Foreign policy never seems to come easily to the Bush Administration. Consider the controversial light-water nuclear plant that Iran is building, with Russian help, at the Persian Gulf port of Bushehr. The prospect of Iran's mullahs controlling a 1,000-MW reactor capable of generating plutonium has worried Washington for years. With Tehran facing an Oct. 31 deadline for coming clean on its nuclear ventures, you'd think the Administration would have a clear take on Bushehr. Think again. There's the conciliatory view: "We could conceive of them keeping the reactor," says a senior State Department aide. If the Russians took back all the spent fuel, as they have proposed, "that would be acceptable." And the hard-line slant: "No way. That's not the policy," says a senior Administration official. The U.S. will never accept Bushehr "as long as we think they have a weapons program."
So what is it? Conciliation? Hard line? Such divisions have plagued President George W. Bush's approach to nuclear-security issues with both Iran and North Korea, the remaining points on the "axis of evil." The neocons argue that the only way to curb the suspected atomic ambitions of these regimes is to depose the rulers. The moderates believe that engaging adversaries in dialogue can diminish the threat more easily and cheaply. So the Bush team has alternately ignored, threatened, cajoled and coerced the two countries, driven not by a coherent strategy but by a disorderly struggle at the highest levels to find common tactical ground between two irreconcilable approaches, engagement and confrontation.
For the moment, a President viewed abroad as a go-it-alone cowboy is looking more like a born-again multilateralist. The potentially important deal that Iran signed with European leaders last week to slow its nuclear program could push Bush to accept a level of engagement with Tehran that his hard-line advisers have resisted. And his offer of a written, multinational security guarantee for North Korea if it gives up its nuclear ambitions could commit the U.S. to protracted negotiations there as well. A President famed for his harsh, admonitory tone struck a conciliatory note aboard Air Force One last week, telling reporters, "I've been saying all along that not every policy issue needs to be dealt with by force."
Bush has uttered similar words on occasion, but they have tended to get lost in the confrontational politics that the hard-line part of his Administration espouses. In the heady days after Saddam Hussein's statue fell in Baghdad's Firdos Square, when regime change seemed so easy, some hawks even suggested that North Korea or Iran should be next. But with the U.S. military still busy in Iraq and Afghanistan, intervention — if it ever was an option — seems out of the question. And as Bush heads into an uncertain election year, he may wish to avoid creating any new international crises.
The stakes could hardly be higher. Iran has long been considered one of the world's most active sponsors of terrorism. With nuclear weapons, it could pose precisely the kind of threat Bush argued was so dangerous in prewar Iraq. North Korea is the world's most active proliferator of advanced weapons and the self-proclaimed possessor of a bomb or two. Backed into a corner, it might react with reckless irrationality. What comes next will depend on whether Bush's turn to diplomacy is a temporary expedient or a sincere strategic shift. Wise observers note that the twin efforts last week to cool these nuclear threats represent a beginning, not a resolution. Washington's hard-liners aren't about to give up easily, any more than the tough factions in Tehran and Pyongyang will. If things go badly, the U.S. could easily find itself back in confrontation mode.
Here are the twin threats and the Bush Administration's efforts to contain them.
The Bush Administration already had grievances with Iran, like its export of revolutionary ideology and support for terrorism. Although two-way contacts kept Iran from meddling in the Afghan and Iraq wars, Administration hard-liners successfully rebuffed periodic State Department proposals to reach out to the modestly reformist government of President Mohammed Khatami, under the fundamental axiom that the Bush Administration does not do business with outlaws.
Then earlier this year, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) learned that Iran was cheating on nukes. Since it signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970, Iran is allowed to pursue peaceful nuclear development under the watchful eyes of the IAEA. But in August 2002 exiled dissidents revealed that Iran had secretly built an underground uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz equipped with centrifuges that could spin out weapons-grade uranium. If not stopped, the plant could give Iran enough enriched uranium for two bombs a year, with the first available by the end of the decade (says the U.S.) or maybe in just two years (says Israel). Inspectors also wanted to know why Iran had conducted experiments converting unreported uranium tetrafluoride into uranium metal — a process necessary for bomb production. And then IAEA inspectors found the Natanz centrifuges were tainted with traces of highly enriched uranium, a telltale sign that Iran could be brewing fissile material. Iran denied that it was covertly making bombs and claimed that the centrifuges had been contaminated before they reached Iran.
