Today the governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency will determine whether or not to refer the case of Iran's nuclear programs to the UN Security Council. I will be surprised if either side proves willing to risk a full breach at this point, notwithstanding the bellicose statements emanating from Teheran. Iran's threatened response should probably be seen as further positioning, rather than anything final. But the danger in this school of negotiating lies in the chance that, at some point along the way, they will do something that the other side will see as irrevocable and set the world on a path to disaster.
The seriousness of this confrontation is underlined by the reported discovery of nuclear warhead plans in Iran, or at least of plans for fabricating the atomic trigger for a warhead. Even if this was only a promotional "freebie" from the A.Q. Khan nuclear technology smuggling ring, it suggests that Iran possesses the motive and means for building nuclear weapons, and presently lacks only the opportunity. Denying them that at an acceptable cost is the bottom line for the international community.
In that light, President Bush's remarks about Iran in Tuesday's State of the Union address seemed firm but much more measured than his "Axis of Evil" comment of a few years ago. At the same time, the EU-3 (Germany, France and the UK) have demonstrated remarkable resolve, so far. It would be much easier for them to waffle here, than to stand firm and take the consequences.
The situation is further complicated by the Russian processing offer, as described in a thoughtful op-ed in yesterday's New York Times. The authors, from the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, are concerned that this option will play into Iran's hands and allow them to finesse the IAEA and fracture the Security Council. But unless the Security Council is prepared to put teeth in any finding from the IAEA, this may still be the best option available, as a way to defer an actual crisis until we are in a better position to call Iran's bluff.