Time and again, Iran's ruling clerics have been caught cheating on their commitments under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Time and again, the international community has given them a pass. Each time, they swear up and down that they have no intention of producing nuclear weapons. Each time, they are caught doing things that suggest they are doing just that.
In the latest go-round, the International Atomic Energy Agency found that Iran had failed to reveal its possession of advanced centrifuge designs and components that are used to enrich uranium, a key step in the creation of a bomb. Within hours of the IAEA's finding, Iran pledged to take stronger steps to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities.
That's fine, except that Iran made similar promises last fall when a tough IAEA report found suspicious nuclear activities going back 18 years. Iran admitted that it had a secret program to enrich uranium, but claimed it was for peaceful purposes and pledged to cease and desist. It now seems that that promise was hollow. Why should other countries believe Iran's latest vows?
The United States, for one, is highly skeptical. Since last June it has been pressing the IAEA's board to report Iran to the United Nations Security Council for its transgressions, a move that could trigger sanctions against the Iranian regime. European powers want a softer approach and this week, after intense talks, they struck yet another deal with the clerics. In order to avoid the IAEA report and ensuing sanctions, Iran told the EU it would suspend all enrichment. That means that, once again, Iran is off the hook.
Now, everyone wants to avoid confrontation with Iran if possible. If the clerics can be persuaded to part with their nuclear ambitions without subjecting them to punishment, all to the good. It is always possible that sanctions might push them into quitting the NPT and pressing ahead openly to build nuclear weapons. That is why the Europeans want to avoid referring the matter to the Security Council.
But a face-off can't be put off indefinitely. If Iran keeps lying about its nuclear activities, the international community will have to assume it is building a bomb. A nuclear Iran is something frightful to contemplate. As the clerics themselves demonstrated when they fixed last week's election to crush the democratic opposition, this remains a ruthless, hardline regime, deeply hostile to the West and determined to be a regional power. It continues to support terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas. It continues to call for the destruction of Israel.
Avoiding confrontation with Iran now could lead to a far worse confrontation later.