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Containing Iran

Iran threatened yesterday that if the International Atomic Energy Agency complains about it to the United Nations Security Council, there may be an international crisis. This is not the first time the country has squawked at the thought that the world might hold it accountable for its suspected nuclear-weapons ambitions. But, should its protests be more than bluster, how fortunate that the case would be before the very body dedicated to wrestling with international crises.

Indeed, Iran should be relieved at the thought of the United Nations as multilateral arbiter, if only to keep the United States at bay. The Bush administration some time ago assigned Iran to its "axis of evil," and Undersecretary of State John Bolton said on Wednesday that it is "simply impossible to believe" the finding in the IAEA's new report that there is "no evidence" of a continuing Iranian nuclear weapons program. Iran's insistence that it has changed its ways would fare better in the global forum.

The atomic agency applauds Tehran's recent openness and co-operation with its investigators -- international pressure is an effective lubricant -- but nobody should hand out badges for good comportment quite yet. The IAEA reports that over the past two decades Iran has been secretly enriching uranium (it has agreed to stop) and producing small quantities of plutonium.

Even if the activities were experimental, this is not a regime the world should want to see going anywhere near nuclear weapons capability. Beyond its funding of terrorist organizations and its abuse of human rights (as in the recent beating death of Montreal journalist Zahra Kazemi), the tug of war between its ruling clerics and less hard-line government makes it hard to know which forces, if any, to trust.

The IAEA's board of governors will decide next Thursday whether the activity that Iran has finally owned up to is in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, enough to trigger the Security Council's involvement. The council's response could be as mild as an expression of concern, assuming Tehran maintains its co-operation, or as punitive as sanctions.

Iran is unhappy about the pressure, but this very pressure persuaded it to allow unannounced IAEA inspections. There's more than one way to defuse an international crisis.

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