Iran’s nuclear program is on the fast track, and the United States and other major powers seem powerless to stop it. Before Iran gets to the point of no return, the U.S. and its partners should stop the strategy of isolation and confrontation and adopt a more pragmatic approach based on cooperation, says David Cortright, a research fellow at the Kroc Institute.

Why is it time to change strategies?

Punitive measures clearly are not working. Despite sanctions and threats, Iran is installing thousands of centrifuges to produce substantial quantities of enriched uranium. The country’s strategic position is better today than it was a few years ago — a result of higher oil prices and the invasion of Iraq, which installed a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad. The U.S. is focusing its attention on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while ignoring the real power in the country, the clerical establishment and Ayatollah Khamenei, who control security forces and the nuclear program. Pressure from the West has only strengthened the hand of these clerical conservatives and weakened western-oriented reformers.

In addition, sanctions have been ineffective and counterproductive. When I visited Iran last January, I learned that sanctions are having little effect on government leaders but are creating hardships for ordinary people and many businesses. In my encounters with people in the streets, I found admiration for the U.S. and a strong desire for an end to sanctions so that trade and travel between the U.S. and Iran can return to normal.

What makes you think cooperation will work?
Iran and the United States have significant common interests. Both want to stabilize Iraq and help the Baghdad government consolidate its control. Both oppose Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The United States and the West have energy technologies that could help Iran increase oil and gas production. Iran has significant influence over Hezbollah and other Shiite factions in the region, whose cooperation would be crucial in any Middle East peace process. If they work together, the U.S. and Iran could both benefit.

But what about the nuclear program?
Iran insists on the right to enrich uranium, and it is legally entitled to do so under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. A viable solution could be to develop a multinational enrichment consortium, a project that has been recommended by former U.S. ambassadors Thomas Pickering and William Luers. If this happened, uranium enrichment would proceed on Iranian soil, but the facilities would be owned and operated by a consortium of countries and be subject to strict international control. Tehran has suggested a similar proposal in the past and has indicated its willingness to consider such an arrangement. Negotiating would be complicated, but an agreement in principle could be reached quickly—if the U.S. and its allies were willing to be flexible.

David Cortright is the author or editor of 14 books, including Uniting Against Terror: Cooperative Nonmilitary Responses to the Global Terrorist Threat (MIT Press).

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