Diplomacy Fails to Slow Advance of Nuclear Arms
KENNEBUNKPORT, Me., Aug. 7 - American intelligence officials and outside nuclear experts have concluded that the Bush administration's diplomatic efforts with European and Asian allies have barely slowed the nuclear weapons programs in Iran and North Korea over the past year, and that both have made significant progress.
In a tacit acknowledgment that the diplomatic initiatives with European and Asian allies have failed to curtail the programs, senior administration and intelligence officials say they are seeking ways to step up unspecified covert actions intended, in the words of one official, "to disrupt or delay as long as we can" Iran's efforts to develop a nuclear weapon.
But other experts, including former Clinton administration officials, caution that while covert efforts have been tried in the past, both the Iranian and North Korean programs are increasingly self-sufficient, largely thanks to the aid they received from the network built by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the former leader of the Pakistani bomb program. "It's a much harder thing to accomplish today," said one senior American intelligence official, "than it would have been in the 90's."
Mr. Khan's sales have also complicated the Bush administration's efforts to disarm North Korea. A new assessment of the country has come in one of three classified reports commissioned by the Bush administration earlier this year from the American intelligence community. Circulated last month, the report concluded that nearly 20 months of toughened sanctions, including ending major energy aid, and several rounds of negotiations involving four of North Korea's neighbors have not slowed the North's efforts to develop plutonium weapons, and that a separate, parallel program to make weapons from highly enriched uranium was also moving forward, though more slowly.
The desire to pursue a broader strategy against Iran's nuclear ambitions is driven in part, officials say, by increasingly strong private statements by Israeli officials that they will not tolerate the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon, and may be forced to consider military action similar to the attack against a nuclear reactor in Iraq two decades ago if Tehran is judged to be on the verge of deploying a weapon. (In contrast, North Korea's neighbors, especially South Korea and China, are seeking stability first, and disarmament as a longer-term goal, diplomats from the region say.)
"The evidence suggests that Iran is trying to keep all of its options open,” said Robert M. Gates, the director of central intelligence under President Bush’s father, who recently headed a detailed study of Iran that was critical of what it called the administration’s failure to engage the country. “They are trying to stay just within their treaty obligations” while producing highly enriched uranium, said Mr. Gates, who is now the president of Texas A&M University, “and I think they can go with a weapon whenever they want to.”
Mr. Gates and other outside experts were interviewed on the sidelines of a four-day conference on the challenges of nuclear terrorism and the spread of unconventional weapons held at the Aspen Institute last week. Separately over the past few weeks, five senior officials from the administration and Asian and European nations, all with varying access to the intelligence about the Iranian and North Korean programs, were interviewed about their status. Not surprisingly, their judgments about the progress the two countries have made were not always in accord.
The new report on North Korea, which has circulated among senior American officials and has been described to The New York Times, appears to have been written far more cautiously than the National Intelligence Estimate that erroneously described advanced weapons programs in Iraq. It describes in detail vast gaps in American knowledge. For example, it acknowledges that the whereabouts of North Korea’s stockpile of more than 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods has been a mystery since early 2003, but also concludes that the North has had plenty of time to reprocess the rods into enough fuel for six to eight additional weapons. Before then, North Korea was judged by the C.I.A. to have one or two weapons developed a decade ago.
For its part, Iran has begun to assemble the necessary ingredients and perhaps the same crude, Chinese- origin bomb design that the Khan network sold to Libya — and may be just a few years away, intelligence experts have said.
Taken together, the intelligence conclusions pose both security and political challenges for President Bush, who is visiting here this weekend to attend a wedding and visit his parents at their seaside estate. Mr. Bush has said he will not “tolerate” either country becoming a nuclear power, ignoring, at least publicly, the near certainty that North Korea has already reached that status. But he has never defined that term, or set deadlines. He is already under attack by the Democratic presidential candidate, Senator John Kerry, for allowing both countries to move forward in their programs while the White House concentrated on the one member of what Mr. Bush has called the “axis of evil,” Iraq, that turned out to have virtually no evidence of a continuing nuclear program.
While the intelligence report on North Korea, which has also been described to some allies, was cautiously worded — the product, said one official who has seen it, of “a chastened intelligence community” — it makes it clear that North Korea now probably has enough weapons-grade plutonium to test a weapon in the future, which would allow it to demonstrate its capacity. While it retained raw nuclear material under a 1994 accord with the Clinton administration, that material was under close surveillance until the inspectors were thrown out on Dec. 31, 2002.
“The conventional wisdom now is that they have completely reprocessed all of it,” said Gary Samore, who headed nonproliferation efforts at the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton and has conducted a detailed assessment of North Korea for the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “They had a huge window of opportunity when we were invading Iraq, and they appear to have made maximum use of it.”
He said many analysts in the intelligence agencies believed that a “whiff” of a nuclear byproduct detected by an American spy plane off the coast of North Korea last year was evidence that the reprocessing was under way. But others say the experiment was never successfully repeated. They say it is possible that North Korea ran into difficulty in the chemical process of converting spent fuel into bomb material. “You can’t assume a linear progression,” said one senior American official.
Mr. Bush has said little recently about the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, in sharp contrast to his regular recitations about the danger posed by Iraq in the period before the war last year. When he and his aides do speak about the problem in public, they still refer to progress, but mostly progress in getting other countries to put pressure on Iran and North Korea.
“It’s very frustrating,” said one former official who left the Bush administration recently and believes that the administration has failed to draw clear “red lines” beyond which North Korea would not be allowed to expand its arsenal. The official noted that Mr. Bush and his aides had been talking as if North Korea and Iran would follow the model of Libya, which disarmed earlier this year in an effort to re-integrate its economy with the West. But, the official argued, Iran does not need to do that because it has robust trade with Europe, and North Korea still receives considerable aid from China.
In the past two weeks Iran announced that it was resuming the production of centrifuges needed to produce highly enriched uranium though it has said it is still “suspending” actual enrichment activities. While the United States has threatened to take the issue to the United Nations Security Council, it has yet to win support from many allies.
North Korea has publicly rejected a new American initiative to allow international aid to flow gradually to the country in return for speedy disarmament and giving inspectors the right to examine any suspected site.
Several of Mr. Bush’s aides have said they expect little concrete progress before the presidential election. The Iranians appear to be betting that Mr. Kerry, if elected, would talk directly to their leaders. Mr. Kerry has also said he would engage in bilateral discussions with North Korea; Mr. Bush has insisted on multilateral talks.
Meanwhile, Israel’s concerns are creating a pressure of their own. “They are doing what they can to delay the Iranian program and preparing military options,” said one official who has dealt with the Israeli government on the issue, providing no details about what they might be. But it is unclear that the Israelis have the military reach to strike Iran’s facilities. Moreover, American intelligence officials say, Iran learned from the Iraqi experience and has spread its facilities around the country, including in urban areas as a defense against such a strike.