Playing Footsie With Iran

George W. Bush both loathes and needs Iran, a ranking member of the "axis of evil."

His diplomatic codependency played out this week when he backed off demands for international economic sanctions against Iran - even though UN inspectors caught it red-handed a few months ago hiding a uranium- enrichment program.

Even with the possible threat of a nuclear Iran upsetting the Middle East power balance, Mr. Bush has to make trade-offs.

First, the US needs Iran's help in the war on Al Qaeda. Many top members of that terrorist group are under guard in Iran, and could provide vital information in catching Osama bin Laden.

Second, Bush needs the Shiite-run Islamic Republic of Iran to use its influence with the Shiite majority in Iraq next door to help the US hatch a stable democracy.

Bush has other tricky problems with Iran, which itself is over struggling how to mix Islam and democracy.

For outsiders, it's sometimes difficult to tell whether the hard-line ruling clerics prevail on every decision, or whether reformers under President Mohammad Khatami sometimes win.

Then the US faces the embarrassing postwar question of whether its secret intelligence is accurate in claiming Iran is making an atomic bomb, despite Iran's claim of a strictly civilian program.

One skeptic of the US claim is the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. Its staff, and most of the IAEA's 35 member countries - including Britain - opposed a US move to have the IAEA board ask the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran for violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Instead, the IAEA accepts for now Iran's promise to open its facilities for inspections.

Of course, the threat of sanctions - and indeed a renewed Israeli threat to bomb any Iranian nuclear-weapons facility - helped force the economically weak Iran to concede to the IAEA's demands - at least for now.

If Iran is caught once again hiding weapons-grade nuclear material, the US will have been proven right, forcing a fresh confrontation between the international community and yet another defiant Middle East regime. And the IAEA's decision to give Iran a second chance will have set a bad precedent in the effort to prevent nuclear proliferation. Much depends on the effectiveness of IAEA inspections.

The best hope is that Iran's more-reformist faction has won the argument and shelved any of the nation's nuclear ambitions.

And that's the best choice for the ruling clerics if they want to survive the rising mass of unhappy and unemployed Iranian youth.

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