Iran, Iraq, North Korea: What Now?

We may be about to witness the complete evaporation of the axis of evil

Seven-and-a-half years ago, in his 2002 State of the Union address, then-President George W. Bush declared that the regimes of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea constituted an "axis of evil." He thereby put the United States on a war footing with them. In rhetorical terms, Bush's use of the phrase was highly successful: It was repeated endlessly by the media. But in operational terms, the consequences were tragic. The phrase helped Bush gather support for an invasion of Iraq that wiped out the evil of Saddam Hussein's tyranny, but replaced it with the far worse evil of anarchy, killing perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and 4,000 Americans in the process. Moreover, the phrase alienated Iran’s leadership, with whom, following our invasion of Iraq, we might have had a functional rapprochement, since Iraq is Iran's own nemesis. Finally, the phrase led to an ineffectual policy of not talking to North Korea, a route that led nowhere. Having accomplished nothing by its failure to engage, America (still under Bush) returned to the negotiating table five years later. And by then Kim Jong Il was that much further along in developing his nuclear bomb.

So where do we stand now? All three Axis countries continue to play a strong role in defining U.S. policy preoccupations. The administration of President Barack Obama is right now concentrating much of its energies on developments in Baghdad, Teheran, and Pyongyang. Iraq has undergone a very tenuous stabilization since 2007, and the Administration is justly nervous about the security situation unraveling once American troops withdraw from Iraqi cities this summer. But the spotlight lately has been on Teheran and Pyongyang, as both regimes have, in recent days and weeks, taken dramatic turns toward further radicalism, even as their domestic bases of support may be narrowing.

In the recent Iranian national elections, nobody knows just how well or badly the candidates fared. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the radical anti-western Holocaust denier, was declared the winner over the reformist Mir Hussein Moussavi by a two-to-one margin. But because the results were largely seen as fixed (and it has been alleged that the outcome and vote percentages were announced even before the ballots were counted), we are left completely in the dark. Was Moussavi's support simply overstated by western journalists, who took in the thrilling demonstrations by Teheran's young elite in favor of Moussavi, but did not travel to the more conservative rural provinces where Ahmadinejad is reportedly very popular? Or were the massive anti-regime demonstrations in Teheran in fact indicative of a population that had truly turned against Ahmadinejad's rants? Or, was it a mixture of both: Did Ahmadinejad perhaps win in a close election, with the regime having helped him out by stealing ballots here and there?

One thing is certain: the anti-American clerical regime that Bush branded “evil” in 2002 is now officially under a cloud of perceived illegitimacy. To quell demonstrations against the election results, it had to resort to force, beating demonstrators before world television cameras. This is a regime more nervous after the election campaign than it was beforehand. And an insecure regime, embattled by an implicitly pro-American opposition, might conceivably be willing to compromise with President Obama down the road, if only to steal some of the thunder from its domestic opponents. For the moment, the threat posed by an unconventional Shiite empire, headquartered in Iran, and including the Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas, has thrown Israelis and Sunni Arab regimes into an alliance of sorts. But by eliminating the impetus for the Israelis and Sunnis to make common cause, an improvement in American-Iranian relations could accomplish one of the effects Bush had hoped the 2003 Iraq invasion would have: That of putting pressure on the Sunni Arab dictatorships that nurtured the 9/11 terrorists. Bear in mind that it is only Iran’s current regime that is so hot-bloodedly anti-Israel. The Moussavi supporters do not share that fervor, and historically the Persians have been, in a passive, de facto sense, aware of Israel's positive uses as a lever against the hated Sunni Arabs. Under the late Shah, Israel-Iranian relations were maintained in a low key style, with the two countries in implicit strategic cooperation. Such days may yet return someday. All of which is to say that American-Iranian-Israeli relations are very dynamic, and could go through major shifts in the years to come.

The same level of dynamism is at play in North Korea. The Pyongyang regime, which governs a semi-starving population, has no policy accomplishment it can point to apart from having detonated a nuclear bomb. It thereby threatens China much more than it does us. China could choose to ignore Kim Jong Il's antics and simply watch as Japan and South Korea dramatically build up their militaries, perhaps even going nuclear themselves. But the last thing China wants is militarily strengthened Japanese and South Korean states that would curtail Beijing's own power in the Pacific. On the other hand, if China tries to undermine North Korea in any substantive way, it risks the unraveling of Kim’s regime. And the end of the Kim regime could mean millions of refugees pouring across the North Korean border into China. America is pressuring China to get tougher on North Korea, but the Chinese need no lectures from America: they know very well what is required to rein Kim in, they are just afraid of the consequences.

The regimes in both North Korea and Iran, then, are in play, and the years to come may yet see the complete vanquishing of the axis of evil. As with Iraq, however, we should not necessarily expect that stability will follow in their wake.