OUR OPINION: CURRENT TALKS ARE LAST CHANCE TO STAVE OFF U.N. SANCTIONS
A round of talks that began Friday between Iranian diplomats and European officials represents the last chance to head off an escalating confrontation over that country's nuclear-weapons program.
The heart of the problem lies in Iran's denial that it has such a program and Secretary of State Colin Powell's unequivocal affirmation to the contrary.
He could be wrong, of course -- it would not be the first time -- but he is surely right in declaring that the international community has the responsibility to apply as much pressure as possible to make Iran comply with rules governing nuclear safeguards.
That hasn't been the case so far. Time and again, the European allies have balked at U.S. insistence to apply more pressure in the form of sanctions approved by the United Nations. We have generally supported the diplomatic approach, but -- to quote Secretary Powell again -- ``diplomacy does not mean pretending something isn't there when it's there.''
Part of the reason that the Iran nuclear issue has continued to fester is the Bush administration's preoccupation with reelection. This effectively meant postponing all tough decisions, such as what to do about the nuclear challenge posed by both North Korea and Iran. Only two days before the election, the Iranian parliament voted to resume nuclear-enrichment activities, with some members chanting, ``Death to America.''
The only progress that has been made so far is to impose a deadline of Nov. 25, by which time an agreement must be reached or Iran will have to face the prospect of U.N.-imposed sanctions. That is not a day too soon because Iran announced in September that it had begun converting its uranium stock into gas, a crucial step in the enrichment process that could lead to weapons production.
There is no easy or simple solution, unless Iran agrees to accept economic inducements in exchange for giving up its enrichment program and agreeing to full inspections.
If Iran won't accept the carrot, it will be time to consider the alternative.