ALTHOUGH the International Atomic Energy Agency has sent the case of Iran's nuclear program to the United Nations Security Council, the matter will not be considered until March. That's because the United States, Iran's most militant opponent, will chair the security council this month.
Also not helping matters is the fact that the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is President Bush's neoconservative appointee John R. Bolton, a controversial pick who has been serving without Senate confirmation.
The general international position is that Iran, although it has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has in the past given IAEA inspectors access to its nuclear facilities, should not be permitted to develop a nuclear energy program. The theory is that it cannot be trusted to limit its work strictly to an energy program; the fear is it will inevitably develop a nuclear weapons capacity. Suspicion of its intentions is based on past experience of less than full disclosure to IAEA inspectors and some evidence of Iranian military involvement in the nuclear program.
Iran's own position has hardened as international pressure has increased. Its government has said that it has resumed its suspended uranium enrichment program. It has put new limits on IAEA inspectors' activities and, perhaps most ominously, has threatened to hold Iranian oil off the market. Since Iran is one of the world's largest oil producers, making good on that threat would cause oil prices to rise.
The United States is in hot pursuit of Iran on this issue, but its case is severely damaged by its false claims of Iraqi possession of a nuclear weapons program in justification of the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of that country. The international case that Iran, as an NPT signatory, should not have even a nuclear energy program, much less a nuclear weapons capacity, is flawed by the fact that India, Israel, and Pakistan have not signed the NPT and possess nuclear weapons.
For various reasons, the United States makes no fuss about the weapons held by these three countries. The general assessment is that a U.S. attack or a U.S.-sanctioned or unilateral Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would be folly, leading directly to a generalized Middle East war. Iran's response to the threat of an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities has been to sharpen its own, already outrageous, verbal abuse of Israel.
A ray of hope lies in the fact that Russia is heavily involved in Iran's nuclear development program, providing - with the IAEA - an important element of oversight.
This degree of watchfulness may be the most promising route to reconciling Iran's aspirations and the world's concerns. U.S. aggressiveness in pursuing Iran at this point is ill-advised and ill-timed.