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Iran/Iraq: Analysts Debate Effectiveness Of Bush's Tougher Line

  • Charles Recknagel

Since 11 September, the U.S. administration has increasingly toughened its stance on Iraq and Iran, with President George W. Bush on 29 January calling both part of an "axis of evil." The tougher rhetoric is intended to force Tehran and Baghdad to change what Washington has called their support or export of terrorism. But analysts disagree on whether the U.S. warnings are having an effect or are instead prompting Tehran and Baghdad to further challenge U.S. interests.

Prague, 7 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- To many observers, President Bush sent a single clear message to Iran and Iraq when he labeled them -- along with North Korea -- as an "axis of evil."

The British-based "The Economist" magazine interpreted the message this way: "From now on, the U.S. will target not just terrorists but countries that threaten the U.S. with weapons of mass destruction -- and [it] will do so preemptively."

But if Bush meant to put Tehran and Baghdad on notice that Washington will not tolerate any support of terrorists, the president's stance has also sparked a vigorous international debate over its effectiveness as a foreign policy. In one of the harshest criticisms of Washington's stance so far, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said today that "we are threatened [by] a new simplism which consists in reducing everything to the war on terrorism."

As the debate over the "axis of evil" label continues, it largely pits two camps against each other: those who think a tougher stance will deter Tehran and Baghdad from action Washington regards as offensive, and those who think it may instead encourage them to adopt more aggressive positions of their own.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a foreign policy expert at the Cato Institute in Washington, says the most immediate result of Bush's remarks has been to put an end to any prospects for improvements in U.S.-Iranian relations for the near future.

"I think that the president's speech really damaged the possibility of a rapprochement between the United States and Iran. There were subtle indications that that was now possible; clearly that would have required undermining some of the hard-liners in Iran and seeing the reformist faction gain strength," Carpenter said. "But the president's strident, confrontational rhetoric has really obliterated any possibility of that in the near future."

Carpenter also says Bush's words have undermined Iran's reformists while doing little to add to the already clear U.S. message on terrorism that was sent by the American military campaign in neighboring Afghanistan.

"I think [Bush's speech] might marginally affect Iran's willingness to support groups that have been guilty of terrorist acts in the past. But I think the U.S. military action against the Taliban had more of an impact. That was very much an object lesson to regimes everywhere in the world that were inclined to flirt with terrorist organizations," Carpenter said. "I'm not sure the president needed to go further than that and put Iran on the list of nations as 'an axis of evil.'"

Both Iranian conservatives and reformists have strongly criticized Bush's "axis of evil" phrasing. But recent days have seen Iran take two steps which could ease some tensions with Washington. On 5 February, Tehran pledged it would not develop nuclear weapons "for any reason." It also responded to U.S. charges it is letting Al-Qaeda fighters flee into Iran by inviting Washington to share any intelligence that might lead to their capture.

For now, it is too early to know whether these steps reflect real changes in Iranian policy or are merely intended to parry Bush's verbal assault. But some analysts say that -- if Iran's words are followed by actions -- they are the kind of behavioral changes Washington is aiming for.

James Phillips, a U.S.-policy expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, says Bush's warning could help put an end to what he calls Tehran's "double game" of seeking to improve relations with the West while supporting terrorism.

"Iran continues to play a double game, with President [Mohammad] Khatami saying all the right things but not being in control, while the hard-liners continue to ship weapons, not only to the PLO but also to Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah -- three terrorist groups that have killed Americans in the past and killed people from other countries," Phillips said. "Iran [also] is linked to the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. There is a danger that Iranian hard-liners think that they could improve relations with the United States and the West while continuing terrorism as usual."

Phillips also says that Bush's tough rhetorical stance toward Tehran makes it easier to maintain U.S. economic sanctions on Iran in hopes they will reduce the amount of money Tehran has available for pursuing nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction programs.

Turning to Iraq, many critics of Bush's tougher rhetoric say they doubt it will have any effect on a regime that already is at war with the U.S. Instead, some say Bush's remarks may have been motivated as much by domestic political concerns as foreign policy ones.

The Cato Institute's Carpenter says: "In some ways, domestic politics played a role. The president is riding a very high popularity level, but with the war in Afghanistan winding down there is a real prospect that Americans would begin to look toward domestic issues primarily again. By engaging in this kind of confrontational rhetoric, the president keeps the war against terrorism [foremost] in the minds of Americans as the most important issue."

But proponents of Bush's aggressive tone toward Iraq reject any such criticisms. They say that Baghdad's recent offer to renew talks with the UN over arms monitors -- banned from Iraq since late 1998 -- may in part have been prompted by Bush's repeated recent warnings to readmit the inspectors or face unspecified consequences.

Phillips says Bush's calling Iraq part of an evil axis may be intended to send two signals. One is to alert the world community once again to the danger of Iraqi weapons programs. The other is to prepare Americans psychologically for an extended war on terrorism which Bush repeatedly has said will not end with Afghanistan.

"President Bush was warning Americans not to be complacent in the war against terrorism [and] that that war must go far beyond Afghanistan, because what makes terrorists so dangerous, as we saw with [Osama] bin Laden, is the fact that he was supported by a state, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan," Phillips said. "And Iraq is one of the most dangerous states because it has a long history of supporting terrorism and it has weapons that it could transfer to terrorists to use against its neighbors or against the United States."

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told members of Congress yesterday that there must be a "regime change" in Iraq and that Bush is considering what Powell called "the most serious set of options one might imagine." He did not say if the White House is considering a military attack on Iraq or additional economic and diplomatic pressures instead.

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