As President Bush enters his final months in office, there are mounting signs of disarray when it comes to current U.S. policy towards Iran and North Korea. The three remaining plausible candidates to succeed him — Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain — have yet to explain how their policies will differ from the current administration's. Regarding Iran, for example, senior administration officials are continuously disavowing their own administration's National Intelligence Estimate, produced late last year, which suggested that Iran had halted a critical component of its nuclear weapons program. But the damage to American credibility has already occurred, and the administration appears to have decided that the Iranian nuclear program will be left for its successor to deal with.
It hasn't always been this way. During Mr. Bush's first term, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton was particularly energetic about urging Moscow not to supply fuel for Iran's light-water nuclear reactor at Bushehr. The Department of Energy studied how much plutonium could be extracted from the facility and concluded that a middle-range estimate would be enough to build 50 to 60 nuclear weapons. But after Mr. Bush was re-elected, the administration, under intense pressure from Europe, made a regrettable bargain in an effort to bolster its diplomatic case against Iran: accept the premise that Tehran has every right to go forward with purportedly "civilian" nuclear energy programs even if such programs could be diverted to military use. This has led to the absurd situation (spotlighted in hearings held by the House Energy and Commerce Committee earlier this year), in which the White House is supporting an Energy Department budget that includes $4 million for two Russian institutes that are helping Iran complete the Bushehr reactor.
One week ago, the United States, together with Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany, announced that they had "updated" a 2006 package of incentives, which included providing Iran with nuclear energy. The incentives also consisted of a light-water reactor; partial ownership of a Russian enrichment facility and a five-year stock of enriched uranium stored under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency. U.S. officials privately expressed doubts that Tehran would accept the new proposal, which would require it to suspend uranium enrichment. In contrast, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband sounded upbeat, expressing hope that Tehran would recognize the "sincerity" of the offer.
Meanwhile, the situation regarding North Korea's "denuclearization" appears even bleaker. Miss Rice's suggestion that North Korea could be removed from the list of terror-supporting states before verification arrangements can be worked out should be a non-starter on Capitol Hill — especially given all of the new information about Pyongyang's role in building an apparent Syrian nuclear weapons facility that was destroyed by Israel. In recent weeks, this page has pointed to some of the cogent arguments against the Bush administration's weak approach to verification and other issues; the criticism has come from hawks like Mr. Bolton and David Asher, former coordinator of the State Department's North Korea Working Group, and from moderate doves such as former Clinton and Carter administration officials Winston Lord and Leslie Gelb.
Thus far, however, the presidential contenders have had relatively little to say about North Korea or Iran. Mr. Obama's only concrete proposal for dealing with the problem seems to be holding unconditional negotiations with those regimes, while Mrs. Clinton makes truculent threats about attacking Iran if it uses nuclear weapons against Israel. But she has zero credibility. During her eight years in the Senate, Mrs. Clinton has repeatedly joined those who want to prevent essential testing to ensure the viability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent that keeps us safe from rogue states.
The closest thing to a grown-up on these issues is Mr. McCain, who has spoken out very forcefully about the dangers posed by such regimes. But, as far as we can tell, he has yet to take the most important step of all: explaining, in a respectful but firm manner, what he would do differently from President Bush on North Korea and Iran.