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Keeping Iran in check

THE AGREEMENT on Iran's nuclear activities struck this week during a visit to Tehran by the British, French, and German foreign ministers shows the effectiveness of diplomacy when backed up by a credible threat of UN sanctions. It also illustrates the necessity of preserving cooperation with America's traditional allies across the Atlantic. Unfortunately, however, the Tehran understanding does not preclude the possibility that Iran may at some later date develop and deploy nuclear weapons.

What the foreign ministers did well was to oblige Iran to bring its nuclear program into compliance with its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But those measures will not be sufficient to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

The achievement of the foreign ministers' mission is significant. They were able to elicit Iran's acceptance of intrusive, short-notice inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency and, in the words of the declaration issued after Tuesday's meeting in Tehran, procured Iran's consent to "suspend all uranium enrichment and processing activities as defined by the IAEA."

The crucial background to these concessions is that the clerical regime in Tehran was confronting a deadline of Oct. 31, by which time they had either to comply with the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or see the issue of their defiance brought before the UN Security Council. The fact that this week's deal with the Europeans was supported by Iranian hard-liners as well as reformers suggests that both camps were eager to avoid the humiliation of arraignment before the Security Council and the punishment of economic sanctions.

The foreign ministers also wielded a purely European threat. They linked trade deals -- particularly for European high technology -- to Iran's acceptance of the IAEA's demands. Because the flagrant corruption and economic incompetence of the ruling mullahs has impoverished resource-rich Iran, antagonizing much of that nation's youthful population, the regime cannot afford subjection to UN sanctions or disruption of its commercial relations with Europe.

The Europeans, then, have done well in pursuing their carrot-and-stick approach to Iran and in reviving trans-Atlantic cooperation. But if the ultimate objective of that cooperation is to keep Iran from producing nuclear weapons and not merely to suspend uranium enrichment and the processing of plutonium, all facilities in Iran capable of producing fissile material for nuclear weapons must be dismantled under the eyes of international inspectors. In the long run, it will be in Iran's interest to forgo nuclear capability; it is up to the rest of the world to make the nation's rulers act on that interest.

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