Reports that Iran and Russia have reached an agreement on a plan for the joint enrichment of Iran’s uranium in Russia have eased fears of a major international confrontation over Iran’s nuclear plans. But this danger has by no means been eliminated. Without a permanent resolution of the dispute agreeable to both the United States and Iran, the prospect of an armed clash will grow increasingly severe. Such a clash might not entail full-scale war, but it could trigger an uncontrollable explosion of sectarian and religious strife throughout the Middle East. Preventing such a clash is among the most pressing tasks facing the international community today.

At heart this dispute revolves around Iranian efforts to enrich natural uranium (i.e., increase its content of fissionable U-235) in its own facilities–either for use as a fuel in civilian power plants, as claimed by Tehran, or as the core of nuclear bombs, as claimed by Washington. Enrichment activities of this sort aren’t prohibited by the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Iran signed in 1968, but would constitute a breach if the highly enriched uranium was used for military purposes.

The problem for international regulators is that the enrichment technology used to make civilian reactor fuel–in this case, uranium gas centrifuges–can also be used to make highly enriched uranium, and it’s not possible to determine the objective of such an operation until it’s well under way. Accordingly, those who fear that Iran is intent on obtaining nuclear weapons seek to prevent any enrichment from taking place there; the Iranians, for their part, insist that they have every right under the NPT to conduct such activities for peaceful uses and that interference with that right would constitute an intolerable assault on their sovereignty.

Under pressure from Britain, France and Germany, Iran agreed in 2004 to suspend enrichment activities at its pilot plant in Natanz while negotiating a permanent solution to the dispute. However, when the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency voted on February 4 to communicate its suspicions concerning Iran’s nuclear objectives to the United Nations Security Council–a step that could lead to economic sanctions against Iran–Tehran announced that it would terminate its voluntary freeze on enrichment. Since then, Iran has resumed small-scale enrichment at Natanz, thereby upping the ante.

If the plan for a joint Iranian-Russian enrichment enterprise proceeds, and Iran ceases activities at Natanz, the ground will be cleared for a peaceful resolution of the dispute. However, if the Russian plan fails or if the Iranians continue operations, the risk of a crisis will grow. Should the Security Council vote to impose sanctions, Tehran might decide to withdraw from the NPT altogether (as some officials have threatened) and commence an even more ambitious enrichment effort. And should UN sanctions fail to prevent this, pressure from right-wing hawks in Washington for a military solution could prove irresistible in light of George W. Bush’s pledge to prevent the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran.

A unilateral US military strike on Iran would be illegal and imprudent. It would boost domestic support for the hard-line regime of President Ahmadinejad and invite harsh Iranian reprisals, such as a violent escalation of sectarian strife in Iraq (where Iran enjoys strong support among Shiite clerics) and attacks on Persian Gulf oil facilities. It is essential, then, to find a compromise.

Fortunately, a solution–the permanent, verifiable cessation of all military-related nuclear activities in Iran under terms acceptable to Tehran–is entirely conceivable. Presumably, such a solution would entail some form of continued Iranian enrichment research (whether in Russia or under tightly controlled conditions in Natanz) along with a US nonaggression pledge and trade concessions. This, in turn, could set the stage for a much-needed overhaul of the NPT and for talks leading to a nuclear-free Middle East and eventually the elimination of all nuclear munitions.

Standing in the way of such a solution are powerful political and emotional impulses on both sides. This is not just a dispute over interpreting the NPT (which could be resolved through technical and legal means); it is also a microcosm of the larger clash between the West and the Islamic world. Suspicion of and hostility toward Muslim countries appears to be growing in Washington–note the reaction in Congress to the idea of a Dubai-based company managing some US ports–and there is scant political will for a resolution of the crisis that might leave Tehran with a sense of vindication. Likewise, any US-dictated solution would be viewed in Iran as a humiliating defeat at the hands of “the Great Satan” and would enjoy little support. Finding a way to defuse the emotional and ideological fervor on both sides of the divide is, therefore, essential for resolving the crisis peacefully.

On the US side, this means accepting Iran as a legitimate negotiating partner and approaching the issues in a professional manner. Negotiating with Tehran doesn’t mean endorsing the clerical regime; it simply means being prepared to reach a compromise that’s in everyone’s best interest. It requires shunning all talk of “regime change” and any inclination to use force. Washington has already adopted such a stance toward North Korea; it must now approach Iran in the same manner. At the same time, Iran’s leaders have to hear from their friends in the international community, including Russia and China, that they must cease anti-Israel and anti-Jewish comments that justly provoke international outrage.

A peaceful resolution of the nuclear dispute with Iran is still possible–but only if leaders and citizen groups around the world work much harder to eliminate the obstacles to intelligent compromise.