New Flexibility on the Evil Axis?
that the administration is holding talks this week with its European
allies on their proposal for a deal with Iran on safeguarding its
nuclear program is raising new questions about whether President
George W Bush is easing his confrontational approach to the Islamic
the same time, the administration's reported plans to send its senior
Korea specialist, Joseph deTrani, to Beijing next week at the same
time that a top Pyongyang official will also be visiting the Chinese
capital has spurred speculation that U.S. officials are trying at
the very least to create the sense of movement in the long-stalled
question is whether the two moves signal a more forthcoming attitude
by Bush, as long urged by its negotiating partners, toward both
Tehran and Pyongyang, or whether the apparent renewed interest in
"jaw jaw" is a tactical maneuver designed to reassure
nervous voters that Bush is not as hawkish toward the two surviving
members of the "axis of evil" as his Democratic rival,
Senator John Kerry, has made him out to be.
administration has not tried to draw attention to either move and
denied any suggestion of a shift in positions, in part because it
could open the president up to charges of "flip-flopping"
at a time when his campaign has tried hard to depict his steadfastness
Democrats call it "stubbornness" as a major
the same time, however, the president, who in the last few weeks
has been on the defensive on foreign-policy issues, has insisted
he is trying to pursue a diplomatic and "multilateral"
solution to the nuclear challenges posed by both Iran and North
latest moves may be designed to demonstrate both that commitment
and to reassure the public that negotiations are still alive.
wants to show that he's not a warmonger and naturalize Kerry's suggestions
which have really had some impact that he is,"
said one congressional aide who works for a Democratic lawmaker.
the two latest moves, the one on Iran is considered more significant,
if only because the administration, including Bush himself, has
made clear that it wants to refer Iran's alleged noncompliance with
demands by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to the
U.N. Security Council for sanctions.
that connection, it has repeatedly expressed skepticism about a
yearlong campaign by Britain, France and Germany to negotiate a
deal with Tehran that would guarantee Iran a reliable supply of
nuclear fuel in exchange for an indefinite suspension of its efforts
to enrich uranium, which officials here believe is intended to build
administration has even encouraged speculation that, if the Security
Council did not act as it wished, it might be prepared to take preemptive
military action against specific nuclear-related sites to frustrate
Iran's alleged plans to acquire a weapon, much as Israel destroyed
Iraq's main Osirak nuclear facility in a 1981 raid.
did Washington make any effort to deny reports late in September
that it is selling some 500 "bunker buster" bombs capable
of penetrating Iran's nuclear facilities to Israel's air force,
at a time when Israeli generals were openly threatening action against
that Washington will be holding talks with its European allies on
a possible package of positive incentives or "carrots"
of the kind that the United States has previously all but ruled
out may represent, as the New York Times, which first
reported the plans point out, "a significant shift" in
the administration's virtually total reliance to date on "sticks."
addition to reliable supplies of nuclear fuel, among the carrots
to be discussed, according to diplomats quoted by the Times, would
be a much broader economic engagement, including lifting a ban on
exports to Iran of "dual-use" equipment, including civilian-aircraft
parts and other equipment that has been denied it by the West. Such
a deal would also require Washington to lift its sanctions against
its outlines, such an engagement policy is precisely what Kerry
has suggested as US policy. Indeed, some of his aides have called
for a "grand bargain" with Iran that would move toward
a normalization of economic and diplomatic relations between the
two countries after 25 years of estrangement, provided that Tehran
accepts strict and verifiable safeguards on its nuclear program.
Iran failed to respond to such a package, Kerry has said he would
move in concert with Washington's European allies to impose tough
economic and diplomatic sanctions of the kind the Bush administration
has urged. But, he has stressed, to get them to back and enforce
sanctions, Washington would actively support the allies' own efforts
to strike a deal with Tehran.
administration has not yet gone that far, and, in discussing this
week's meetings, it has made clear that it wants to hear from the
Europeans what sanctions they would be willing to impose if Iran
rejects their initiative.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Tuesday, "one
of the things we'll discuss Friday is to hear from the Europeans
about their ideas about how to get Iran to comply with the (IAEA's)
requirements, and we also would expect to discuss what to do, what
the next steps might be, were we to refer this to the UN Security
at the same time, Boucher indicated Washington was not discouraging
its European allies from putting a package together or to formally
present such a package to Tehran later this month, just before the
Nov. 2 presidential election.
North Korea, which is already believed to have as many as eight
nuclear bombs and the capability of producing more, Washington has
tried for two years to rally its negotiating partners China,
South Korea, Japan and Russia to isolate and pressure Pyongyang
into a verifiable and enforceable agreement to completely disarm
and dismantle its program, without offering any carrots in return.
pressure from its partners however, especially China, which has
acted as the main coordinator for the talks, Washington softened
its position slightly earlier this year by suggesting Pyongyang
could expect to reap some reward for such an accord.
administration had hoped the concession would bring Pyongyang back
to the table before the coming vote, but most analysts believe that
the North decided earlier this summer to stall on the talks until
after the election.
has suggested that not only would he take a similar approach to
the North as he has taken with respect to Iran, but that he was
ready to re-launch bilateral talks with Pyongyang that had been
suspended when Bush took power in 2001.
sudden flurry of diplomacy, which also includes trips by China's
special envoy for Korean affairs to Seoul and Washington this week,
has sparked speculation that pre-election talks could yet take place.
most analysts appear to agree with the conclusion of The Nelson
Report, a private newsletter that circulates among Asia specialists
in Washington, that the sudden activity is "more likely an
effort by the US, China and (South Korea) to make things look better
than they are."
Lobe is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2004 Inter Press Service