval, are helping complete a special reactor that could produce plutonium for weapons.

So far the United States has relied on International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections and economic sanctions to try to rein in Iran's weapons program. Clearly it hasn't been enough. Observers say a bomb may be only two to three years away.

An IAEA delegation is in Tehran this week trying to persuade the Iranian government to sign a protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that would permit more-intrusive, short-notice inspections. Iran says it should get nuclear-energy technology in return, as the treaty permits. Why the oil-rich country needs nuclear power is an unanswered question.

Iran's nuclear quest is destabilizing to the region. Its leaders have in the past threatened to use such a weapon against Israel. So Israel is not likely to sit quietly by and watch the Iranians develop a bomb: It attacked Iraq's nuclear program in a 1981 air raid. Nor is the US: the Times reported that Washington has contingency plans for strikes on Iran's nuclear sites.

But the US has reason to try to work with Iran. Tehran is currently holding several senior members of Al Qaeda. The Bush administration also wants to support Iranian reformers in hopes of promoting democracy in the region. Bluster over nuclear weapons will have the opposite effect.

Iran's booming population of young people, fed up with theocratic rule, wants better relations with the West. A fight over nukes will prevent the trade ties - such as World Trade Organization membership - needed to fuel economic growth and create jobs.

The US should continue to support diplomatic efforts, while working with other nations - including Russia - to convince Iran's mullahs that acquiring a nuclear weapon is not in Iran's interest. At best, it can only lead to political and economic isolation.

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