The news that three European diplomats have persuaded Iran to accept stricter international inspections of its nuclear facilities hardly eliminates all cause for concern that Iran might try to develop nuclear weapons. But it would be wise for the United States to approach it with cautious optimism and cooperation.
In a way, the pact brokered by French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin, British foreign minister Jack Straw and German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, gets the U.S. off the hook.
If the international deadline of Friday for Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear program is not designed to produce warheads had come and gone, there would have been pressure for the United States to do something — perhaps aerial military strikes on nuclear targets — to demonstrate seriousness.
But with attacks on U.S. forces increasing in Iraq, with Defense Secretary Rumsfeld worrying in a leaked memo that the war on al-Qaida is not going well, with North Korea playing its dangerous confrontational game, and with an increasing perception that U.S. military forces are overstretched already, committing to a new military action might have been difficult.
“It’s mildly encouraging that we have a little breathing room,” said Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. “But do we know where all the nuclear installations are? Might they be stalling for time to conceal some of their installations? The situation still bears watching.”
Carpenter points out it does seem odd that a country literally sitting on a sea of oil and natural gas would find it economically desirable to develop a nuclear program just to generate electricity. He also notes that from an Iranian perspective the United States now has forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Persian Gulf, so a sense of encirclement might not be entirely unjustified.
The best course for the United States now is to congratulate the Europeans, encourage the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect vigorously to be sure Iran is in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it has signed, and do our own intelligence. And it wouldn’t hurt to set an early date for withdrawing from Iraq to deprive the mullahs of any rationale to go nuclear.