Early next month, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of directors will once again meet to consider how to respond to new evidence that Iran has continued to hide significant elements of its nuclear program. Although the board may agree to refer the issue to the UN Security Council, the United States and Europe still differ on how best to respond to Tehran’s continuing violation of its nonproliferation obligations.
The trans-Atlantic partners urgently need to coalesce around a long-term strategy for confronting Iran. Such agreement is needed to effectively deter Iranian violations and to keep the prospect of a diplomatic resolution open.
It is needed for a second reason too: This dispute has all the makings of repeating the disastrous fissures that developed over Iraq, except this time Britain appears to be siding with its European partners against the United States. That would be tragic for many reasons, not least because in this particular case there is absolutely no difference between the two sides on the ultimate objective.
Everyone—Europe and the United States as well as Australia, Canada, Japan and even Russia—knows that the consequences of Iran becoming a nuclear power are exceedingly grave.
Tehran’s long-range missiles would put much of Europe within reach of a possible nuclear strike. Neighboring states might respond by acquiring deterrent capabilities of their own. And Israel, which has long seen Iran as a serious threat, might decide to strike preemptively, as it did against Iraq in 1981.
To prevent such a dangerous spiral, Iran’s nuclear weapons development must be halted. It is not enough that Tehran sign on to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty , as it has done. Nor is it sufficient only to allow additional inspections by the IAEA.
As long as Iran has the inherent capability to produce nuclear weapons materials, be it by enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium, it will have the option of following in the footsteps of North Korea—withdrawing from the nonproliferation treaty, ousting the inspectors and finishing a bomb.
Only when the key weapons-material-production parts of the nuclear fuel cycle have been dismantled and destroyed can there be any confidence that Tehran will not become a nuclear power.
Europeans and Americans agree on this goal. Now they need to agree on a common strategy to get there.
The first step must be an agreement to refer the issue to the Security Council, which should warn Iran that its continued failure to fulfill all its nonproliferation obligations constitutes a threat to international peace and security.
Next, the United States and Europe should agree on a common strategy that combines Europe’s preference for carrots with America’s preference for sticks. They have to agree on a clear set of benchmarks and deadlines for Iran to give up its enrichment and reprocessing capabilities. Tehran’s compliance would lead to the economic and technology cooperation that European leaders promised last fall.
At the same time, the United States and Europe would have to draw red lines that Tehran could not cross. And they would have to reach a clear understanding on the kinds of coercive actions they would take in the event of further noncompliance—from economic sanctions through, ultimately, the destruction by force of Iranian nuclear facilities.
The high costs of U.S.-European disagreement over how to deal with Iran are all too obvious. It should not be beyond the capability of U.S. and European diplomats to forge a common strategy.