Two steps backward

The Baltimore Sun

The North Koreans put the brakes on dismantling their nuclear weapons program last week. And the Iranians won't consider anything other than unfettered pursuit of a nuclear energy program. That leaves most of the "axis of evil" pretty well intact - and the Bush administration with that much less it can claim credit for in foreign policy matters.

The North Koreans' refusal to follow through on their commitment to allow international inspectors to visit a nuclear reprocessing plant near Yongbyon was a disappointment, but not really unexpected. Striking a deal with the North Koreans in June, with less than a year in office, left President Bush vulnerable to just this sort of setback. The North Koreans are minus one cooling tower because of the agreement, but they still have the equipment in place needed to restart reprocessing plutonium, which would undermine any progress made so far.

The reported illness of President Kim Jong Il may have been a factor in North Korea's about-face on inspectors, but the United States also hasn't fulfilled all its commitments under the June agreement, including removing North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terror. Visits by international monitors to the North Koreans' nuclear complex were a key component of the pact, and they shouldn't be compromised. But editing the U.S. terrorism list a bit just might bring the North Koreans around.

Iran is another matter entirely. Its leaders have resisted every reasonable effort by a consortium of countries - Russia, Britain, France, China and, belatedly, the United States - to halt Tehran's nuclear program, if only temporarily. Despite a series of on-again, off-again talks, in which the Bush administration eventually participated, the Iranians have rejected a package of economic incentives to stop enriching uranium. And last week President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pronounced the matter "now closed" in a speech to the United Nations that was laced with anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric.

Iran contends that it has the right to enrich uranium and that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. But the U.S. and its allies fear Iranian scientists are pursuing a nuclear weapons capability, which would pose a grave threat to the stability of the region and possibly provoke a pre-emptive strike by Israel.

The Bush administration's tough, sanctions-driven policy hasn't worked. And even after the White House was persuaded by its allies to engage more directly with Iran in support of an incentive package, Iran thumbed its nose at the West.

The next president must develop a new approach to halting Tehran's nuclear ambitions that advances U.S. interests without compromising the security of its friends in the region.

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