Just when it seemed Iran might finally be punished for its reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons capabilities, the country's ruling theocrats have agreed to suspend their uranium enrichment program. Any move that reduces the threat of nuclear proliferation and lowers the risk of another Middle East war is welcome. But Iran's last-minute change of heart on the eve of a potentially damning report on its nuclear activities must be greeted with skepticism.
In the deal negotiated with Britain, France and Germany, representing the European Union, Iran agreed only to a temporary suspension of all activities related to uranium enrichment, an essential step in producing nuclear fuel for power plants and, at a higher grade, for weapons. In exchange, the two sides will continue talks next month on a formal deal calling for trade, aid and other incentives, as well as technological assistance to help Tehran develop nuclear power for peaceful uses.
So the mullahs, who directly control Iraq's nuclear program as well as all weapons development, have bought themselves some time and escaped possible censure and sanctions for violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. They have managed this feat without offering any assurances that they will abandon their nuclear ambitions. Indeed, senior Iranian officials emphasized that Tehran had no legal obligation to accept the three EU countries' conditions.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN's nuclear watchdog, reported yesterday that "all the declared nuclear material in Iran has been accounted for" and that it has not been diverted to illegal activities, such as the making of bombs. But the key word is "declared." The IAEA said it is "not yet in a position to conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran." It also repeated criticisms of Tehran's previous efforts to conceal its nuclear activities.
Washington has greeted the report and Tehran's decision to suspend uranium enrichment with justifiable caution. U.S. officials once thought they had a binding nuclear deal with North Korea, only to learn otherwise. In Iran's case, Washington is right to demand deeds, not words. And to keep pressing for a permanent ban.