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What's Behind The Tough U.S. Talk On Iran, North Korea?

As a candidate for U.S. president, Barack Obama criticized the administration of George W. Bush for refusing to negotiate directly with Iran and North Korea unless they met conditions that included abandoning their nuclear programs.

Now Obama has been in the White House for six months, and his administration is sounding every bit as unfriendly to Tehran and Pyongyang as its predecessor.

Speaking on July 22, Clinton said the United States is prepared to arm its neighbors and set up what she called a "defense umbrella" to protect them from any attacks Tehran may be planning.

Clinton, who is in Phuket, Thailand for a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) also had harsh words for North Korea and a no-compromise ultimatum:

"As we enforce sanctions, we are open to talks with North Korea. But we are not interested in half-measures. We do not intend to reward the North just for returning to the table. We will not give them anything new for actions they have already agreed to take. And we have no appetite for pursuing protracted negotiations that will only lead us right back to where we have already been."

Strong words from an American administration that says it believes talking is better than fighting.

But if Clinton's words seem like a throwback to the Bush administration, it's merely a coincidence, according to James Goodby, who has studied nuclear proliferation and security issues for decades as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a policy research center in Washington.

Goodby says much has changed since Bush, in early 2002, referred to the "axis of evil" that at that time included Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.

With all three countries, Goodby says, the United States faces entirely different situations. Iraq, of course, is now being drained of U.S. occupation forces.

But beyond that, Goodby points to great shifts in both Iran and North Korea that make any talks unlikely for now.

He says Iran's government has a credibility problem, given that it announced the winner of the June presidential election long before the votes could have been counted. He predicts there won’t be much, if any, engagement between Washington and Tehran until the vote is resolved once and for all.

The same is true for North Korea, Goodby says. He cites reports from Pyongyang that Kim Jong-Il, visibly weakened by what may be cancer, has named his youngest son as his successor. If these reports of a power shift are correct, he says, North Korea also is not in much of a position to enter into substantive talks.

In dealing with North Korea, Goodby says, the countries involved in the six-party talks are going to have to reaffirm what Pyongyang already has accepted in those negotiations: an end to its nuclear program.

Goodby notes that during the ASEAN meetings in Thailand, Clinton met with representatives of the other participants in the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program: China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea.

Such contacts could help get the full six-party talks back on track, Goodby says, and could even help establish a northeast Asian counterpart of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Goodby says the same approach probably should be taken in the Gulf region toward Iran, especially now, in the absence of an ability to communicate with Iran, or even to decide whom to communicate with.

"The [Obama] administration should be spending its time trying to organize some kind of a regional forum for discussion. It certainly could include Iran, and should at some point [include Iran]," Goodby says.

"Whether you do that now, I don't know, but the Gulf states, Israel, and the other Arab states in the region, I think, would be receptive to that kind of regional discussion on a lot of topics. And one of them is certainly weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons."

But Goodby is far less fond of Clinton's suggestion of the "defense umbrella" in the Middle East to protect Iran's neighbors from any nuclear weapons it may eventually develop. The flaw in that, he says, is that it focuses on what Iran doesn't yet have, rather than on what it does have today:

"That [a 'defense umbrella'] is a formula I would not use. I think a better way of talking about that kind of defense capability would, in fact, be to focus on what kind of ballistic missile defense -- the physical ballistic missile defense aimed at the incipient ballistic missile threat being posed by Iran. I think that's really the shorter-range problem, that is to say, the nuclear-armed missile isn't going to be with us for several years."

Goodby says there's one more point that everyone must understand: Some world leaders whose countries have disagreements with the United States may be trying to test the resolve of a new U.S. administration led by a young, seemingly inexperienced president.

But that's not the case in Iran and North Korea. Goodby says these countries have serious internal problems regarding leadership that must be resolved before their representatives can credibly sit down for negotiations with anyone, much less the United States.

-- Andrew Tully

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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