Needed: An Iran exit strategy

During the Vietnam War, critics of U.S. policy repeatedly demanded an “exit strategy” that would bring American troops home from Indochina. Judging from Iran’s continued refusal to come clean about its nuclear-weapons programs — on display at a United Nations conference in New York this week — it’s time for the Bush administration to formulate an Iran exit strategy. That means extricating Washington from the failed European Union policy of kowtowing to the mullahs in Tehran.

In March, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in an exclusive interview with this newspaper, made a most generous offer to support the negotiations between the EU and the Iranians. Miss Rice said Washington is prepared to join with the EU 3 — Britain, France and Germany — who have been managing the talks over Iran’s nuclear program — in a joint effort to persuade the Iranians to halt their bid to build atomic weapons.

Although Washington has been rightly skeptical of the talks, which have yielded little or nothing, the secretary of state emphasized that this country is prepared to join with the Europeans to offer Iran a way out of its political isolation. Miss Rice said the United States was prepared to let Iran apply for membership in the World Trade Organization if it ended its uranium-enrichment efforts and said Washington is prepared to agree to license spare parts for Iranian civilian aircraft. In exchange, the EU 3 agreed to refer Iran to the UN Security Council if it continued to cheat. Washington won plaudits from France, with Foreign Minister Michel Barnier praising the United States for “giving negotiations a chance.” Miss Rice’s extraordinary effort to meet the EU’s concerns came less than two weeks after the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors was briefed about Iran’s continued stonewalling and refusal to permit weapons inspectors to visit suspected arms sites.

But almost immediately, reality raised its ugly head. The day we published our interview with Miss Rice, the head of the Iranian team negotiating with the Europeans denied that his country’s termination of uranium-enrichment activities was being discussed. And Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, declared that his country would not stop its nuclear activities, calling that a “red line.”

Since then, things have continued hurtling downhill. Iran still claims that it has the right to continue to pursue uranium enrichment whenever it wants to. As the UN conference began this week, European diplomats were talking about something called a “managed crisis” with Iran — in essence, a formula for suspending talks until fall. This means that Iran will be able to continue its atomic-weapons activities without having to pay any penalty.

The EU negotiation strategy is a failure. A dramatically different one is needed to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.

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