WASHINGTON — President Bush's declaration that countries such as Iran, Iraq and North Korea represent an "axis of evil" that must be prevented from acquiring weapons of mass destruction touched off questions and controversy Wednesday around the globe.
White House spokesmen said Bush's blunt language during his State of the Union Address on Tuesday did not mean that U.S. military action against any of the three was imminent.
But the president's remarks clearly expanded the scope of his anti-terrorism campaign while elevating the fight against the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons to a major foreign-policy priority, current and former U.S. officials said.
Bush's comments also seemed to downplay the role of diplomacy in dealing with the problem.
The president told Congress that Iran, Iraq and North Korea pose "a grave and growing danger" because they seek mass-destruction weapons and have links with terrorist groups.
He repeated the theme Wednesday during a town hall meeting in North Carolina, saying, "The United States of America will do whatever it takes to defend our security."
All three nations Bush named angrily rejected his remarks. President Mohammad Khatami of Iran, whose attempt at reforms have gotten American support, accused the United States of "warmongering."
The rhetoric also caused shudders in U.S. ally South Korea, where President Kim Dae-jung has rested his reputation on easing a half-century of confrontation with the heavily armed communist North.
American intelligence has known for a decade or more of attempts by Iran, Iraq and North Korea to develop nuclear weapons, as well as poisons and germs.
But Bush's pledge to do whatever is necessary to stop them and nations like them from achieving their goals _ he gave few specifics as to how - appeared to represent a significant hardening of the U.S. position.
The rhetoric echoed the views of the president's more hawkish foreign policy advisers. Nowhere did he mention the arms talks that the United States has offered to hold with Iran and North Korea.
"I'm somewhat surprised that all three of the countries were dropped in the same basket," said Rose Gottemoeller, assistant secretary of energy for nonproliferation in the Bill Clinton administration.
Bush's condemnation of Iran marked a return to confrontation. Secretary of State Colin Powell and other officials had expressed optimism that Tehran's moderate behavior after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks could lead to an opening with the Islamic nation.
But U.S. officials have watched with chagrin in recent weeks as Iran has funneled weapons to its proxies in western Afghanistan and attempted to ship sophisticated arms to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. Israel seized the shipment Jan. 3.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Wednesday that the long-standing American offer of a dialogue with Iran remains on the table.
But he cited numerous U.S. problems with Iran, as well as the uncertainty of political reforms in a government divided between the elected Khatami and powerful clerics. "Rather than waiting for some eventual political change ... we think it's important to do whatever we can at this point to keep Iran from getting the materials and technology" for weapons of mass destruction, Boucher said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had particularly harsh words for Iran on Wednesday, saying it had been training terrorists "for a long time" and sending them "down through" Damascus, Syria, and into the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. From there, he said, the terrorists had been "engaging in acts against countries in the region and elsewhere," a reference to Israel.
As with Iran, the Bush administration has tried both talk and threats with North Korea.
After assuming office, Bush initially declined to continue the Clinton administration's talks with Pyongyang on halting its development and export of ballistic missiles. His tough stand embarrassed the South Korean president during a Washington visit last March.
With backing from Powell, the United States eventually offered talks to North Korea. Pyongyang has yet to respond.
Now, asked Gottemoeller, "Are they giving up that diplomatic activity? I'm not sure."
In the past, she said, "There did seem to be a diplomatic option that was paying some dividends ... with regard to North Korea. I would say very clearly there's a diplomatic option."
The Bush administration's offer of talks stands, Boucher said.
The president also named Iraq as a nation that "continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror."
But U.S. intelligence officials say there is no evidence that Iraq played a role in the Sept. 11 attacks or has been particularly active in sponsoring international terrorism in recent years.
"They would do it, if they thought they could get away with it," said a senior intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity. But most Iraqi-sponsored violence is directed against the regime's opponents, he said.
Bush and his senior advisers have not yet settled on a policy for dealing with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his weapons programs.
Some Pentagon officials want to use U.S. military power to support Iraqi opposition groups, such as the Iraqi National Congress, in their attempts to oust Saddam. The State Department said Wednesday that it was restoring funding for the INC after the group addressed the department's concerns over its accounting for past U.S. grants.
Powell has been pushing to get United Nations inspectors back in Iraq, after an absence of more than three years, to search for Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.
The plan Bush outlined in Tuesday's speech may stress demands that nations that are suspected of developing chemical, nuclear and biological weapons accept outside inspections.
Undersecretary of State John Bolton, in a speech last week to the U.N. Conference on Disarmament, mentioned such inspections repeatedly, saying, "We must insist on holding accountable states that violate their nonproliferation commitments."
Bolton also threatened further U.S. sanctions against foreign firms that export technology for building weapons of mass destruction.
(correspondent Tom Infield in Washington contributed to this report.)