The evidence seemed sufficient to the Administration. Washington charged Iran with violating its NPT commitments and insisted that the agency take Iran's noncompliance to the U.N. Security Council, which could impose punitive sanctions. To Tehran's dismay, the international community sided with the U.S. "The Iranians are behaving in a way that leads people to think they have something to hide," said a British official. The IAEA agreed unanimously in September to give Iran until Oct. 31 to explain itself or face possible U.N. sanctions.
The approaching deadline has added fuel to Iran's internal political struggle. President Khatami's reformers, according to an adviser, feared that defiance would cost the country its hard-won trade with Europe and Japan and any hope of emerging from U.S.-imposed isolation. Iran's hard-liners wanted to keep the centrifuges spinning, quit the NPT and let Iran bully its way to regional supremacy as an A-bomb owner, according to diplomats and Iranian analysts. Both sides suspected that the U.S. was using the nuclear agency to force a showdown. "Americans have been looking for pretexts for 25 years now," Abdullah Ramezanzadeh, Khatami's official spokesman, told TIME. "The neocons in the U.S. don't believe in the needs and demands of other nations, and they don't believe in dialogue. They want to use force."
Iran's embattled President spent three months maneuvering against the hard-liners. According to close associates, he built a broad coalition for a moderate response to IAEA demands among pragmatists in the military and clergy, reformers in parliament and Iranian public opinion. Because the conservatives never publicly claimed that Iran wanted a nuclear bomb and Iran's top cleric once called such weapons un-Islamic, it was not humiliating to climb down. "In the end," Khatami's adviser says, the President convinced the country's real boss, Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, that defying the IAEA would entail formidable risks to Iran's national interests.
What made it all work was the intervention of Britain, France and Germany, which devised a face-saving deal. The three countries wrote to Khatami in late August, offering to recognize Iran's right to peaceful nuclear development and to provide technological "cooperation," meaning trade, if Iran would meet the IAEA demands. That let Khatami show hard-liners that Iran would profit by giving in and prove the country is prepared to play by the world's rules. By the time the three European nations' Foreign Ministers arrived in Tehran at Khatami's invitation last week, Iran was ready to make the announcement. The country would sign the Additional Protocol, which calls for unfettered inspections and a suspension of uranium-enrichment and -reprocessing activities and requires Iran to answer all questions about the "possible failures and deficiencies" of its nuclear program.
While Iran hailed the agreement as a major breakthrough and Europe basked in the success of its politics of engagement, the U.S. reserved judgment. U.S. officials say they knew and approved of the initiative, and Bush grudgingly described the deal as "an effective approach." But privately, U.S. officials, especially the neocons, are charging that the deal was a ploy designed to buy Iran time to procure the Bomb. Washington is skeptical that Iran will follow through on its paper promises and fears that the Europeans may grow soft on Iran and prove more eager to accommodate a dangerous miscreant than to hold it to its word. But without the European intervention, there probably wouldn't have been a deal. Iranians, says Tehran University political-science professor Hadi Semati, would never have given in to American bullying. "If it had been the stick alone," he says, "there would have been no choice but to go the North Korean route."
Many analysts say any agreement to curb Iran's nukes deserves a cheer. But will Tehran live up to its promises? Administration skeptics are worried that the deal merely delays, not derails, an eventual confrontation. At the end of last week, Tehran delivered to the IAEA in Vienna a thick, indexed binder containing its "full" declaration detailing the hows and whys of its suspect behavior. The Iranian ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Akbar Salehi, told TIME the report admitted "mistakes" that resulted not from attempts to build weapons but from ignorance of IAEA requirements and a desire to be "discreet" because of the threat of U.S. sanctions. More troubling, he said, the document does not resolve a key issue: how the centrifuges were contaminated. The ambassador insisted, as Iran has done for weeks, that the parts came from middlemen who got them in several countries, "but we do not know where." The IAEA must now attempt to determine whether this is a dodge.
