The United Nations Security Council this week passed a resolution that gives Iran a stark choice: suspend its uranium-enrichment activities or face possible economic sanctions. The move is a victory for those who fear that Iran’s nuclear programs threaten to unravel the global nuclear nonproliferation regime, as well as for those who seek a strong U.N. that is capable of responding to international security threats. Failure to act would confirm the argument that the world body has become irrelevant.

While the resolution is welcome, it is only a first step: Iran must return to the negotiating table, and negotiate in good faith, or the U.N. must be prepared to sanction Tehran.

There has been mounting alarm over Iran’s nuclear activities. Tehran insists that it is merely exercising its right as a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to develop a peaceful nuclear-energy program. That means carrying out all facets of the nuclear-fuel cycle — including uranium enrichment and nuclear-fuel reprocessing, which can also be used to develop a nuclear bomb.

Iran’s assertion of benign intentions is belied by a record of deception that stretches back years: clandestine facilities, belated admission of the acquisition of technologies that can be used to build bombs, and other actions that raise suspicions about Iran’s intent. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been unable to provide assurances that Iran has not been working on a bomb.

Arguing that it enjoys the right to peaceful nuclear technology, Tehran has suspended talks with the IAEA over the terms of inspections to determine the real state of its nuclear program. Britain, France and Germany have taken the lead in negotiating a deal; those countries, along with the United States put forward in June a package of proposals to settle the issue. Iran has said it will respond to the offer by Aug. 22.

That was not good enough. Concerned that Tehran is stalling to achieve a fait accompli, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council along with Germany agreed on a resolution that demands that Iran suspend those enrichment and reprocessing activities by Aug. 31. The resolution passed by a vote of 14-1. Qatar, the lone holdout, voted against the measure, arguing that events elsewhere in the region made the timing of the resolution suspect.

Iran rejected the vote immediately, claiming its “peaceful nuclear program poses no threat to international peace and security” and that Security Council action “is unwarranted and void of any legal basis or practical utility.” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called the resolution “unacceptable.”

The resolution reflected weeks of negotiation. The EU three and the U.S. wanted immediate sanctions against Iran. Russia and China held out, arguing that harsh action was premature. The final wording calls for all countries to prevent the transfer of resources and technologies to Iran that could aid its nuclear and missile programs.

While the resolution was drafted under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, additional action is required by the Security Council before any state can take action against Iran. If there is no compliance by Aug. 31, the Security Council will consider “appropriate measures” such as economic and diplomatic sanctions.

Hardliners are disappointed by the need to return to the U.N. for future action. Nonetheless, this resolution marks the first time the Security Council has made legally binding demands on Iran, with a threat to consider sanctions, over its nuclear program. The move is long overdue; there have been too many questions surrounding Iranian ambitions to accept bland assurances about Iranian intentions.

The U.N. must demand Iran’s full compliance with its NPT obligations. Failure of the world body to do so would confirm fears that it is unable to respond to real international dangers: Nuclear proliferation in flagrant violation of international obligations is one of the most important threats to international peace and security. U.N. inaction would mean U.N. irrelevance.

Some assert that the U.N. resolution puts Japan in a difficult situation. This country depends on Iran for 14 percent of its crude oil imports. Tokyo’s rights to the Azadegan oil field — which could provide as much as 10 percent of Japanese total crude imports — could be lost if Tokyo follows the U.N. and imposes sanctions. On the other hand, turning a blind eye will undermine the U.N., the international nonproliferation regime, and Japan’s relations with the U.S.

In fact, there is no choice. Failure to back the U.N. would make Japan complicit in eroding the NPT and the only institution capable of asserting the rule of law in international affairs. Fortunately, it appears that the U.N., and its members, recognize the stakes and are rising to the challenge. There must be no wavering if Iran sticks to its present course.

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