A new rival to 'regime change'
A US plan to stop nuclear programs - without toppling leaders - is under debate.
Ever since President Bush's "axis of evil" speech in 2002, US policy for dealing with the nuclear programs of what it considers to be "rogue states" has rested on one cornerstone: regime change.Skip to next paragraph
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Iraq cemented the widely held estimation that for the Bush administration, the only way to satisfactorily deal with a hostile regime's weapons-of-mass-destruction aspirations was to change the regime.
But now, recent developments involving Libya and North Korea suggest that a new tack is at least under consideration - one that could have profound impact on the crisis with Iran over its nuclear ambitions.
In the White House, on Capitol Hill, and among influential deans of US foreign policy, this new rival to the doctrine of regime change appears to be: The international security priority is such that we are prepared to hold our noses and accept your existence, if you forgo nuclear armament.
Policy analysts emphasize that nothing says the regime-change forces have lost the battle yet. But the hints of fierce debate, they say, suggest those forces are no longer as dominant as they once were.
"The days of 'regime change' and the days of being tough with regard to Iran and North Korea are waning, and they are waning because the influence of the people who championed those positions - [Vice President Dick] Cheney, [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld, and [UN Ambassador John] Bolton - is not as great as it once was," says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington.
Regime change has not necessarily been strictly defined as the US removing leaders from power. Indeed, it has included other means - for example, empowering the people to organize an overthrow themselves. But in each case, the rationale was the same: The regimes were such an international threat that their removal - one way or the other - was the only option.
But an initial hint of some evolution in this policy came last week. The announcement of a restoration of full diplomatic relations with Muammar Qaddafi's Libya set off wide speculation about the timing of the move - especially when State Department officials, beginning with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, framed the decision as a message to Iran and North Korea.
Discussion also spread that the United States is considering giving new priority to formal security assurances for Pyongyang as a way to reinvigorate six-country talks on the regime's nuclear program.
The next key window into the Bush administration's handling of rogue regimes could come as early as Wednesday, when the US is scheduled to meet in London to discuss Iran with the other four permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany. The six countries are to discuss a new package of incentives and negative consequences to be presented to Iran for either agreeing or refusing to give up its uranium enrichment program.
European officials say they understand the difficulty for the US of either signing on to security assurances for Tehran or entering into direct talks with the Iranian regime. But they note that the US did both to get Libya to abandon its WMD programs - and they worry that the goal of curtailing Iran's nuclear ambitions could be doomed unless the US eventually takes those steps with Tehran.