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EU: Harsh U.S. Criticism Of Iran And Others Makes Allies Wonder What's Next

  • Breffni O'Rourke

U.S. officials have issued sharp new criticism of Iran as well as of Iraq and North Korea. U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is describing those three countries as a clear and present threat to the rest of the world. Her remarks, and those by other officials, reinforce President George W. Bush's comments on 29 February about "an axis of evil." The strong American language is causing some concern among the European allies, who have doubts about further military action like that in Afghanistan. And not least, Iran is also worried.

Prague, 4 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The rhetoric from Washington is hard and direct in tone. It says the "rogue" triumvirate of nations -- Iran, Iraq, and North Korea -- are a clear threat to peace, an "axis of evil."

Yesterday, three top U.S. officials addressed the issue in no uncertain terms on analytical news programs. Secretary of State Colin Powell turned his remarks to Saddam Hussein's Iraq: "We suspect they [Iraq] are developing weapons of mass destruction, but more than suspect it, we know it. There is an easy way for them to demonstrate that they are not, and that is -- as the president has said -- [to] let the inspectors in."

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice had this to say about North Korea's missile capabilities: "It [North Korea] is the most aggressive in spreading ballistic missile technology around the world. It is the chief merchant. It is the place [where] you go if you want to buy ballistic-missile technology."

And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld lashed out at Tehran, accusing it of providing Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters safe passage from Afghanistan -- allegations Iranian officials have hotly denied: "We have any number of reports that Iran has been permissive and allowed transit through their country of Al-Qaeda [members]. We have any number of reports, more recently, that they have been supplying arms in Afghanistan to various elements in the country."

After the antiterrorism campaign in Afghanistan, few can doubt the will of the U.S. administration to act decisively when it believes such action is necessary. In this light, the recent words of the U.S. officials have an ominous ring to them. Is the United States going to make a move? If so, what sort?

That question is occupying the minds not only of officials in the three countries concerned, but also the allies of the United States in Europe. In remarks published yesterday, Italian Defense Minister Antonio Martino said his government will not support the widening of the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism to Iraq unless definite proof is found of Iraqi culpability in destabilizing the Mideast region. His view crystallizes what many European allies are thinking.

Analyst Daniel Keohane of the Centre for European Reform in London puts it this way: "The Europeans will be very wary of what the next phase [of the campaign] will involve militarily and where it will take place, or might take place. And certainly they would want to see very clear evidence before any action were taken. I mean, naturally, the financial and diplomatic aspects of the [antiterror] campaign will continue regardless, but certainly for any military action, they would want very, very hard evidence before being willing to support or participate in anything like that."

Keohane says he considers there is already evidence that Iran and Iraq have had the potential to develop weapons systems, including weapons of mass destruction. However, he says: "Whether that links into the campaign against terrorism is not completely clear, and I think to most Europeans, that's where the linkage gets a little blurred, that's what the Europeans would need explained."

The European allies may have their concerns, but their level of worry is of course nowhere near as great as in, say, Tehran. Another London-based analyst, Professor Alireza Nourizadeh of the Centre for Arab and Iranian Studies, says tension in the Iranian capital is growing.

He says Bush's comments critical of Iran were generally not too badly received by reformist elements, who felt that they were nuanced so as to recognize their efforts. As Nourizadeh puts it: "It was absolutely clear for the reformists that President Bush made a distinction between the reformists [in Iran] and the non-elected elements of the regime." But Nourizadeh says recent criticism by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld hit the Iranians harder, and it held no solace for reformers and moderates: "Mr. Rumsfeld's remarks were quite, in a way, threatening, because he talked precisely about certain Taliban elements getting to Iran and being helped by the authorities. That's something new, and we must wait and see what their response will be."

Nourizadeh says Iran is turning toward countries like Saudi Arabia -- which can bring influence to bear on the United States -- and also toward the Europeans. He notes the way British officials, including Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, have sought to cool the situation by urging continued support for the reformers in Iran.

"And then we had other voices, from Germany, Austria, France, and Italy. And the Iranians, they rely on these voices," Nourizadeh says. "They rely on the European Union as a force which can actually talk to the Americans."

Moving on to NATO ally Turkey, its main preoccupation is with neighboring Iraq, and the consequences of any action that might lead to the breakup of Iraq as a unitary state.

The director of the Turkish Foreign Policy Institute at Bilkent University in Ankara, Seyfi Tashan, says it's up to the Iraqi regime of President Saddam Hussein to act appropriately if it wants to avoid an intervention. That means it has to allow UN weapons inspectors back into the country. Tashan says Turkey does not want conflict with Iraq, but would not refuse any American request for support.

"Obviously it would be rather tricky for Turkish troops to enter northern Iraq -- they [already] do so now in hot pursuit of terrorists. But if this were to become an occupation of northern Iraq, Turkey would like to obtain adequate guarantees that its relations would not be impaired with other countries in this part of the world."

Tashan says there is a widespread belief in Turkey that a military intervention in Iraq could break that country apart, and give rise to an independent Kurdish state in what is now northern Iraq. That development would be "anathema" to Turkey, which has problems with its own Kurdish minority in eastern Turkey.

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