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.
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.
"Qaddafi wanted to be certain that [the US] goal was not to kill him or to end his regime," notes one European diplomat, drawing a parallel between the Libyan and Iranian cases. "Until the day [the US] says that, we may be in a stalemate," says the diplomat, who asked not to be named because of the ongoing nature of the talks.
But nonproliferation experts say the recent steps on Libya and renewed debate on North Korea may mean the Bush administration is moving toward separating its political ideology from one of its top national-security goals, which has been to stop the spread of WMD to troublesome countries - especially those supporting international terrorism.
"If the US is signaling it is no longer mixing regime change and its nuclear nonproliferation objectives, that would be very useful," says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington. The US approach to North Korea is "not working," Mr. Kimball says, as evidenced by Pyongyang's continued buildup of its nuclear arsenal since talks in September. He says that fact and the lack of options on Iran may be pushing the administration to consider new options.
"They may have learned their own lesson from Libya," Kimball says, "that the most effective way to persuade a rogue state to dismantle its WMD program is to assure that state that its government won't be overthrown."
Of course, not everyone agrees that's the lesson of Libya. Mr. Sokolski of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center says the Libyans gave up WMD because "they were convinced they were next on the list" after Iraq. "If you don't have something to hold over these regimes," he adds, "it can be seen as weakness."
Indeed, in part because of the prevailing support for that argument, other experts discount suggestions that the Bush administration is turning its back on regime change. Robert Einhorn, a former diplomat in nonproliferation affairs now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says he sees no sign the White House is heeding building pressures to engage with WMD foes.
He cites a recent Washington Post column in which Henry Kissinger recommends the US enter into talks with Iran - or face a destabilizing expansion of the world's nuclear club. "But I don't see the administration buying into that perspective," he says, "any more than I see them giving the nuclear problem parity with their other concerns about these regimes."
But others place the North Korea and Iran issues in the context of an ongoing foreign-policy debate in the administration - and they see the rise of those in the Kissinger vein as having an impact. "We're seeing the ascendency of the pragmatists over the ideologues, but we don't know yet if that rise is anything definitive," says Joseph Cirincione, an analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington.
Pointing to the administration's internal debate over extending an olive branch to North Korea, he says, "It may be about more than North Korea: It may be the first step in a reorientation of US proliferation policy."
For that to be the case, however, Mr. Cirincione says it would take acknowledgment that regime change is off the table - something not all White House quarters appear ready to do. "The day Vice President Cheney gives a speech about negotiating with the North Koreans," he says, "then it will be a done deal."