This Week in the Axis of Evil

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With grim news pouring in from overseas, Bush announced a smallpox vaccination program

Iraq, Iran and North Korea were somewhat improbably lumped together by President Bush last February as an "Axis of Evil." This week, however, all three seemed to pop up and taunt America with threats, proven or unproven, of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Iraq last weekend delivered a 12,000-page declaration of its WMD activities as required by UN Security Council resolution 1441, and by week's end Bush Administration officials were decrying it as a recycled fib that failed even to address the questions left unanswered by the last inspection regime which departed in 1998. But unless the UNMOVIC inspectors discover any hard evidence of the Iraqis maintaining prohibited weapons programs — evidence U.S. officials have hinted may be difficult to provide — Washington will likely struggle to convince the Security Council to authorize a war. Not that this would stop the Bush Administration: Military preparations continue apace, and U.S. officials are soliciting support from potential allies on the assumption that war will be necessary. And a report published in the Washington Post suggesting that Iraq may have supplied nerve gas to an al-Qaeda affiliate may have helped sway the U.S. public mood — despite the fact that even in the Washington Post story, other U.S. intelligence officials expressed skepticism over the claims.

Iraq, of course, remains top of President Bush's Axis-of-Evil to-do list. The optimal moment to launch an attack is in February or March next year, which requires the Administration to make its case for war in the next four to six weeks — without much help from Saddam, who appears inclined to allow the UN inspectors to poke around under his bed in order to keep the U.S. war machine at bay. And that leaves precious little time for Washington to address other international crises.

Chief among those right now is North Korea. While Iraq insists it has no WMD and submits to inspections, North Korea takes the opposite tack: Two months ago it told the U.S. that it has, in fact, been building nuclear weapons despite a 1994 agreement to refrain from doing so — even adding, for good measure, the claim that it had already built a couple of nuclear bombs. When Washington's only response was a stern rebuke and the cutting off of all food and energy aid from the U.S. and its allies to the starving communist nation, North Korea upped the stakes: This week Pyongyang announced that it planned to restart a nuclear power plant closed down under the 1994 agreement because it was producing weapons-grade plutonium. Although they said the move was necessitated by the cutoff of fuel supplies, the North Koreans' implied threat was underscored when they demanded that the International Atomic Energy Agency withdraw monitoring equipment from the plant used to help determine if a power plant is engaged simply in energy production or producing extra plutonium for weapons.

The White House, joined by South Korea and Japan, expressed concern over the latest North Korean action. But the U.S. insists that it wants to pursue a peaceful, diplomatic solution to the crisis. Military action is not contemplated in response to North Korea's WMD, and not only because Iraq is the Administration's overwhelming priority. Even without nuclear weapons, North Korea's conventional military resources are formidable, and Pyongyang's artillery could destroy the South Korean capital, Seoul, in a matter of hours. A military showdown on the Korean peninsula could easily claim one million lives.

South Korean officials, however, see the latest nuclear muscle flexing by Pyongyang as the continuation of a long-established pattern of extortion through brinkmanship — the North Koreans unveil some new weapon threat and hang tough, and then agree to mothball it in exchange for economic aid. Even now, Pyongyang is sending out mixed messages, brandishing a nuclear threat but also hinting that it would disarm in exchange for a non-aggression pact and other concessions from the U.S. That's not palatable to the Bush Administration, but the alternative is a policy of malign neglect in which North Korea is simply cut off from all aid and allowed to implode — and that's a scenario its neighbors find particularly dangerous. South Korea goes to the polls next week to pick a new president, and the race is too close to call between the more hawkish Lee Hoi-chang, who favors a tough line with North Korea, and the ruling party's Roh Moo-hyun, who favors a continuation of rapprochement. A victory by Roh would likely increase pressure for Washington to follow the path of engagement, albeit on tougher terms than the Clinton Administration demanded.

Iran, too, is unlikely to become a target of U.S. military action any time soon, despite this week's reports alleging that the Islamic Republic plans to produce weapons-grade plutonium at two civilian power plants. Although the U.S. expressed concern over the reports, and has long sought to pressure Russia to stop supplying Iran's civilian nuclear energy program because of weapons concerns, Tehran has declared its sites open to inspection by the IAEA and vowed to cooperate in order to prove that it has no nuclear arms program. Such cooperation may do for now, not least because any American military operation in Iraq would be greatly complicated by a confrontation between Washington and Tehran — Iran shares Iraq's longest borders, is a longstanding enemy of Saddam Hussein and retains strong influence over Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority.

One irony of a week of Evil Axis nuclear jockeying: The initial allegation of Iran's nuclear program came from the Mujahedeen Khalq, an armed opposition group that has fought the regime in Tehran for two decades. And the Mujahedeen Khalq, of course, has long been based in Iraq.