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Realism on Iran

PRESIDENT BUSH should travel more. After recent discussions in Europe with French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Bush told his foreign policy advisers to come up with incentives that the French, Germans, and British could offer to Iran if its clerical regime were to renounce, verifiably, its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Bush's new willingness to join the Europeans in exploring the possibility of a bargain with Iran represents a dramatic policy change. For more than two years -- since a dissident Iranian group first revealed Iran's hidden uranium enrichment activities -- Bush had refused to join the allies' efforts to work out a deal that would reward Tehran with economic benefits for abandoning its efforts to become a nuclear power. Instead, Bush had wanted the Europeans to join him in asking the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran for concealing its uranium enrichment activities from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency.

Bush was not wrong to assume that Iran's rulers were aiming to acquire a nuclear weapons capability or to insist that the international community must be prepared to make them pay a steep price for lying to the IAEA and breaking out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And if Bush has now recognized that the hard--liners in his administration do not have better policy options than the Europeans -- that there are no tolerable military means to prevent Iran from joining the club of nuclear powers -- he is still entitled to worry that by helping the Europeans strike a deal with Tehran he will assist in empowering a repressive, corrupt regime that is despised by most Iranians.

That is the hard truth Bush, Chirac, Schroeder, and Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair must confront as they weigh their options for keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of Iran's dictators. If the Europeans help their own companies by granting Tehran the commercial benefits they have been discussing with Iran's negotiators, they would disregard the mullahs' human rights abuses, their suppression of Iranian democrats, and their sabotaging of Palestinian efforts to negotiate a peaceful end of Israeli occupation. And if Bush goes along with such a deal, assenting to Tehran's wish to apply for membership in the World Trade Organization, he will be collaborating in a bargain rooted in old-fashioned Realpolitik.

Nevertheless, if the Europeans are willing to impose sanctions on Iran in the event they cannot strike a bargain to keep Iran from enriching uranium, US support for the European effort offers the most realistic chance to prevent an intolerable outcome.

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