Reports warn of nuclear spread

Diplomatic pressure fails to slow Iran, North Korea

U.S. aim is to `disrupt or delay'

Breakthroughs unlikely by election, Bush aides say

August 08, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine - U.S. intelligence officials and outside nuclear experts have concluded that the Bush administration's diplomatic efforts have barely slowed the development of nuclear weapons programs in Iran and North Korea over the past year, and that significant progress has been made in both programs.

In a tacit acknowledgement that the diplomatic initiatives with European and Asian allies have failed to slow the programs, several senior administration and intelligence officials say they are trying to intensify unspecified covert actions against the programs. The intention, as one official said, is "to disrupt or delay as long as we can" the countries' efforts to develop a nuclear weapon.

But other experts, including former Clinton administration officials, warn that covert efforts have been tried and that they are unlikely to work because the Iranian and North Korean programs are increasingly self-sufficient - largely because of 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 than it would have been in the '90s," one senior U.S. intelligence official said.

A new assessment of North Korea has come in one of three classified reports commissioned by the Bush administration this year from the U.S. intelligence community.

Circulated last month, the report concluded that nearly 20 months of stronger sanctions and several rounds of negotiations involving four of North Korea's most powerful neighbors have not slowed the North's efforts to develop plutonium weapons.

The report also found that a separate, parallel program to make weapons from highly enriched uranium was also moving forward, though more slowly.

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.

With regard to Iran, there is a desire to pursue a broader strategy against its nuclear ambitions - in part, officials say, by increasingly strong private statements by Israeli officials that they will not tolerate the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

The Israelis say they may be forced to consider military action if Iran is judged to be on the verge of making a weapon.

"The evidence suggests that Iran is trying to keep all of its options open," said Robert M. Gates, who recently led 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 Gates, who was the director of central intelligence under the first President George Bush and is now the president of Texas A&M University. "And I think they can go with a weapon whenever they want to."

Gates and other outside experts were interviewed at a four-day conference on the challenges of nuclear terrorism and the spread of other unconventional weapons held recently at the Aspen Institute. Separately over the past few weeks, five senior officials from the administration and Asian and European nations, all with varying access to intelligence about the Iranian and North Korean programs, were interviewed. Their judgments about the progress the two countries have made were not always in accord.

Continuing challenges

The new report on North Korea, which has circulated among senior U.S. officials and been described to some allied nations and 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 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods has been a mystery since early last year, but it also concludes that the North has had plenty of time to reprocess the rods into enough fuel for six to eight weapons. North Korea is judged to have two to six nuclear weapons already.

For its part, Iran has begun to assemble the necessary ingredients for a nuclear weapon and has perhaps obtained the same crude design for a bomb that the Khan network sold to Libya, intelligence experts have said. Iran may be just a few years away from producing a weapon, they say.

Taken together, the intelligence conclusions on Iran and North Korea pose 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.

Bush has said little about the two nuclear programs in recent months, in sharp contrast to his regular warnings about the danger Iraq posed before the war started last year.

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