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February 20, 2007

The Axis of Evil: And Then There Was One

Will the North Korean model be applied to Iran?

by Leon Hadar

During his State of the Union Address on Jan. 29, 2002, President George W. Bush named Iraq, North Korea, and Iran as members of an "Axis of Evil," and accused them of sponsoring terrorism and seeking weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The three Evils Ones "threaten the peace of the world," Mr. Bush declared. "By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger," he said.

Indeed, Mr. Bush and his foreign policy aides made it clear after the address that they would consider taking preemptive military action against these three regimes – with Syria added occasionally to the list – to prevent them from acquiring WMD and assisting terrorist groups. Moreover, they seemed to suggest that the anti-American orientation of these countries reflected the nature of their "rogue regimes" and that Washington would probably have no choice but to achieve "regime change" in Baghdad, Pyongyang, and Tehran (and perhaps Damascus) in order to protect its interests.

And the Bush administration also stressed that if other governments failed to support this strategy, then Washington would be forced to do the "regime changes" on its own, together with the occasional "coalition of the willing." The ouster of Saddam Hussein and the invasion of Iraq were seen as the first stage in the implementation of this preemptive, unilateral, and militarized grand strategy.

Tough Message

One Evil One was down, and against the backdrop of the initial signs of military success (which lasted for a few weeks), the message from the (then) happy regime-changers in Washington to the remaining two – or three, if one added Syria to the list – Evil Ones was: "The communists in Pyongyang and the ayatollahs in Tehran better watch out. We're coming to get you guys!"

Well, as we know by now, Saddam had neither WMD nor ties to Osama bin Laden (never mind), and "liberated" Iraq hasn't been transformed into a shining model of freedom in the Middle East, but the regime change in Baghdad did have one clear, unintended (but not unforeseen) effect.

It taught Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il and Supreme Leader Sayyid Ali Khamenei one important lesson: If you don't want to end up like Saddam, make sure that you have a nuclear weapon. It's called deterrence, and it would ensure that even the most ambitious American neocon would think twice before trying to oust you.

And surprise, surprise! This is exactly what the North Koreans and the Iranians have been doing since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. On Oct. 9, 2006, North Korea announced that it had conducted its first nuclear test, and many intelligence and military analysts have suggested that North Korea has produced, or has the capability to produce, up to six or seven such nuclear bombs (although there are doubts that it has the systems necessary to deliver them).

At the same time, in 2004 Iran began resuming the processing of nuclear fuel as part of its plan to achieve self-sufficiency in nuclear power production, which most experts believe makes it possible for it to develop nuclear weapons. A year later it started converting raw uranium gas, a necessary step for enrichment and the development of nuclear power.

In a way, the recent agreement by North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program in exchange for fuel oil and international acceptance, including the hope of eventual recognition by the U.S., only helped to dramatize the failure of the Bush administration's Axis of Evil strategy.

In fact, Mr. Bush's tough approach toward Mr. Kim was evident before the Iraq War and 9/11, when the White House had sabotaged what remained of South Korea's "Sunshine Policy" toward the North and announced, despite opposition from then Secretary of State Colin Powell, that it would cease to pursue its predecessor's policy of engaging Pyongyang.

There is little doubt that if President Bush had continued pursuing President Bill Clinton's policy after coming to office he could probably have gotten the current deal years ago. Instead, under Mr. Bush, Washington ended up choosing the worst of all possible worlds.

The Axis of Evil speech and the invasion of Iraq provided Pyongyang with incentives to continue enriching plutonium and accelerate its drive to develop nuclear weapons.

And by refusing to talk directly to North Korea, and demanding that the negotiations take place in a multilateral diplomatic setting – which is an irony, if one considers the extent to which the neocons have denigrated the words "diplomacy" and "multilateralism" – Washington only created obstacles in the way of reaching a deal that delivered to Pyongyang what it really wanted: The expectation of eventual recognition by the United States.

It's not surprising therefore that the more ardent neocons, including former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, have been bashing the agreement with North Korea as a form of appeasement.

That brings us to the last remaining member of the Axis of Evil, Iran. What worries Mr. Bolton and his ideological mates more than anything – and what encourages those who want to avoid a military confrontation between the Americans and the Iranians – is that the North Korean "model" may eventually be applied to Iran.

President Bush could try to test Tehran's intentions by establishing a regional diplomatic setting and inviting Iran to negotiate with it as part of that grouping. It could provide Iran with incentives to give up or slow down its nuclear program as part of a deal that includes the establishment of diplomatic ties between Washington and Tehran.

And it could take all these steps and offer such a deal to Iran now – and not later when it could prove to be too late and too little. So let's hope Mr. Bolton is right.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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  • Leon Hadar is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). He is the former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post and is currently the Washington correspondent for the Singapore Business Times. Visit his blog.

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