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The Axis of Evil: From Rhetoric to Reality

By Stan Crock When President Bush first uttered the phrase "Axis of Evil" in his 2002 State of the Union Address, many experts thought it was laughable. While the countries referred to -- Iraq, Iran, and North Korea -- were all malevolent, "axis" implied the kind of linkage that existed in World War II between Italy and Germany and, to a lesser extent, Japan.

But it simply wasn't believable that the mullahs in Iran would work with Saddam Hussein after eight savage years of war and bloodletting between Iran and Iraq -- the wounds were far too deep for a Shiite-Sunni rapprochement. Similarly, the idea that insular North Korea would join forces with either of these countries was nonsense. Once again, it looked as if President Bush had tortured the English language and intellectual discourse.

MUTUAL AID. Yet strangely enough, President Bush's policies, designed to thwart these countries, actually created what hadn't existed when he first broached the topic. Iran and Iraq haven't been as close in decades as they are now. And while I don't think North Korea and Iran are in cahoots, they do in effect aid each other when they negotiate over their nuclear programs. The nightmare Bush described in 2002 is now a reality, thanks to him.

Let's look at Iran and Iraq. Iran is exerting influence in Iraq far beyond what it ever could do in the past. Instead of Saddam's secular, Sunni-led government, Baghdad is now dominated by Shia with close ties to Tehran. Indeed, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, arguably the most powerful man in Iraq, was born in Iran. The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution, one of the most popular parties in Iraq, also has close ties to Iran.

Iran is infiltrating Iraq with money and political operatives. When a permanent government is in place in Baghdad, it could well be Islamist because secular moderates have all but vanished. While Islamist rule may not be as strict as it is in Tehran, the two governments will be closely aligned rather than at each other's throats, as in the past. Iraq no longer will be a counterbalance against Iran.

NUCLEAR LEVERAGE. In fact, Peter Galbraith, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute for Peace, argues that the proposed Iraqi constitution, while flawed, is the only thing that limits an Iranian power grab. Tehran controls the southern part of Iraq and has great influence in Baghdad. By apportioning control over three sectors to the Kurds, Shia, and Sunni, the constitution "stops Iran from taking over all of Iraq," Galbraith says. "Under the constitution, they'll be running just half of it."

Iran also could have an unintended impact on the six-party nuclear negotiations with North Korea -- and the six-party talks could have an effect on Iran's negotiations. With its oil and economic ties to the West, Iran has leverage to argue that it should not be denied its sovereign right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to nuclear technology, and it may well win that debate. China and Russia seem likely to veto any move toward sanctions at the U.N. Security Council despite ample evidence that Iran has been hiding information about its program for nearly two decades.

What's more, the principles the six parties have agreed to in the North Korea negotiation contemplate a light-water reactor for Pyongyang at some point. If it's O.K. for North Korea, why not Iran?

GOALS VS. RESULTS. The reverse is true as well. The discussion of a light-water reactor for Pyongyang is supposed to take place at an "appropriate time," which the Bush Administration probably thinks means never. But if Iran takes a hard line and is allowed to get its hands on nuclear technology, that will make it harder to deny North Korea its reactor. What would be the principle for doing so? That Iran has oil and North Korea doesn't? Indeed, energy-poor North Korea would have a stronger argument that it needs an energy source than petroleum-rich Tehran. North Korea and Iran may not be working formally in tandem, but they might as well be.

It surely wasn't Bush's intent to create an Axis of Evil. But he has done precisely that when his goal was to defang those nations. The President is proving prophetic and visionary -- but not at all the way he wanted to be.

Crock is chief diplomatic correspondent for BusinessWeek

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