Senate passage of a civilian nuclear deal with India Wednesday may allow the Bush administration to go out of office touting at least one feather in its nonproliferation cap.
But on two other prickly issues – Iran and North Korea – President Bush will almost certainly leave behind deepening crises that will confront the next administration with further-destabilized regions, in Asia and the Middle East, and looming proliferation challenges.
The administration's top negotiator with North Korea is in Pyongyang this week trying to head off the North's retreat from an agreement that had it disabling its nuclear program. Unhappy with Bush's failure to drop North Korea from a list of state sponsors of terrorism – and with what it says are new verification demands – officials from the regime have said they could restart plutonium reprocessing as early as this week.
The glitch in what was supposed to be an important foreign-policy achievement of the Bush presidency comes a week after the US joined others on the United Nations Security Council to pass a fourth resolution on Iran. The resolution, probably the last international action on Iran under this administration, includes no new sanctions or other measures to increase pressure on Iran to halt uranium enrichment.
"It's clear the next administration is going to inherit deteriorated conditions on both fronts" of Iran and North Korea, says Robert Einhorn, a former assistant secretary of State for nonproliferation and now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The Security Council resolution "was the last gasp of this administration on the Iran issue," he says, while North Korea is "backtracking," perhaps as a ploy to eke out more concessions from a departing administration.
The civilian nuclear deal with India paves the way for the first nuclear cooperation with the booming South Asian giant since India tested a nuclear weapon in 1974. The Bush administration and leaders in Congress hail the accord as a new chapter in America's relations with the world's most populous democracy. They say the accord, which opens India's civilian nuclear plants but not its military nuclear installations to international inspections, advances nonproliferation goals with a country that never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
But critics of the India deal, largely in the nonproliferation community, say the deal will set back nonproliferation efforts by encouraging other potential nuclear powers to hold out for a similar deal. "This deal has everything to do with being able to say we changed relations with India and with building good relations with the Brahmin elite of that country, but it has nothing to do with nonproliferation and will only set it back," says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center in Washington.
Regarding North Korea, the administration insists it won't grant any concessions on the accord reached in June, but says that Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs who arrived in Pyongyang Wednesday, might agree to changes in how verification of disarmament is carried out.
The outcome may ride on whether Pyongyang decides it gets the best deal with Bush, or gambles that its prospects may brighten with a new administration. "They may be trying to game the American elections," says Mr. Einhorn.
As for Iran, everything points to Tehran taking advantage of the next few months of focus on American politics to advance its mastery of the uranium enrichment process.
One question mark is whether or not Israel would strike against known Iranian nuclear installations under cover of a sympathetic US administration. Recent reports citing Israeli intelligence leaks claim the Israeli government ran into a red light at the White House when it floated the idea of an attack earlier this year.
With the international community seemingly united against a nuclear-armed Iran, yet in disaccord on how to ensure that goal, the next US administration seems certain to pursue increased diplomatic pressure on Tehran. But others say that strategy has not worked and a new approach is now needed to dissuade Iran.
"We need to be thinking about … what are the political strategies we can follow now … to try to persuade the Iranians not to continue to the end of a nuclear weapons program," says David Kay, a former US and UN weapons inspector who worked on Iraq. Mr. Kay, now at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va., says Iran is "80 percent of the way" toward building a nuclear weapon, which by his estimate means the world is perhaps two to five years away from a nuclear Iran. The next few months of transition from one US administration to another, he says, should be used to come up with a strategy for influencing Iran. "It's not a hopeless task," he says.
A start lies in understanding Iran's existential security concerns – which Kay sees as similar to those driving Israeli actions in the region – and devising a strategy that takes those concerns into account. "We should say we understand their national security dilemma" and their concerns about "regional security," he says.