Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, the rocky resumption of the Middle East peace process, instability in Lebanon and uncertainty in Iraq will dominate Bush administration foreign policy concerns during its final year.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press in her State Department office, Rice said Wednesday that Iran and North Korea, two of the three charter members of President Bush's "axis of evil," have a long way to go before shedding that tag despite recent developments.
"They are clearly still states about which there are significant proliferation concerns," Rice said. "It would be very irresponsible not to deal with those dangers."
Her comments follow the release of new U.S. intelligence that finds Tehran stopped nuclear weapons development in 2003 and apparent progress in efforts to get Pyongyang to abandon its atomic arms program, including unprecedented political and cultural exchanges.
A day after the New York Philharmonic announced it would play a concert in the North Korean capital and a week after word of a personal letter from Bush to leader of the communist nation, Kim Jong Il, Rice downplayed the significance of both.
"This is not a regime that the United States is prepared to engage broadly," she said. "If we are going to engage it broadly, it's clear in the program that we have laid out how that would happen, after denuclearization.
"What matters first and foremost is that we deal with the nuclear weapons programs, all of them, of the North Koreans," Rice said. "It remains a country that is dangerously armed and a considerable threat on both the proliferation front and its own program."
The letter offered the possibility for better relations with the United States if North Korea lives up to the deal it made, and underscored U.S. expectations. While unremarkable in content, the letter was a symbolic gesture to a leader Bush has ridiculed and ostracized.
As the administration tries to cope with Iran after a U.S. intelligence reassessment that the Islamic republic shelved its nuclear weapons four years ago, Rice said Tehran is still a threat.
"I don't think the (National Intelligence Estimate) gives a benign rendering of Iran," she said. "I see it as still quite dangerous."
Rice brushed aside suggestions from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the findings could open better relations with the United States, insisting that Iran must account for its past atomic weapons activities.
"Since they have embraced the NIE, I assume that they are embracing the entire thing," Rice said. "And that means that they must have had a weapons program and that means that they have a lot to answer for."
On a related matter, Rice condemned Wednesday's assassination of a top Lebanese army figure, but would not expressly blame Syria, which along with Iran is accused by the United States and others of interfering in Lebanon's internal politics as it tries to elect a new president.
She said she spoke Wednesday to Lebanon's U.S.-backed prime minister, Fuad Saniora, whose government has been paralyzed for months by a bitter political split. Parliament's election for a president have been postponed repeatedly.
"It's really important that they be able to elect a president ... and Syria and all of Lebanon's neighbors need to play a constructive role and encourage all of their allies to let that happen and not interfere with it," Rice said.
Rice said the "turbulence" at Wednesday's rocky first session in Jerusalem of Israeli and Palestinian peace talks &
arranged at a U.S.-hosted conference in Annapolis, Md., last month &
was to be expected.
"Both parties are committed to moving this forward and they will move this forward," Rice said of the effort to negotiate a Palestinian state by the end of 2008. "You're going to have some good meetings and some not good meetings."
As the administration enters its final year, it will face challenges to democracy in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin is likely to eschew term limits and become the country's new prime minister, and key anti-terror ally Pakistan where anti-terror ally President Pervez Musharraf is under fire.
On Russia, Rice, a former Sovietologist, said she was not particularly troubled by Putin's political aspirations but hoped that "the presidential election will look somewhat better" than parliamentary, or Duma, polls last month that were widely criticized. "I am concerned right now about the process and what clearly seems to be steps backward," she said.
In Pakistan, where the United States is torn between Musharraf and human rights and democracy concerns since a major crackdown on the opposition and declaration of emergency rule, Rice said she has hope ahead of parliamentary elections in January since Musharraf has stepped down as army chief and announced he would rescind the state of emergency next week to prepare for the elections.
"Taking off the uniform is a good step, ending the state of emergency is an essential step, holding a free and fair election is an absolutely essential step, and if they do those things it's not going to be a perfect situation but it will be much further along the road of democracy than it has been in a long time," Rice said.
Bombs, bullets, ballots top Rice's agenda for final year