THE RESOLUTION adopted late last month by the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran's nuclear program signifies something less than a clear-cut victory for the Bush administration's tack of seeking to arraign Tehran before the UN Security Council. Instead, the resolution leaves the door open for Iran to avoid having its ''policy of concealment" brought before the Security Council. The resolution's interweaving of incentives and disincentives is aimed at preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power, setting off a regional nuclear arms race, and unraveling the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The vote of the IAEA governing board -- 22 members in favor, with only Venezuela opposed and 12 countries abstaining -- did send a clear message to Iran that the UN's nuclear watchdog deplores the Islamic Republic's refusal to comply with the treaty's obligations. Nevertheless, the terms of the resolution do not require any immediate punitive action. Iran is merely warned that it could be referred to the Security Council if it does not ''suspend all enrichment-related activity" and ''implement transparency measures" requested by the IAEA's director general.
Iran has at least until November, when the IAEA director, Mohamed ElBaradei, will report to the agency on the issue, to honor past agreements and provide the IAEA with ''access to individuals, documentation relating to procurement, dual-use equipment, certain military-owned workshops and research and development locations." Iran's ruling clerics have to provide this kind of transparency because their past deceptions have led to the suspicion that they are trying to conceal a program for the development of nuclear weapons.
If they are willing to settle for a purely peaceful nuclear energy program, they can reap considerable rewards from their European negotiating partners: Britain, France, and Germany. All Iran needs to do is accept a deal that guarantees it a permanent supply of nuclear fuel at market prices from abroad. In return for yielding on its claimed right to be able to enrich uranium, Iran could gain entrance to the World Trade Organization and obtain desperately needed foreign investment and trade benefits from the European Union.
At present, the hard-liners in Tehran are not being threatened even with UN sanctions but only with international pressure and isolation. This is the right approach at this stage, and because the clerical regime does seem sensitive to the prospect of being treated as a pariah, the IAEA's gradual ratcheting up of pressure has a chance to be successful -- unless the Iranian regime has decided that pursuing a nuclear weapons capability is worth the price of global condemnation and ostracism.