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The Unmet Threat Of a Nuclear Iran

A nuclear-armed Iran would be a catastrophe for the United States and the larger international community. It is a catastrophe that we could be doing more to prevent.

The Iranian regime has been listed year after year by our own State Department as No. 1 on its list of state sponsors of terrorism. With nuclear weapons, Iran could blatantly sponsor the most horrific terrorist events, feeling immune from retaliation. The Iranian regime could terrify its Muslim neighbors and interrupt their oil exports. It could inspire neighboring states in the Middle East to develop their own nuclear weapons.

If the Tehran regime got just a little bit crazier, it could smuggle a weapon into the United States and then threaten to explode it if we did not change our policies. Finally, if Iran’s current regime were about to be overthrown — and many of us look forward to that day — it could use its weapons in a final parting shot against Israel or our American allies in the region.

Iran is roughly five years from acquiring nuclear weapons. During the past six years, while Bush often has talked about the problem, we have done virtually nothing to thwart Iran’s nuclear program. Working though European allies, the United States was able to obtain a temporary suspension of enrichment in late 2004, but otherwise Iran’s program has been unimpeded.

The failure of Bush administration diplomats to persuade the United Nations Security Council, particularly Russia and China, to impose sanctions on Iran for developing nuclear weapons is the greatest diplomatic failure of our time. The main reason for the failure is that the State Department has rejected the concept of linkage.

We seek Russia’s help on Iran while refusing to make the slightest concession on issues that the Kremlin cares about, such as the conflicts over Moldova, Chechnya and Abkhazia. Any reasonable America policy would subordinate these issues, which are of only minor importance to us, to the goal of preventing a nuclear Iran.

Likewise, we refuse to link Chinese policy toward Iran with how we deal with China on trade issues, such as how we choose to respond to China’s legally questionable currency manipulations. If we would link the currency issue to the Iran issue, perhaps Beijing would show greater willingness to cooperate with international efforts to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

In addition to its ineffective efforts at the United Nations, the United States has failed to use its own diplomatic, legal and economic tools to stand up to Iran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared in one of his most famous diatribes that the United States should “bow down and surrender.” Mr. Ahmadinejad, we already have.

We began to make unilateral concessions in 2000 when we opened our markets to Iranian exports — not oil, which we could use, but only the stuff Iran cannot sell elsewhere like caviar. Since then, we have acquiesced in World Bank loans to the Iranian government. We allow our corporations to do business in Iran through their foreign subsidiaries. And last year we opened the door to Iran’s membership in the World Trade Organization.

For six years, the Bush administration has violated American law by refusing to apply the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act to billions of dollars of investments in the Iranian oil sector. During the same period, ironically, energy sanctions were effective in changing Libya’s behavior.

Most recently, the Bush administration approved a visa for an propaganda tour of the United States by former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami. Amazingly, the American taxpayer picked up part of the tab to provide security for this promoter of terrorism on his tour. As you may remember, the last time there were American officials in Iran, there wasn’t much security and they were taken hostage and held for 444 days.

If we are to treat the threat of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons with the seriousness it deserves, we should use all our economic and diplomatic power — including linkage in order to win support from China and Russia — to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration has embraced a different option: Talk tough, avoid effective action and take solace in the fact that the policy failure will not become manifest — and Iran will not develop and test a nuclear weapon — until after 2008.

Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, is a senior member of the House International Relations Committee and the ranking member of its Terrorism and Nonproliferation Subcommittee.

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