I ran has agreed to suspend its nuclear programs while it continues negotiations with European nations on the future of those efforts. While the government in Tehran is pleased with the results of the discussions, other nations, worried about the possible proliferation of nuclear weapons, should be more cautious. This is the second deal the parties have signed; the speed with which the first came apart is grounds for concern. In addition, contrary to many reports, Iran has not agreed to end its nuclear program, merely to suspend it. The final outcome will show how serious the world is about halting the spread of nuclear weapons.

Iran has long had a nuclear energy program. Since its inception, there were questions about its nuclear weapons ambitions, but Tehran always denied that it wanted anything other than a peaceful, civilian program. Those assurances were deflated two years ago when an Iranian exile group provided accurate information about secret facilities that were being used for uranium enrichment and conversion. An intensive investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency has not yielded evidence that Iran is trying to build a bomb, but suspicions have increased with the discovery of weapons-grade uranium on enrichment centrifuges and Iran’s admission that it produced small amounts of plutonium.

Last October, Britain, France and Germany tried to head off a crisis and negotiated a deal that would suspend Iran’s nuclear programs. The agreement allowed Iran to avoid official censure by the IAEA — which was being pushed by the United States — and would have obliged the U.N. Security Council to take up the matter. That deal quickly unraveled amid a dispute over terms.

The United States then renewed its push for censure by the IAEA. The agency’s board of governors meets later this month, and continued suspicions about Iran’s nuclear efforts would have generated pressure to take the problem to the Security Council. This agreement vents that pressure. Tehran has agreed that it will suspend enrichment activities as long as negotiations with the Europeans continue.

The Iranian problem goes to the heart of flaws in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime. The NPT gives treaty signatories the right to develop civilian nuclear programs and even facilitates their access to that technology. In return, a government gives up its nuclear weapons ambitions. It has become clear in recent months that the bargain is fraught with loopholes. Countries can cheat: They can acquire the technology needed to proliferate — openly or secretly — and then “break out” with a weapon. Worse, the IAEA’s ability to prevent that is limited, as has been proven by the revelations surrounding the “black market” created by Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan and the North Korean nuclear crisis.

It is impossible to know Iran’s intentions. The key question is, if Tehran wants nuclear weapons can the world dissuade it? The European three are determined to test that proposition. As a first step, a team from the IAEA will seal Iranian nuclear facilities and equipment. Then the four countries will set up three negotiating groups: one to focus on nuclear issues, one on nonnuclear cooperation between Iran and Europe, and the final one to examine regional security issues. The groups will report every three months to a steering committee made up of senior participants.

A deal hinges on two considerations. The first consists of security assurances to Iran. Having fought a long war with Iraq, having watched the U.S. invade Afghanistan and Iraq and having been labeled a member of the “axis of evil,” Tehran may well feel that nuclear weapons are needed for national security. The rest of the world must convince Iran that its security is best assured by means other than nuclear weapons. The second component is economic. Europe must offer Iran trade incentives sufficient to offset the gains — material or otherwise — to be had from developing a nuclear program.

These issues should look familiar. They are also at the heart of discussions with North Korea over its nuclear program, although those negotiations are more thorny due to the involvement of other issues such as the past abductions to North Korea of Japanese nationals. The Iranian negotiations have made more progress than those with North Korea; Pyongyang says it wants (and sometimes even claims it has) a nuclear deterrent, and there is as yet no freeze on its nuclear programs. A deal with Tehran would prove that diplomatic engagement works and could provide a model for talks with North Korea. Failure will force the United Nations — the international community — to take up the issue and test its very commitment to the NPT and nuclear nonproliferation.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.