Iran is headed toward a showdown with the West over its nuclear ambitions.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) voted recently to report Tehran to the U.N. Security Council for violations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The IAEA didn't set a timetable for reporting Iran in the hope that Iran would abandon its plans before the Security Council is forced to take action.
Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, claims that his country isn't pursuing nuclear weapons - indeed, that it doesn't need them. But the IAEA vote (22-1, with 12 abstentions) shows world leaders clearly don't believe him.
The true test of wills in this matter isn't far off. The West must keep the pressure on. It must not relent. It can't trust Iran. And it can't let this government get its hands on a nuclear weapon.
It's not going to be easy, the IAEA vote notwithstanding. Iran's response to this whole process has been belligerence. Immediately after the IAEA vote, the hard-line parliament in Tehran voted to restrict IAEA inspections. Before that, Mr. Ahmadinejad denounced as "an insult" a deal in which the European Union would provide security and economic incentives, including nuclear energy, if Iran would stop its uranium-conversion program at Isfahan.
One must ask what Iran needs with nuclear energy. It's one of the most oil-rich countries on Earth. And if its intentions are peaceful, why did the new defense minister tell the Iranian parliament recently that developing ballistic missiles is among the new government's highest priorities?
In Europe, the big worry is that the United States might be willing to go to war to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear capability. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has gone so far as to say the "military option ... should be off the table."
But if the EU's offer is considered an insult in Tehran and the military option is beyond consideration, what do we do next? Talk more? Offer more carrots that will be considered insults? Might the negotiations between Iran and Britain, France and Germany be aimed more at keeping the United States from using force than actually disarming Iran? Have the governments of Europe given up on preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons?
If so, that's a serious mistake. Tehran supports international terrorism, flouts international law and suppresses its people with a relish and thoroughness found in few other places.
It pays for terrorists to blow up women and children. It hanged a mentally incompetent 16-year-old girl for "acts incompatible with chastity." It imposes the death penalty for uttering insults against the memory of Imam Khomeini. It has executed four children and ordered amputations for nine other people since 2003, according to Amnesty International.
Iran is a place where journalists are routinely arrested for writing "propaganda against the regime." Where newspapers and Internet sites are shut down for the slightest utterance against the government. Where an Iranian-Canadian photographer died in police custody in 2003 from what the government later admitted were blows to the head.
It is a place where women have limited social and legal rights. The new minister of justice recently announced that "improperly veiled women" would be treated as if they were wearing no veil at all and arrested.
Human rights groups document and speak out against the abuses in Iran. Freedom House rates its political and civil rights next to last. But these groups have yet to make the connection that a government so barbaric can't be allowed near nuclear weapons.
These rankings mean something to the Iranian regime. Iran is quite sensitive about its international image. Shine a light on its abuses, and it might well respond. Put the matter of its internal conduct and its pursuit of a nuclear program before the Security Council, and force the countries of Europe to acknowledge publicly what they all know privately about Iran's internal conduct.
Iran sees itself as a major player on the world stage, and getting the world to buy this requires appearing to be a normal country. Having European, Middle Eastern, African and other countries ask questions about its human rights record would at least end the culture of impunity that now prevails.
The world should make a stand and say unequivocally to the mullahs that no country that treats its citizens so badly can or will be trusted with nuclear weapons.
Not now or anytime in the foreseeable future.
Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D., is Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies and Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Baltimore Sun