President George W. Bush is in the midst of a ‘farewell’ tour of Europe and the primary agenda he is pushing is the imposition of harsher sanctions against Iran. The Bush administration’s dangerous game rests on a paradox. In order to force Tehran to give up its programme to enrich nuclear fuel, Washington needs to scare the international community into believing the Iranians are so close to building an atomic bomb that only tough sanctions can deter them from taking the last step. However, successive reports of the International Atomic Energy Agency — not to speak of America’s own intelligence assessments — show the opposite to be true. Indeed, all the ‘outstanding issues’ that were used to pressure the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency into voting to refer Iran to the United Nations Security Council in September 2005 have been satisfactorily resolved. There is no logical or legal reason for Tehran to be penalised. The only ‘issues’ remaining on the table are allegations stemming from documents provided to the IAEA by the United States and its allies, which the agency is unable to provide to the Iranians in any form other than electronic. Iran rejects the authenticity of these documents, which purport to describe research efforts with possible implications for nuclear weapons. In any event, the IAEA has said there is no evidence to suggest the use of nuclear material in connection with these alleged studies.

So how does the Bush administration go about making a case for tougher sanctions? By repeating ever so often that if sanctions do not work, the ‘military option’ can always be used. But American officials and politicians, with some exceptions, have been guarded in comparison with the Israeli government, which has made the most belligerent noises. Earlier this month, Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz said Israel would have “no choice” but to attack Iran. Until now, the Bush administration has used the rhetoric of the lunatic fringe of Zionist politics represented by Mr. Mofaz to scare governments into believing that sanctions are preferable to war. But post-Iraq, the world also knows that the road to war is paved with sanctions. While paying lip-service to Mr. Bush’s irresponsible demands, the Europeans clearly prefer to wait and see whether the Security Council agrees to tighten the screws on Iran. Meanwhile, speculation is mounting about an ‘October surprise’ (a pre-election air strike)) or even a post-election valedictory bombing campaign by the outgoing Republican administration. Rather than wait to see what the U.S. does next, Europe should join hands with Russia, China, and India to devise a rational, just, and international-law-abiding approach towards Iran.