Nor did the agreement with the Europeans specify when Iran would sign the new inspections protocol or how long it would take the country's elected government and clerical overseers to ratify it. The same day Iran promised to suspend reprocessing efforts, Iran's national security council chief Hassan Rowhani said, "We voluntarily chose to do it, which means it could last for one day or one year." In any case, the goal is to make the voluntary suspension permanent and get Iran to stop making nuclear fuel. The Europeans hope to persuade Tehran by guaranteeing that they will provide supplies. But no matter how diligently Iran respects NPT rules or how well monitored its program is, if it retains the capacity to enrich uranium, it can revert to the bomb business on short notice unless the facilities are completely dismantled.
The nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula has hung over the U.S. ever since Bush declared his "skepticism" about the regime. "I loathe Kim Jong Il," he told author Bob Woodward. "I've got a visceral reaction to this guy because he is starving his people." Bush said that, unlike the Clinton Administration, his would not submit to Kim's nuclear blackmail by rewarding the obdurate nation for abandoning its illicit ambitions. For the next 18 months, North Korea was pretty much ignored.
But Kim's regime forced the U.S. to take notice in October 2002 by admitting that it had cheated on its 1994 accord with Clinton to stop pursuing nukes and was well down the road toward making some. Now the threat was grave: North Korea had tested a missile that could deliver a nuclear warhead to the U.S., and the cash-strapped regime could conceivably sell some of its stock to terrorists. North Korea's worried neighbors felt Washington's harsh line had driven Kim to reckless behavior. In January Pyongyang quit the NPT, threw out inspectors and accelerated its plutonium production. The North is thought to have one or two bombs plus fuel to make up to six. But as Pyongyang watched Bush charge into Iraq, it fretted that it could be next. It demanded that the U.S. sign a nonaggression pact renouncing hostile intent as a prerequisite for a nuclear stand-down. The U.S. said it would strike no bargain unless the North scrapped its nukes first.
Since taking office, Secretary of State Colin Powell has tried to nudge Bush toward a diplomatic overture. As the crisis built this year, Powell finally persuaded Bush and China to form a united front with Russia, Japan and South Korea to negotiate with the North. The show of unity at a six-way session in Beijing in August highlighted the North's isolation, but the principal antagonists did not budge. Pyongyang said it was not interested in continuing talks. The allies grumbled there was no point in pressing ahead if the U.S. was just going to restate its absolutist position.
As Bush prepared for the trip he made to Asia two weeks ago, he felt pressure to offer a concession that might break the stalemate. If the talks collapsed, his Asian allies would blame him. On the weekend of Oct. 11, he called advisers to Camp David to thrash out an acceptable compromise. The group proposed that Bush offer a written multilateral "agreement with a small a"--not a treaty — assuring that the U.S. would not attack the North. In return, Kim would have to start dismantling his nukes.
Bush's offer, made in a private meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Bangkok, was out there for exactly two days before the North dismissed it as "laughable." But it played well elsewhere, especially among the anxious Asian allies. It now falls to China, which has grudgingly taken on the role of chief mediator, to entice Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. Prospects brightened Saturday as the North abruptly reversed itself and said it would "consider" Bush's proposal.
For the moment, multilateralism rules. Bush sounded like a convert when he told reporters he welcomed Europe's involvement in Iran as well as the Asian effort in Korea. "It's the same approach," he said, "a collective voice trying to convince a leader to change behavior." But few believe Iran and North Korea are ready to give up their nuclear dreams. And fewer still think Bush has permanently metamorphosed from Lone Ranger to great statesman. On his way back from Asia, Bush couldn't help bashing Kim: "I just can't respect anyone that would really let his people starve and shrink in size as a result of malnutrition." Back home, the neocons and hard-liners who surround the President are just waiting for the poofy multilateral deals to fall apart. Then they will have the case they want to go full bore after regime change in the rest of the "axis of evil."
-- with Scott Macleod/Tehran and Massimo Calabresi/Washington With reporting by Matthew Cooper/with Bush, J.F.O. McAllister/London and Andrew Purvis/Vienna.