This meeting, jointly sponsored by the Center's Division of International Security Studies, Asia, Program, and Middle East Program, and by the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was another in the ongoing Nonproliferation Forum series.

Robert Einhorn observed that before the September 11 terrorist attacks, nonproliferation was not at the top of the Bush administration's national security agenda. In the aftermath of 9/11, however, the administration's primary focus shifted to the threat posed by "rogue states" and non-state terrorist groups (such as Al Qaeda). Warning of a dangerous new "nexus" of terrorism and proliferation, President George W. Bush designated Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as the "axis of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union address and declared that the United States would not tolerate the acquisition of nuclear weapons by any of these states.

In its 2002 National Security Strategy statement and other policy pronouncements, the Bush administration made the case that the unacceptable behavior of rogue states derived from their regimes' very character, and that these states were intent on acquiring nuclear weapons as a tool to mount regional aggression and to ensure regime survival. According to Einhorn, this premise led the administration to conclude that the only reliable and durable way to achieve U.S. nonproliferation objectives was through a change of these states' regimes. The presumed mechanism for regime change would vary from case-to-case: in Iraq, it would be accomplished through direct military action (since sanctions had failed and concern about WMD retaliation by Saddam was low); in North Korea, through strong pressure leading to regime collapse; and in Iran, through a civil society uprising based on changing demographics that are bringing a new generation to political prominence. Yet the administration now confronts twin nuclear crises with countries whose ruling regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang have proved far more resilient than anticipated.

North Korea has an advanced nuclear weapons program. A showdown with the United States occurred in October 2002 over a covert developmental program to produce high-enriched uranium (one of two routes for obtaining weapons-grade fissile material). Einhorn stated that the Bush administration decided to terminate the 1994 nuclear agreement, the so-called Agreed Framework, which had frozen activities at North Korea's nuclear complex at Yongbyon, rather than try to bring the North Koreans back into compliance. North Korea, in turn, resumed the processing of spent fuel rods from its sole nuclear reactor at Yongbyon to obtain additional plutonium (the other route to the bomb). The CIA estimates that the North Korean nuclear arsenal has expanded since 2001 from 2 to 8 weapons. The constraints imposed by the Agreed Framework have been lifted and North Korea is gaining access to additional plutonium.

Iran's nuclear program is at an earlier development stage than North Korea's, but the Tehran regime is not as politically isolated as the North Korean one and has vastly greater financial resources. The immediate focus of Iran's nuclear activities has been to acquire a nuclear fuel cycle, which would permit Iran to produce enriched uranium. But U.S. officials and others in the international community are concerned, with reason, that a production capacity for low-enriched uranium for nuclear power reactor could easily be shifted into a high-enriched uranium program for nuclear weapons.

In Einhorn's assessment, though the Bush administration's preference has been for regime change, it now faces a new reality in the wake of the Iraq war. With significant constraints on the use of force, the Bush administration is currently pursuing multilateral diplomacy – directly with North Korea via the Six-Party negotiations (also involving South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia); and indirectly with Iran via the EU-3 foreign ministers (Britain, France, and Germany). If North Korea and Iran balk at diplomatic solutions acceptable to Washington, the Bush administration intends to seek referrals to the UN Security Council for punitive measures (i.e., economic sanctions). But Einhorn notes that it will be difficult to win support for collective action because China and South Korea fear the collapse of North Korea, and Russia and China are not prepared to sacrifice their economic interests in the case of Iran.

Overall the Bush administration currently considers Iran more dangerous than North Korea, despite the fact that the latter's nuclear program is more advanced. In contrast to North Korea, which is weak, isolated, and internally focused, Iran is viewed as less vulnerable to international pressure, and a more virulent and dynamic threat.