WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush's campaign to contain the spread of nuclear weapons before leaving the White House is lumbering along to a potentially disappointing conclusion. Iran is not cowed by a series of U.N. and other sanctions resolutions. North Korea is dragging its feet on an agreement to deliver a list of all its nuclear programs.
The White House and its diplomats are soldiering on, but reaching agreement in Bush's final year is problematic. Lately, there have been scant signs of progress.
"It is clear to everyone that the Bush strategy has failed," says Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear expert at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. "The only question is whether he can adjust quickly enough to salvage something from this mess."
Cirincione, in an interview Wednesday, said North Korea is "our best hope — provided Bush sticks with negotiations."
After all, an agreement with North Korea last February started the disablement of the North Korean program in exchange for energy and security assurances. "We have U.S. scientists in North Korea actually dismantling plutonium reactors," Cirincione said. "We are a lot better off than we were two years ago when they were testing weapons."
Iran is more difficult. "The president doesn't want to abandon his confrontational approach and engage Iran directly in negotiations to curtail their program in exchange for the kind of agreement we are offering North Korea." Cirincione said.
The Europeans tried negotiations along those lines, with support from the Bush administration. But the president has ruled out direct, one-on-one nuclear talks with Tehran.
Instead, he is seeking new economic and diplomatic sanctions in the United Nations.
On Wednesday, while a draft resolution was being discussed, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared: "From our point of view the issue is over. The issuance of a new resolution won't have any impact on the behavior of the Iranian nation."
And from Moscow, which along with China resists punishing Iran, came assurances that the new draft would not call for any harsher sanctions.
Bush's case against Iran suffered a setback late last year when U.S. intelligence concluded Iran had stopped trying to build nuclear weapons in 2003.
But the White House said Iran continues to hide information, remains in violation of two U.N. Security Council resolutions, tests ballistic missiles and is enriching uranium, which can be used to build an atomic bomb.
As far as former U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton is concerned, though, the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran has destroyed the president's diplomatic strategy. "It is shredded at this point," he said in an interview.
Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said he was not convinced Bush should be blamed for failure with Iran.
He said the Bush administration has done a "reasonable job" supporting European diplomacy and gradually tightening sanctions "as hard as it is to get Russia and China along."
"It has not been a dramatic failure," O'Hanlon said in an interview. "I would give him a gentleman's B."
On North Korea, however, O'Hanlon said Bush's record is not very good.
The diplomacy that produced last year's agreement could have succeeded four or five years ago and, among other things, forestalled North Korea's nuclear weapons test in 2006 and a quadrupling of its weapons arsenal, he said.
So on North Korea I would grade him "in the realm of a D," he said.
And Bolton said he did not think Bush can close a deal on North Korea because he did not think North Korea ever would give up its nuclear weapons voluntarily.
Barry Schweid has covered diplomacy for The Associated Press since 1973.