Trust Iran, or Entrap It?

President Bush says it would be "intolerable" to let Iran make a nuclear bomb, and he's convinced Iran is doing just that. But this week, he ended up tolerating a European approach that will only shakily contain Iran's nuclear ambitions.

On Monday, the US winced but winked as the 35-nation board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) approved a deal with Iran worked out by three European nations. In exchange for temporarily halting its uranium enrichment work, Iran will be able to negotiate needed economic benefits from Europe.

Why did Mr. Bush go along with this plan by Britain's Tony Blair, France's Jacques Chirac, and Germany's Gerhard Schröder?

For one, Bush owes one to Mr. Blair for his support in Iraq. And he wants to warm up to Europe during his second term. He also can't afford to antagonize Iran while neighboring Iraq copes with a Jan. 30 election and ongoing violence.

The IAEA-Iran deal also mirrors Bush's diplomatic approach to containing North Korea's nuclear ambitions. And without any hard proof of Iran's intentions, Bush can't afford a repeat of his miscue in claiming Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

But Bush probably has a lesser-known reason, too. Iran has a history of breaking nuclear agreements. A similar deal last year with the three European nations was violated by Tehran. It also hid its nuclear enrichment for 18 years and bought nuclear hardware secretly on the world market. As IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei says, Iran has a "confidence deficit."

Showing the world that Iran can finally not be trusted could be Bush's ultimate aim in acquiescing to this current deal. Given the political battles among Iran's clerical leadership over how much to concede to the West, there is a strong possibility that Iran will violate the deal.

Much depends on the IAEA's ability to spot violations at Iran's facilities. The agency's track record, just like the CIA's on Iraqi WMDs, is faulty. Still, it may be just weeks before the world knows if Iran is simply playing for time in order to play for keeps in getting an atomic weapon.

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