Sunday's announcement by Iran that it would suspend its program to enrich uranium might generate more enthusiasm if such promises hadn't come to seem like a meaningless annual ritual. Iran made the same announcement in October 2003, but evidence shows that it continued other efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
On Monday, the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency said that, as best as it could determine, Tehran had not diverted nuclear materials to a weapons program. But the agency said it couldn't rule out the possibility of diversions evading its notice.
That's not much of a confidence-booster, but it's about as good as we're likely to get for now, and it opens the door to follow-up talks to see if the suspension can be lengthened into the distant future. Britain, France and Germany have done the heavy lifting with a nation that the Bush administration demonizes as one-third of the "axis of evil."
The European countries were embarrassed a year ago when Tehran announced a suspension of uranium enrichment work but then was found to have continued to attempt to assemble centrifuges that are an integral part of a nuclear weapons program.
Iran's top negotiator on nuclear matters did not say how long the freeze would last, nor have all the quid pro quos been spelled out. But part of the deal is likely to include the European triumvirate offering Tehran a light-water nuclear reactor to generate electricity. Such reactors are less likely to be the starting point for a nuclear weapons program. For its part, Iran is supposed to let United Nations inspectors roam the country to check on nuclear facilities.
Iran wanted to avoid U.N. Security Council action on its defiance of the IAEA, which might have meant sanctions on Tehran. A referral to the Security Council also would set back Iran's efforts to join the World Trade Organization.
Inspectors will have to hold Iran to its agreement and be alert to attempts to hide undeclared nuclear research. Iranian dissidents and exiles have tipped outsiders to the existence of sites the government wanted to keep secret. They can be valuable in continuing to monitor the government's activity. Religious and political conservatives have purged foes within Iran in the last year, but some in the government are believed to be amenable to working with the U.N. and trying to improve relations with Washington.
The Bush administration should not block an Iranian WTO application if the country truly freezes uranium enrichment; Washington also can dangle the plump carrot of eventual restoration of diplomatic relations 25 years after the mullahs and their followers took U.S. diplomats hostage.