US Normalising relations with the Axis of Evil
By Abid Mustafa
On March 6 2007, North Korea and the US concluded their first set of
normalisation talks, which are part of the agreement reached in Beijing last
month. Oddly enough the talks also coincide with American efforts to
establish cordial ties with Iran. In her testimony before the Senate
Appropriations Committee, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that
that Washington will join a “neighbours meeting”, convened by Iraqi Prime
Minister Nouri al-Maliki to be followed by ministerial talks in April.
So after five years of having labelled Iran and North Korea as part of the
axis of evil, the Bush administration has finally decided to abandon its
bellicose stance in preference for normalisation. Leaving aside America’s
fading status in international affairs; US motives behind the restoration
drive are borne out of separate considerations for each country.
In the case of North Korea, the Bush administration has always insisted that
Pyongyang must de-nuclearize before the US can deliver economic assistance
and enter into a security pact with the North Koreans. However, the
agreement signed in Beijing between the six parties on February 13 2007,
represents a climb down from the hard-line policy that had frequently
bedevilled US relations with North Korea.
The deal reached makes no mention of North Korea relinquishing its existing
nuclear weapons and is a departure from previous agreements. The omission is
particularly noteworthy as it suggests that America has implicitly—at
least—recognised North Korea as a nuclear weapons state (NWS), after
Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test on October 9 2006. The atomic
test marked an escalation in hostilities between Pyongyang and Washington,
and came at troubling time for the Bush administration. America starring
defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan could not afford another confrontation—this
time with North Korea. The Bush administration was forced to revise its
policy, and with Chinese help proceeded to engage North Korea, which
eventually culminated in last month’s joint statement. The anxiety pervading
the Bush administration over North Korea’s nuclear status was recently
echoed by Senator Joseph Biden, the Democratic chair of the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee, who said,” North Korea’s programme is much more
dangerous to us now than it was in 2002, when President Bush rejected
virtually the same deal he is now embracing.”
History between the two nations does not bode well for a swift outcome. The
last fifty years or so, demonstrate more than anything else, American’s
reluctance to find a permanent solution to the nuclear issue, unwillingness
to establish bilateral ties and aversion to see a unified Korean peninsula.
America’s intransigence towards North Korea in the past and for the
foreseeable future is directed towards keeping China preoccupied with North
Korea on it South-eastern border. America has kept the issue simmering and
only when Pyongyang has crossed the limits and threatened US interests— such
as South Korea’s or Japan’s security—has the US instigated precautionary
measures to contain the threat. For instance the firing of two ballistic,
over the Japanese archipelago led to the signing of the Agreed Framework in
1994. The placing of a satellite in orbit which enhanced the long-range
deep-strike capability of the North Korea prompted the Clinton
administration to convene high level talks in the winter of 1998. In all of
the standoffs between US and North Korea, the US has been quick to involve
China and has used South Korea and Japan its two principal agents in the
region to raise the broader question of Asian Pacific security.
Cheney’s recent visit to the region should be judged within this setting.
The visit had a two fold aim. First it was meant to assuage Japanese
concerns about the pact with North Korea and review progress on the
implementation of the accord. Second, it was to send an unequivocal message
to the Chinese leadership that America would not tolerate the expansion of
Chinese hegemony in the region.
The ongoing negotiations between North Korea and the US, South Korea, and
Japan will lead to normalisation, only if the US is confident that it can
continue using North Korea to destabilise China.
Unlike North Korea, Iran is a subordinate state to America and since the
early eighties has been protecting US interests throughout the region.
However, the belligerent statements emanating from Tehran and Washington
these days conveys a different picture altogether—one where both countries
are preparing for war. America’s detention of Iranian diplomats, the arrest
of Shia clerics with close ties to Tehran, the arrival of a second air-craft
carrier in the Persian Gulf, the allegation of Iranian explosives used by
the Iraqi resistance and numerous intelligence reports about an imminent US
strike have reinforced the impression that war is inevitable. Likewise,
Iranian allegations that Britain, America and Pakistan are supporting
insurgents amongst Iran’s minorities, Tehran refusing to surrender its right
to enrich uranium and Iran conducting war games does little to dispel the
notion that war can be averted.
But when measured against the backdrop of Iranian influence in Iraq, Lebanon
and Afghanistan, the confrontational posturing between the two countries
belies reality. America knows full well that without Iranian assistance, she
would not be able to control the Shia population in the South of Iraq.
Equally important is Iranian influence over Hizbollah, and without Tehran’s
cooperation the US would be unable to pressurise Israel to resume peace
talks with the Palestinians or stabilise Lebanon. The same can be said about
America’s intention to hold talks with Iran has been welcomed by Iran’s
Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani and other senior
officials. The same officials are actively curbing and undermining
Ahmadinejad’s limited powers. There in mounting speculation in Tehran that
the President may not even survive his term. The Iranian leadership has also
signalled its readiness to halt enrichment. This is nothing new—as far back
as 2003 in secret talks with the US— a similar offer was made. The
aggressive actions undertaken by the US is designed to bolster American
authority in Iraq ahead of talks with Iran, and deny her agents in Tehran
the ability to rebuff US demands. In the forthcoming US-Iran talks it is
likely that Iran will halt its enrichment programme and withdraw support for
Hizbollah. In return, Iran will be given the responsibility to manage the
affairs of Southern Iraq under American tutelage and be re-admitted to the
comity of nations.
The chances of US normalising its relationship with Iran is far greater than
its endeavours to normalise ties with North Korea, even though political
developments suggest otherwise.
March 7 2007
Abid Mustafa is a political commentator who specialises in Muslim Affairs