Geopolitical Diary: The Shrinking 'Axis of Evil' List
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day.
Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider
what might happen tomorrow.
North Korea submitted documentation of its nuclear activities to China on Thursday, the final step in the Hermit Kingdom's long road back to being a normal country. Almost immediately, the United States lifted trade restrictions and announced (with the appropriate caveats) that it would remove Pyongyang from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. The developments mark the removal of the second charter member from the U.S. "Axis of Evil" checklist, which once included North Korea, Iraq and Iran. In recognizing the advances that North Korea had made, U.S. President George W. Bush explicitly compared changes in North Korea to changes made three years ago in Libya, a state that once was a junior member of the Axis and that now is on the verge of being a darling to Western investors. The implication was clear: For states willing to play by the rules, no sin is unforgivable — and for others, there is always the example of Iraq. Movement appears to be occurring in American relations with two other Axis members — one charter and one junior: Iran and Syria. French mediators on Thursday leaked that the Syrians were actively re-evaluating their ties to Tehran, one of the final roadblocks to a comprehensive peace deal with Israel. STRATFOR has also noticed that the erratic statements out of Iran — shifting from warmongering to peacemongering, from publicly entertaining potential offers of a U.S. diplomatic "office" in Tehran to brandishing the offer shortly thereafter as a deceitful rumor — bear a remarkable resemblance to Iranian statements made in the final days of Jimmy Carter's administration when a deal on the return of hostages was being struck. We are not so optimistic as to say that an American-Iranian deal over the future of Iraq is imminent. However, we will say that not only are most of the pieces falling into place, but most already have fallen into place. The low — and falling — violence levels in Iraq indicate that American-Iranian negotiations are well advanced. Those levels would not have fallen without at least a modicum of trust. The intra-Shiite violence in Iraq's South is as much a result of Iran squeezing out factions resisting the building deal as it is about the Iraqi military rising in competence. With North Korea back in the fold, the United States currently has no other foreign policy issue on its original Axis of Evil list outstanding, except Iran. And with the Bush administration in its final months, Iran is terrified of risking that the next president — who will be looking for an issue on which to cut his teeth no matter what political party he belongs to — would take an even harsher line. Add to that the growing indications that Syria is willing to decouple itself from the mullahs, and Iran's timetable to work out a deal with Washington is growing shorter by the day. But just because Iran sees the window of opportunity closing and is likely feeling the urgency to lay the rest of the groundwork for a deal now, it does not necessarily mean that the Bush administration would be the one to seal the final agreement, or even get credit for such a historic deal. Even when Iran was involved in intense backchannel talks with Carter's staff and was then legitimately fearful of what a Ronald Reagan presidency might bring, the Iranians still sought to deny the Carter administration the diplomatic victory of resolving the hostage crisis, giving it instead to Reagan as soon as he came into office. Carter might have sealed the deal, but he garnered none of the credit. At this stage of the negotiations, timing is everything for the Iranians to make sure their bases are covered before this window of opportunity closes. Bush may not get to cross Iran off his Axis of Evil list before the end of his term. But regardless of who is sitting in the Oval Office, Washington's foreign policy slate now has been cleared enough to work hard and fast toward a final accommodation with Iran.