New Flexibility on the Evil Axis?

Word 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 Republic.

At 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 six-party talks.

The 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.

The 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 selling point.

At 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 Korea.

The latest moves may be designed to demonstrate both that commitment and to reassure the public that negotiations are still alive.

"He wants to show that he’s not a warmonger and neutralize Kerry’s suggestions – which have really had some impact – that he is," said one congressional aide who works for a Democratic lawmaker.

Of 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 UN Security Council for sanctions.

In that connection, it has repeatedly expressed skepticism about a year-long 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 nuclear weapons.

The 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.

Nor 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 Iran.

So 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 points out, "a significant shift" in the administration’s virtually total reliance to date on "sticks."

In 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 Tehran.

In its outlines, such an engagement policy is precisely what Kerry has suggested as U.S. 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

If 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.

The 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.

As 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 Council."

But at the same time, Boucher indicated Washington was not discouraging its European allies from putting a package together or to formally presenting such a package to Tehran later this month, just before the Nov. 2 presidential election.

On 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.

Under 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.

The 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.

Kerry 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.

The 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.

But 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 U.S., China and [South Korea] to make things look better than they are."

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.