Still Spinning

Perhaps they don’t know — or they’ve got enough troubles — but American officials won’t say whether they believe Iran ordered Hezbollah’s attack on Israel that unleashed this bloody war. But Tehran is benefiting, not least because the fighting has diverted attention from its nuclear program.

It’s now more than six months since Iran defied the international community and starting spinning centrifuges, the delicately balanced machines that enrich uranium for nuclear fuel or a nuclear weapon. The good news is that Iranian scientists aren’t finding it easy to master the technology. The bad news is that it’s only a matter of time before they do.

On July 31, the Security Council gave Iran a month to stop enrichment or face possible sanctions. The 14-to-1 vote (only Qatar opposed) showed that even the Russians and Chinese had run out of patience with Iran, which has spent years deceiving international nuclear inspectors. And while anger with Israel was heating up, much of Europe was still rooting against Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons.

The balance has since shifted as the civilian death toll has mounted in Lebanon. And until the fighting stops and there’s a reliable peace, the Bush administration won’t be able to get anyone to focus seriously on those centrifuges, let alone agree to punish Tehran for its defiance.

President Bush — who just days ago was trumpeting the war in Lebanon as an opportunity for remaking the Middle East — may find a nuclear-empowered Iran his real legacy.

Iran is acting as if it has won already, with officials calling the Security Council’s resolution legally and morally void. Looking more responsible than President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shouldn’t be hard. But it is a measure of how much damage Iraq and now Lebanon have done to America’s standing that the United States would find itself competing.

The White House made progress, at least with Russia and Europe, when it agreed to talk with Iran if it suspended enrichment. With hard-liners riding high in Tehran, there’s little chance of changing minds there. But the White House should still try, offering security guarantees in exchange for Iran’s giving up technology that could feed a nuclear weapons program. Isolating Iran and making itself look more reasonable are still more reasons why Washington should be offering to talk to Syria, Hezbollah’s other patron and Iran’s best ally.

If Iran is willing to come back to the table, it will likely demand, at a minimum, that it be allowed to run a centrifuge pilot plant. It’s a risky path. Even with a small plant, scientists would be able to master skills that once learned can’t be unlearned. More delay is dangerous. The centrifuges are spinning.