In the past few weeks we have witnessed remarkable changes in some of the most difficult and dangerous global nuclear proliferation threats. Rather than heading toward military conflicts, the United States seems to be moving toward negotiated solutions that could end the nascent nuclear weapons programs in Iran, Libya and possibly also North Korea.

It is unclear whether these breakthroughs, which are still tentative but hold extraordinary promise, are the result of the American success in Iraq or of our failures there. That is, have we been able to work out deals with Iran and Libya, two of the most difficult regimes in the world, because they feared that they were next in the Bush administration's cross hairs, or because the United States is so tied down in Iraq that the administration finds it necessary to seek diplomatic solutions?

Much of the news coverage and analysis of these developments has treated them as if they were entirely unrelated events. Yet the pattern that emerges when we connect the dots is at least as important as the events themselves. It signifies not only substantial progress toward stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, but also an as-yet-unacknowledged shift: Washington is now negotiating with regimes it had previously vowed to overthrow. And the change is working.

To recap the rapid developments of the past three months:

North Korea: In early January, in what Secretary of State Colin Powell called "a positive development," the North Korean government offered to freeze its nuclear programs and not test any weapons, in exchange for political and economic concessions from the United States. On January 9, Pyongyang allowed a U.S. delegation of private experts and former officials to tour its nuclear facilities.

Libya: In a stunning trans-Atlantic announcement on December 19, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush said Libya had agreed, after nine months of secret talks, to publicly disclose and dismantle all nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs; to limit its missiles to a range of less than 300 km; and to open the country immediately to comprehensive inspections to verify its compliance. Like a drug dealer caught on the street, Libya also rolled over on its suppliers. Together with information coming from Iran, officials are now cracking open the international network of suppliers and middlemen that allowed both countries, and North Korea, to accumulate the high-tech equipment necessary to build nuclear weapons. Pakistan has emerged as a key supplier to all three.

Iran: On Oct. 21, Iran announced that it would suspend its once-secret program to enrich uranium and allow expanded inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, letting inspectors perform spot checks of any suspicious sites. Iran's decision came after two days of intense negotiations between top Iranian officials and the British, French and German foreign ministers. The European diplomats reportedly wrote to Iranian officials in August, offering technological assistance and an assured supply of nuclear fuel in exchange for full Iranian cooperation. As a European Union official said at the time, "It's a real success for our engagement policy instead of the American confrontation policy."

Change of Direction
These nuclear U-turns have profound implications. For the past decade, many have seen these countries as the central nuclear danger. That is, while there are some 30,000 nuclear weapons in the world, most are in the hands of Russia and the United States, with China, France, Britain, Israel, India and Pakistan accounting for another few hundred. It is now unlikely that any of these states would use these weapons, except in the case that war should break out in South Asia. The greatest danger was that Iran, Iraq, North Korea or Libya would acquire nuclear weapons and either use them, threaten to use them or transfer them to a terrorist group.

Just how significant is the Libyan decision to end its nuclear weapons program? It marks the first time in almost 30 years that any nation has ended such a program without a change in regime. Several countries, including Sweden and Australia, abandoned research on nuclear weapons in the 1960s when they joined the newly negotiated nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and South Korea and Taiwan gave up their nuclear ambitions in the early 1970s under pressure from the United States. Since then, however, programs only changed when regimes did. Argentina and Brazil ended their programs when civilian governments replaced military juntas. South Africa dismantled the six nuclear weapons it had secretly built when the apartheid regime was about to yield to majority rule. Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan gave up the thousands of nuclear weapons they had inherited from the Soviet Union when they gained independence.

Money Over Military Means
So why the change? Conservative pundits are quick to claim that the leaders of Libya and Iran are cooperating because they fear the same fate that befell Saddam Hussein. Perhaps. There is little direct evidence to support this conclusion and both countries deny it. Still, the war in Iraq must have had some effect. But going further to claim that the United States could initiate military attacks on these nations is sheer bluster. With mounting casualties and costs and few allies in Iraq, the administration cannot even bolster our troops in Afghanistan, let alone mount major new military operations in other nations. Nor would we have any international or domestic support for new wars. Libya and Iran must know this.

It seems clear that with Libya, Iran and North Korea it is money that matters. The major condition of the EU's new trade and cooperation agreement with Iran is that the country end its uranium enrichment program. That deal is worth billions. The Europeans are now committed to using their "soft power" to leverage good behavior from the nations that have strong economic ties with Europe. Similarly, Libya began negotiations years ago with the United States and other nations to get out from under the international and U.S. sanctions that had crippled it. Neither Iran nor Libya wants to be seen as an outcast.

Libyan President Moammar Gaddafi realized that to survive, he needed Western investment and Western markets. His acceptance of responsibility for the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 led to the suspension of U.N. sanctions in 1999, but it became clear that he would also have to end his pursuit of nuclear and chemical weapons before Washington would lift its sanctions. As Blair noted, Gaddafi came to Britain with a proposal to do just that in March, before the Iraq War began. Other factors probably helped push him along, but right now, the evidence indicates that the greatest incentive was restoring economic relations.

What is also clear is that the cooperation between Europe and the United States has struck the right balance between force and diplomacy. Negotiated agreements, not military operations, are making headlines. The threat of U.S. force is still there -- and should be -- but it is Europe's diplomatic engagement strategy that is now dominant. The United States, bogged down in Iraq and paying high costs for a still uncertain outcome, now clearly prefers talking to fighting. Bush seems to have turned toward Powell, who has taken center stage and is getting results. In articles and speeches, Powell has begun promoting a new "strategy of partnerships," cleverly reinterpreting the administration's policy pronouncements as if this were how it was always intended to be. It's classic Washington politics, but it is also effective diplomacy. As Blair said of the Libya deal, "It shows that problems of proliferation can, with good will, be tackled through discussion and engagement, to be followed up by the responsible international agencies. It demonstrates that countries can abandon programs voluntarily and peacefully."

Prospects for Resolution
There are many obstacles ahead. The Libyan case seems the most clear-cut. Gaddafi realizes that there is no pan-Arab nationalist revolution to lead, so he would like to end his days as the leader of a prosperous, secure Arab nation. The Iranian case is more complicated. With several factions vying for government control, each needs to walk a fine line in opening up to the West without appearing to surrender to Western arrogance. Some may want to play for time, yield a bit on the nuclear program, hoping to restart it some time in the future. North Korea is the most difficult of all. The country's leadership is so mercurial that one almost expects to find it named in dictionary definitions of the term. Where North Korea is concerned, the administration does not have a partner with the confidence and clout of Britain or the EU, and remains deeply divided on whether to negotiate with the Pyongyang regime or to overthrow it, with the pragmatist faction perhaps only temporarily having the upper hand.

But if the administration can overcome its internal divisions and work closely with its international partners, it has the tools at hand to resolve all these cases, including a strong international norm that countries should not acquire nuclear weapons, and a newly improved regime of international inspections to verify that countries are keeping their promises. After Libya, Iran and North Korea, there simply are no other rogue countries that come close to having the history, ambitions or nuclear capabilities of these three.

Once these problems are solved, we can turn our attention to other, less dramatic ones. Like how to get rid of the 20,000 nuclear weapons and 1,000 tons of nuclear bomb material stored in Russia before al Qaeda figures out a way to buy some of it -- or to steal it.

This piece first appeared in the Washington Post Outlook section on January 11, 2004. Joseph Cirincione is director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and co-author of the new Carnegie Report "WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications."