On his first trip overseas since winning reelection, President Bush on Saturday stepped up the pressure on Iran and North Korea, whose nuclear threats some critics accused him of neglecting in his first term.
Bush saved his harshest words for Tehran, seizing on new allegations that the Iranians were proceeding with the manufacture of a gas used in the production of nuclear bombs, despite having pledged to halt such activity under a tentative accord with European nations.
“We’re concerned about reports that show that they’re willing to speed up processing of materials that could lead to a nuclear weapon,” Bush said as he began two days of meetings at the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit here.
Bush was referring to allegations leveled late last week by Western diplomats that Iran, despite its assurances to the contrary, was producing large amounts of a gas used to enrich uranium. Tehran has denied the assertion.
Earlier in the week, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell charged that Tehran was working on a missile system to deliver a nuclear bomb. Iran maintains that its nuclear program is for peaceful, civilian purposes.
On the topic of North Korea, Bush proclaimed that the five nations involved in discussions with the communist regime would speak with a “common voice” in the quest to get the North to shed its nuclear ambitions.
“I can report to you, having visited with the other nations involved in that collaborative effort, that the will is strong,” the president told Pacific Rim business leaders after meeting separately with the leaders of China, South Korea, Japan and Russia, participants in the so-called six-party talks on North Korea. “The effort is united. And the message is clear to Mr. Kim Jong Il: Get rid of your nuclear weapons programs.”
The president told reporters that North Korea should understand “that the six-party talks are -- will be -- the framework in which we continue to discuss the mutual goal we all have, which is to rid the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons.”
The U.S. mantra of unity among the nations came as some allies expressed concern that Bush, having secured a second term, would take a harder line with North Korea.
This month, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun appeared to call for greater flexibility in the approach to the Pyongyang government.
But on Saturday, a U.S. official said that Roh’s speech did not come up during his session with Bush and that the two leaders found common ground.
“They both agreed that the situation was complex and ... that together they had built the approach and it was the six-party talks,” said the official, who declined to be named.
With Iraq’s Saddam Hussein ousted, North Korea and Iran are the two remaining members of what Bush once dubbed the “axis of evil.”
The president’s focus on the nuclear threat they may pose comes after a reelection campaign in which the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Iraq invasion and economic concerns overshadowed what some administration critics said should have been a far more pressing matter.
Now, as Bush seeks to balance the complicated diplomacy of an Iraq war opposed by many allies with the need to show unity in confronting Tehran and Pyongyang, tackling nuclear proliferation could prove a defining issue of his second term.
“It’s time for the real world to come back into play,” said Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum, a security think tank with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“There are few items more pressing than the nuclear issue.”
During the presidential campaign, Democratic nominee Sen. John F. Kerry criticized Bush for refusing to negotiate one-on-one with North Korea. White House officials have favored the multiparty approach to prevent North Korea from misleading individual negotiators and playing nations off one another.
In the past, Bush has tried to isolate North Korea, rejecting the Clinton administration’s strategy of offering incentives for Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program. But some participants in the six-party talks, such as China and South Korea, support concessions to woo North Korea.
Pyongyang abandoned the talks last summer. U.S. officials believe that the move was a bid to stall negotiations until after the U.S. presidential election.
An administration official said the leaders who met with Bush on Saturday were optimistic that North Korea would rejoin the talks, but it was unclear when that might happen.
Intelligence experts believe that North Korea has enough material to build four to eight nuclear bombs.
Powell’s allegations that Iran was building a system to deliver nuclear weapons came as a surprise to British, French and German negotiators, who had been assured by Iran that it was not building such a missile. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency have no evidence that Iran is producing nuclear weapons.
Powell contended Saturday that other countries and groups in the international community had come around to the U.S. way of thinking about the Iranian nuclear program.
“We have maintained for four years that the international community should be concerned about Iran’s activities with respect to its nuclear program,” Powell said.
He noted that in the fall of 2003, the three major European powers -- Britain, France and Germany -- had reached agreement with Iran, “which it then walked away from” in 2004.
He asserted again that Iran had been working for years on long-range missiles, and said that “when you see what they have been doing over the years with missiles and potential delivery systems, it is a cause of concern.”
There were signs Saturday that the apparent mixed signals on Iran coming from Washington and its European allies could be a strategy of sorts -- at least, according to remarks made by Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage to the Arabic-language satellite television channel Al Jazeera.
“My view would be that the incentives of the Europeans only work against the backdrop of the United States being strong and firm on this issue,” Armitage said. “In the vernacular, it’s kind of a good cop-bad cop arrangement. If it works, we’ll all have been successful.”
Also Saturday, Bush and President Vladimir V. Putin discussed the Russian leader’s recent moves to re-centralize power in the Kremlin.
The U.S. official said Putin referred to the Stalinist era to explain his country’s unique situation as a “multiethnic society on a large landmass.”
It was the first time Bush and Putin had discussed the matter in person, but it appeared they reached little understanding.
“There was a lot of back and forth, the president asking questions, underscoring his concerns and wanting to know exactly how this would move forward to, or help develop, a democratic Russia,” the administration official said.
“We’ve laid the basis for further discussions of this as we move forward.”