With North Korea, Iran Talks Faltering, Bush Is Poised to Leave Behind Two Nuclear Challenges

Last-ditch diplomacy might not prevent the next president from facing two new active nuclear foes

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With less than four months left in the Bush administration, two key nuclear proliferation challenges—North Korea and Iran—are once again bedeviling U.S. officials and increasingly looking like problems that will be dumped full-force into the lap of the next U.S. president.

North Korea this week received a rare visit by a senior U.S. official, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill. Extended for a second day, his trip amounted to a salvage mission aimed at overcoming an impasse that threatens to end a once promising nuclear disarmament process agreed to by North Korea and five other countries, including the United States.

In particular, Hill sought to persuade the reclusive leaders of that communist country to embrace a serious plan for verifying future nuclear disarmament in return for removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, as promised earlier. That issue appears to have been caught up in the never-ending tussles between administration hard-liners (including Vice President Cheney's office) and moderates over North Korea and Iran policy.

A policy shift in Bush's second term led to direct negotiations with the North and a deal to disable, dismantle, and then remove Pyongyang's nuclear assets in exchange for energy aid and political and economic benefits. But that came after the North tested a nuclear device and more missiles.

And as tortured bargaining over that deal has continued, nothing yet has altered the fact that North Korea during the Bush years has moved from having perhaps one or two atomic bombs' worth of plutonium to at least six.

On Iran as well, there are no signs that the U.S.-backed diplomacy is anywhere close to dissuading Tehran from continuing to rev up its production of nuclear fuel or persuading it to answer all the questions about its nuclear work—particularly about alleged military projects to learn how to fashion a working nuclear warhead. Iran insists its efforts are for peaceful nuclear energy and research, as its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, did in meetings last week at the United Nations.

The U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency reported last month that Iran's uranium enrichment work was expanding rapidly, and that resolving outstanding questions had reached a point of gridlock given Iran's unwillingness to fully cooperate in the probe. Iran vows to continue with its nuclear activities.

According to David Kay, a former U.N. weapons inspector, Iran is now "80 percent of the way" to a nuclear weapon, though "the last 20 percent is the really hard part." He predicts the Islamic Republic is two to five years from having sufficient fissile material and adequate design preparation to be able to place an atomic warhead on a missile. "I don't think there's any doubt that—left to the current policies—the Iranians will achieve a nuclear weapon," he told a Nixon Center gathering this week.

Iran also rebuffed a U.N. Security Council resolution last weekend that reaffirmed support for past sanctions and demands that Iran suspend nuclear work. Tellingly, though, the resolution imposed no new sanctions, serving instead as a quickly manufactured bandage holding together, for now, the diplomatic status quo on Iran. The effort was intended to show that, at minimum, Russia had not backed away from previously approved pressures in light of Russian-U.S. tensions over Russia's invasion and occupation of part of Georgia.

Both Russia and China, two veto-wielding Security Council powers, oppose further sanctions on Iran.

In North Korea, recent moves have included barring IAEA inspectors and removing seals and surveillance equipment from the nuclear complex at Yongbyon. The North appears to be moving toward a resumption of plutonium reprocessing, perhaps in a matter of days. South Korea has also reported signs of repair work being done at North Korea's nuclear test site.

That could all be a concerted effort at classic North Korean brinkmanship—aimed at cutting (or recutting) a hard bargain. The timing—as the Bush administration focuses on a distracting financial crisis—is also reminiscent of North Korea playing tough as the White House focused on a looming war in Iraq.