For weeks the rhetoric mounted as diplomats shuttled between Tehran and Vienna, seeking a solution to the impasse over Iran's nuclear program. The U.S. threatened U.N. sanctions if Iran didn't halt uranium enrichment -- a process that can lead to nuclear weapons. Israel hinted it might strike Iran militarily. Vowing to retaliate if attacked, Iran insisted on its right to "peaceful nuclear technology" as a signatory of the nuclear nonprolifera-tion treaty.
Now there's an apparent breakthrough. On Nov. 14, Iranian and European negotiators agreed that in exchange for European benefits, Iran will suspend all activities that make it possible to build a nuclear bomb. That makes it unlikely that Washington will press the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to effectively censure Tehran at its Nov. 25 meeting. Hard-liners such as Under Secretary of State John R. Bolton have been demanding that the IAEA refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council for sanctions. He won't get international backing now.
Is the crisis over? Hardly. U.S. officials and skeptical Iran watchers fear that Tehran is trying to buy time while continuing its nuclear program -- clandestinely if necessary. Iran maintains it is pursuing nuclear technology only for energy purposes. But some experts believe that as early as next year, Iran will have acquired enough knowhow to make weapons. That could spark a regional arms race, perhaps involving Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Syria. "There is a high probability there would be a nuclear chain reaction that would ripple through the region," says arms-control expert Joseph Cirincione at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The next round of talks between the Europeans and Iranians will be crucial to heading off that outcome. The two sides are supposed to meet in December to work out long-term plans for regulating Iran's nuclear program. Washington, which has no diplomatic relations with Tehran, won't take part. But U.S. officials and experts are calling for a deal that lays out penalties if Iran fails to comply. There should be "a policy of carrots and sticks to give Iranians a positive path toward economic integration or incremental punishments if they pursue nuclear weapons," says Kenneth M. Pollack, a Brookings Institution analyst and author of The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America. An Administration source says the U.S. wants the IAEA to conduct "anytime, anywhere inspections" in Iran.
The Europeans may seek out just such a deal, partly because they were angry when Iran reneged on an earlier agreement. But if diplomacy fails, there will be few options left to keep Iran out of the nuclear club if it wants to join. The U.S. may have a hard time winning a sanctions vote in the U.N. China, which imports oil from Iran, has indicated that it would oppose sanctions. Military action, which has been discussed by top U.S. officials, might not work: Iran is believed to have 100 nuclear facilities, some underground. So in the end the world may have to learn to live with a nuclear Iran -- and the regional proliferation that could ensue. That's a sober prospect for the Bush Administration.
By Stan Crock in Washington, with Babak Pirouz in Tehran and Neal Sandler in Jerusalem
EDITED BY Edited by Rose Brady