No more ticklish quandary awaits the next US president than Iran's nuclear ambitions – it splits Hillary Clinton from Barack Obama and makes GOP candidates squirm. In coming days, Iran will again be in the hot seat at the UN and many eyes will be focused on, of all nations, Germany.
In the past year, the UN Security Council has twice ratcheted up economic sanctions on Iran for not suspending its uranium enrichment. That program, which now has with nearly 3,000 centrifuges whirling away, appears capable of producing sizable amounts of bomb-grade material within a year. Distrust of Iran's intentions remains high after it concealed its nuclear program for years and tapped the international black market to buy blueprints for turning uranium into warheads. And it doesn't help that its president threatens Israel.
Germany sits at the center of this debate because it is Iran's second-largest provider of imported products, feeding vital technology to most of its industry. Cutting off that economic lifeline of nearly $5 billion in goods would hit the ruling mullahs hard by raising Iran's already high unemployment, and perhaps force trickle-up regime change.
The current UN sanctions were purposely weak to make it easier for China and Russia to sign on. And Germany didn't really need to worry about losing business. But last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran has defied the Security Council by rapidly expanding its enrichment and that "the agency's knowledge about Iran's current nuclear program is diminishing."
This means Iran may be close to crossing President Bush's red line in producing weapons-grade uranium. And Iran's nearing that threshold may explain why Mr. Bush warns of a World War III if Iran gets the bomb and why Israel signaled to Iran with a Sept. 6 airstrike on an alleged nuclear lab in Syria. Bush has also upped the ante by designating the elite Quds units of Iran's Revolutionary Guards as terrorists.
This looming showdown may explain why Russia and China appear to be against tougher sanctions when the Security Council takes up its threat to impose a third, more stringent round of sanctions on Iran at the end of the month. China, which gets 14 percent of its oil from Iran, now seeks closer economic ties with Iran, while Russia plans to resume its nuclear-fuel shipments to Iran.
With both of them likely to threaten a veto at the UN, the US will be left with the option of rallying its allies to impose their own sanctions. France and Britain, with new leaders, are on board. And when German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Bush recently, she said the right words: "In the face of the threat Iran's nuclear program poses to Israel, our responsibility must be more than empty words.... My government will follow its words with action."
But up to now, German business has kept its government from acting too boldly on Iran. And Germany, along with Russia and China, has tried to avoid a tough line by pointing to Iran's selective concessions to the IAEA.
Will Ms. Merkel live up to her word? Middle East peace, not to mention a key issue in the US presidential campaign, hangs on it.