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Iran has resumed nuclear-fuel research, causing serious concerns in the international community. On Monday, representatives from three European nations — Britain, France and Germany — as well as the United States, Russia and China met in London to discuss the matter. With the European Union and the U.S. calling for an emergency board meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the possibility is growing that Iran might be referred to the U.N. Security Council — a move that could lead to economic sanctions.

Iran says it has no intention of using nuclear technology for military purposes, but as long as it insists on establishing its own nuclear-fuel cycle, suspicions about its ambitions will persist. Iran should respond positively to such doubts and immediately halt activities leading to uranium enrichment in order to build international confidence in the Iranian government.

Analysts suspect that Tehran’s tough stance may be motivated by a diplomatic strategy of conducting nuclear negotiations in its favor with oil as the bargaining chip. Such a game of brinkmanship, however, won’t work. The international community should press for a diplomatic solution — not economic sanctions — by applying greater pressure on the Iranians through coordinated action.

Iran’s resumption of research into nuclear-fuel production is expected to involve “small-scale uranium-enrichment activity.” Clearly, the research is in violation of both an IAEA resolution and an agreement with the three EU states calling for an end to all activities related to uranium enrichment.

Last August, Iran restarted work on uranium conversion on grounds that negotiations up to that point had failed. Subsequently, the IAEA board of governors passed a resolution condemning the Iranian move as a violation of an agreement governing “safeguard” measures (nuclear inspections). The agency, however, stopped short of bringing Iran before the Security Council. Talks had just reopened toward yearend between Iran and the EU.

The standoff over Iran’s nuclear program has followed a now-familiar pattern: Iran violates an agreement, the IAEA adopts a resolution denouncing the violation, then the country makes some sort of compromise. These repeated moves have only intensified international mistrust of Iran’s intentions.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a conservative hardliner, said last week that Iran “has a legitimate right to the peaceful use of nuclear technology,” stressing that his country intended to continue nuclear-fuel research. Taking a similarly confrontational posture against the West, Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani, chairman of the Supreme Council, warned that that “thoughtless action” by the EU and the U.S. would hurt the entire Middle East. It is disturbing that Iran’s hardline policy is apparently gaining domestic support.

In talks with Russia held in Tehran earlier this month, Iran reportedly rejected Moscow’s compromise offer to enrich uranium on Russian soil, insisting that Iran has an “inalienable” right to establish a nuclear-fuel cycle of its own. Hopes for a diplomatic solution, however slight, seem to be still alive, though. On Tuesday Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly told visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel that it was still possible to reach agreement on Russia’s proposal.

Since the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty recognizes the right to the peaceful use of atomic power, Iran apparently believes that its insistence on this right will be supported by nonaligned and developing countries. Tehran also appears to believe that referral of the problem to the Security Council would not lead to the imposition of sanctions because of expected objections from China and Russia. Still, the diplomatic tactic of walking a tightrope will not bring about a fundamental solution.

Iran’s nuclear-fuel research represents a challenge to the international community that will only deepen its isolation. If it has no intention of developing nuclear weapons, Iran should express its willingness to cooperate fully with the IAEA through disclosure of related information, compliance with the safeguard agreement and other measures.

The EU and the U.S., not just China and Russia, take the position that a solution should be sought through persuasion — that is, by dint of diplomatic efforts by the countries concerned. That position reflects a belief that the international community should avoid any action that would drive Iran into a corner.

Iran should not underestimate or miscalculate such diplomatic efforts. The international community needs to increase its diplomatic pressure in order to enforce compliance with existing agreements. Iran, for its part, should refrain from enrichment-related activities and return to the negotiating table. That is the only viable option it can take.

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