Good and evil

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 March, 2007, 12:00am

American negotiators will sit down at talks with North Korea, Iran and Syria next week. It would be nice to think that all the rhetoric from US President George W. Bush's administration in the past about the axis of evil and outposts of tyranny has been thrown out of the window.

But it would be safer to keep the adage that 'you can't teach an old dog new tricks' firmly in mind throughout the meetings.

Such negativity may not seem becoming, given the breakthrough nature of these events. The Bush administration has for six years refused to hold bilateral talks with North Korea. Yet Washington will go back on its tough line next week when Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill meets North Korean Vice-Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan in New York.

Less cosy will be the discussions with Iran and Syria in Baghdad on March 10, on how to bring peace to Iraq. That will also involve 10 other countries, the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.

Nonetheless, the meetings will be as extraordinary as those involving North Korea, given that Mr Bush in December rejected the recommendations of the advisory Iraq Study Group. They called on Washington to hold talks with Iran and Syria as part of the solution to ending the conflict.

Keep in mind that in January 2002 the American leader called North Korea and Iran, along with Iraq, part of an 'axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world'. Four months later, then undersecretary of state John Bolton gave a speech in which he told of the countries 'beyond the axis of evil' - the original three plus Cuba, Libya and Syria.

Tehran has since been top of Washington's rhetoric hit list, particularly since hardline Islamist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005. His fiery speeches denying that the Holocaust occurred and calling for the destruction of Israel raised the hackles of Bush administration officials. His insistence of Iran's need for a nuclear programme, testing of missiles and alleged arming of Shiite Muslim militants in Iraq, has prompted the US to send two aircraft carrier groups to the Persian Gulf.

Toss in the history: Iran's ties with the US were shattered by the Islamic revolution in 1979, when long-time ally the shah and his family were forced into exile - and the American embassy in Tehran was stormed by militants, who held 52 hostages for 444 days. Since then, there has been the accidental shooting down of an Iranian airliner by a US warship, bombings of US targets allegedly by Iran, and sanctions imposed by the US and UN.

Syria's friendly relations with Iran instantly put it in Washington's bad books. But there was much more to earn Mr Bush's negative regard: Syria's support of ousted Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and Lebanon's Hezbollah guerillas, fighting for the obliteration of Israel, are at the top of the list.

It would be nice to think that Mr Bush was listening to his critics, especially given the struggle to bring stability to Iraq and pressure for a more moderate foreign policy from opposition Democrats. But there is certainly no indication of that, if administration officials are anything to go by.

US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the upcoming talks were 'the result of careful policy and diplomatic groundwork that has been laid over the course of years by this administration'.

And White House spokesman Tony Snow ruled out bilateral meetings between the US and Iran and Syria, adding: 'If you're expecting, suddenly, new, chummy relations, you've created a scenario that is not justified by the facts on the ground.'

The establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and Pyongyang is far off; the North has yet to scrap its nuclear programme. Iran and Syria have sat at meetings with US envoys in the past, most notably at the UN, without discussing their differences. The meetings next week are interesting developments - but don't count on any new tricks from the Bush administration's negotiators.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor.