There is mounting concern in Congress about North Korea's nuclear weapons program, and also increasing alarm among many lawmakers about how the Bush administration plans to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions. Bush administration officials, and some experts, are telling Congress the United States is making some headway in gaining support for efforts to address these two problems.
Faced with new skepticism about its reasons for going to war in Iraq, the administration is seeking to persuade critical lawmakers that it knows what it's doing with regard to North Korea and Iran.
The two countries make up the rest of what President Bush labeled an "axis of evil". But many lawmakers are still troubled by what they call contradictions in how the administration is pursuing non-proliferation policies.
That was the subject of a hearing of the House International Relations Committee. George Perkovich, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the committee U.S. success in Iraq presents an opportunity in dealing with Iran. "We have improved Iran and other states security enormously by removing Saddam Hussein," he said. "We ought to take advantage of that security improvement by then addressing the rest of the strategic environment in the Gulf, and bringing the parties in the Gulf, the smaller Gulf states, Iran, ourselves and the United Kingdom, into a regional dialogue to effect what will the rules be, going forward?"
Mr. Perkovich says it appears that no such dialogue has begun what he calls a missed opportunity from what was accomplished in Iraq. But he adds that the ousting of Saddam Hussein has, in his words, "gotten the attention" of Iran's leaders.
Referring to the joint statement at the G-8 summit in France, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, John Bolton, says Iran has been "put on notice" that it must stop pursuing nuclear weapons. "The conclusion is inescapable that Iran is pursuing its "civil" nuclear energy program not for peaceful and economic purposes, but as a front for developing the capability to produce nuclear materials for nuclear weapons," says Mr. Bolton.
As with North Korea, the Bush administration says it is attempting to deal with the Iranian situation using diplomatic channels, such as pressure on Russia concerning its nuclear technology cooperation with Teheran. Mr. Bolton cites Russian support on the Iran issue, expressed after the G-8 summit, as an important step forward.
But some lawmakers worry the administration is sending mixed signals about its intentions, about weapons of mass destruction and U.S. willingness to use preemptive military force. "One could interpret the message our country is sending to the rest of the world as being that it is in the interest of rogue states and hostile regimes to speed up development of WMD programs," says Texas Congressman Chris Bell. "If your country is merely suspected of possessing W-M-D's, the United States will attack. If you actually do possess WMD technology, and if you share it, we will talk to you about it."
On North Korea, Undersecretary Bolton made clear the Bush administration has no intention of being intimidated by what it considers nuclear blackmail, which he says can only encourage others. "We continue to insist that North Korea must terminate its nuclear development program, completely, verifiably and irreversibly," he says. "And there will be no inducements to get them to do so."
However, Congressman Eliot Engel, who just visited North Korea as part of a congressional delegation, says he is concerned that, what he calls "bellicose language" on the part of the United States will eliminate options for negotiation.
"I came away convinced that they are willing to trade away, ultimately, their nuclear weapons and their program, for a U.S. pledge that we are not going to seek regime change whether it's a treaty or non-aggression pact, or whatever it is, but I'm convinced of that and I really do think we ought to engage them," says Mr. Engel.
Underscoring concerns about Iran, two House lawmakers, one Democrat and one Republican, have introduced a resolution calling for "anytime, anywhere" inspections of Iran's nuclear development facilities.