In Search of the Axis of Evil

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Deal: Iran's Hasan Rowhani and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in Tehran

For the remaining two poles of President Bush's "Axis of Evil," it's been a good week to be less of a bad actor. First, President Bush Sunday signaled his readiness to sign security guarantees if North Korea agrees to end its nuclear program, and repeatedly emphasized that the U.S. has no intention of invading. Then, on Tuesday, Iran accepted a deal brokered by Britain, France and Germany requiring a more intrusive inspection regime to satisfy international concerns over the potential for Tehran's nuclear energy program to camouflage a bomb program. Two prime candidates for further testing of the Bush administration's doctrine of preemptive warfare suddenly seem to morphing into exercises in Cold War-ish containment, engagement and coexistence.

Engaging North Korea

President Bush offered little by way of detail on his North Korea proposal, but signaled that it would involve a multilateral written guarantee to respect Pyongyang's sovereignty, signed by all five parties to the talks with Kim Jong Il's government — South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the U.S. The President reiterated that a formal non-aggression pact between the U.S. and North Korea, as demanded by Pyongyang, is "off the table." (Even if the administration had been inclined to offer such a deal, it would not easily win ratification in the Senate.) Still, the very fact that Washington is now offering some form of security guarantee to Pyongyang is a significant shift in the U.S. position, in a direction advocated by Secretary of State Colin Powell and other administration doves — as well as by Washington's key partners in the six-way talks, China and South Korea.

The six-way talks had stalled three months ago, with Pyongyang demanding a non-aggression pact as part of a sequence of steps that would include freezing and then scrapping its nuclear weapons program, while the U.S. insisted that North Korea would have to scrap its programs before any concessions could be offered. The hard-line U.S. position was premised on the insistence that North Korea should win no rewards for its extortionist behavior, particularly in light of its failure to adhere to the previous agreement negotiated with the Clinton administration in 1994. Since the day it took office, the Bush administration has been divided over North Korea, and even in the course of the current negotiations the President has never quite signaled a clear choice between the hawkish option of isolation and strangulation of North Korea in order to bring down its regime, and negotiation and engagement in order to police its behavior.

But the default position that resulted from the failure of the talks and the policy drift inside the administration was unlikely to produce a happy result for Washington or its allies. The U.S. began implementing plans to interdict North Korean shipping on the high seas to stop exports of drugs and weapons — a move that would almost certainly provoke North Korea to raise the ante through some new reckless gesture. And North Korea announced that it was steaming ahead on its nuclear weapons program, repeatedly claiming it had reprocessed all of the spent fuel rods previously under IAEA seal at Yongbyon, which would provide enough fissile material for up to six bombs. (North Korea is believed to have built one or two crude nuclear bombs during the 1990s.)

In recent weeks, it has vowed to "demonstrate" its nuclear capability, a statement that has been interpreted as a threat to conduct a test-detonation of a nuclear weapon. Plainly, the stalemate would not stop North Korea going nuclear, and there was no support among regional allies for military confrontation. Instead, China, South Korea and Russia have urged the U.S. to show greater flexibility on the question of security guarantees, to allow for the brokering of a classic diplomatic deal that would allow all sides to step back from the path of confrontation while proclaiming their core demands have been met.

No details have yet been provided, of course, and there may well be some pushback against the idea of offering guarantees to North Korea from Vice President Dick Cheney and other hawkish elements in the administration when the presidential entourage returns to Washington. And the initiative will mean little if North Korea goes ahead and tests a weapon in the comings weeks or months. But for now, the U.S. response to the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula is following more familiar Cold War doctrines of containment, deterrence and engagement, rather than the "preemption" doctrine that got its first real-world outing in Iraq.

Iran changes course

In the case of Iran, the most significant shift occurred in Tehran rather than Washington. But it has clearly been helped along by the key EU powers — including Britain's prime minister Tony Blair — and also, possibly, by the efforts of Jordan's King Abdullah to facilitate back-channel communication between Washington and Tehran. Unlike North Korea, which, if anything, exaggerates its nuclear weapons capability, Iran insists it has no clandestine bomb program. But IAEA investigations have found evidence of secret uranium enrichment facilities, and the UN nuclear watchdog had put Iran on notice to sign an agreement accepting more intrusive inspections by October 31, or else. Again, although hawkish elements in the Bush administration had favored a more vigorous pursuit of "regime-change" in Tehran, Washington has pursued the issue of Iran's nuclear capability primarily through the IAEA, although President Bush has warned that the U.S. "will not tolerate" the construction of a nuclear weapon by Iran. U.S. officials also leaked stories of Israel's submarine-launched nuclear cruise missile capability and the possibility of an Israeli preemptive strike to prevent Iran from going nuclear to signal the dire consequences that could follow if Tehran pursued the nuclear path.

The nuclear issue, of course, is only one of a number of delicate matters currently on the table among those trying to broker understandings between Washington and Tehran. One key issue is the fate of a number of key al-Qaeda personnel currently in the hands of the Iranian authorities; another is Iraq, where the ability of the occupation forces to manage the increasingly restive Shiite population may depend in substantial part in securing tacit Iranian consent for the U.S.-authored transition process. Progress on the nuclear issue will certainly help the two sides reach understandings on the other questions.

Hawks such as Undersecretary of State for Non-Proliferation John Bolton warned just last week that signals of cooperation from Tehran should be seen simply as an attempt to "throw sand" in the eyes of the international community to avoid confrontation, but the involvement of Britain in brokering the latest agreement signals the fact that Washington's closest ally on Iraq has no interest in pursuing military action against Iran. Still, it may well be that the "regime-change" saber-rattling in Washington and the recent history of Iraq will certainly have helped the Europeans play "good cop" to Washington's out-of-control guy, and also may have helped sway the internal Iranian debate on the nuclear question. Although hard-liners have urged defiance of IAEA demands, President Mohammed Khatami's reformists have warned that failure to comply with the IAEA demands, even if they are deemed unfair in Tehran, would put the Islamic Republic in mortal danger, because the consequences of defiance would be ruinous sanctions and even, possibly, war.

Like the details President's offer on North Korea, the specifics of Iran's agreement with the EU leaders — and its enforcement via the IAEA — remain to be seen. For those who see the problem as the regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang, rather than as the specifics of what they hold in their arsenals, an outcome that leaves each intact and more integrated into the international community is far from satisfactory. But just as Iraq may have provided a warning to Iran and North Korea of the fate that could await them — although its not quite clear whether Pyongyang drew the deterrent lesson intended by Washington — Iraq has also provided a harsh reality check on the limits of preemptive regime-change. America is chafing under the burden of its decision to go to war without international authorization. Occupying an unruly Iraq looks set to tie down half of the active-duty combat personnel of the U.S. military for months, or even years to come, and the price-tag for the war is $166 billion and counting. Absent some major act of aggression by either North Korea or Iran, a President seeking reelection is unlikely to ask an increasingly anxious nation to commit its lives and treasure to a third war in as many years. Negotiated solutions become possible when both parties to a conflict recognize that they have more to lose than to gain via the path of confrontation. And Iraq may have helped both the Bush administration and its adversaries in Tehran — and even possibly in Pyongyang — to that conclusion. The banishing of "Evil" may have to wait.