Rethinking the Axis of Evil'

The resolution adopted on Friday by the UN on the return of inspectors to Iraq could defer the American attack by three months or more. That interim period could provide Washington with the opportunity to reexamine the components of the "axis of evil" after its decision not to go to war against North Korea.

The Iranian security forces last week closed down a polling firm in Tehran. On the face of it, this move is not particularly worthy of attention in a country where some 80 newspapers have been shut down in the past few years and where intellectuals and human rights activists have been arrested or murdered. However, the report about the polling agency is worth looking at more closely. It was closed down to block publication of data about the level of public support for the reforms being proposed by President Mohammed Khatami. Last month a similar company was also dismantled after it published a survey showing that at least 75 percent of those asked expressed support for a renewal of the dialogue with the United States.

Anyone looking for the linchpin of the axis of evil in Iran is liable to become lost. Last week, for example, the commander of the fleet that patrols the Persian Gulf to prevent the smuggling out of Iraqi oil reported that thanks to cooperation with Iran - which for the past year and a half has not allowed Iraqi vessels carrying contraband to pass through its territorial waters - the volume of Iraqi smuggling efforts was reduced from 20 million barrels a year in 2000 to 11.5 million barrels last year. Another report last week noted that Iran had expelled Osama bin Laden's son and that it was ready to continue fighting any Qaida activists in its territory.

Declarations emanating from Iran about a possible war against Iraq say that "Iran will not shed its blood for Saddam" and will maintain "positive neutrality" in such a conflict. On Thursday of last week, Ibrahim Hamidi, a journalist with close ties to Damascus, reported in the London-based Al-Hayat that Syria is concerned about a possible American-Iranian "deal" on Iraq and that a serious dispute had erupted between Iran and Syria on this subject. Syria is against a war on Iraq and would like to preserve the economic interests it had developed with Iraq in the past two years. This includes the passage of some 200,000 barrels of oil a day via a pipeline between the two countries, notwithstanding Syria's statement that the pipeline is not in operation. Al-Hayat also reported that in a departure from past policy, the Iranian defense minister made public his visit to Damascus this month, a visit intended to allay Syrian fears. The Egyptian press is reminding Iran that it supported, or at least did not oppose, the war in Afghanistan and has also sent financial aid to the pro-American regime of President Hamid Karzai. Nor would Iran seem apprehensive about the establishment of a possible pro-American regime in Iraq.

On top of all these developments, Western journalists report that they have enjoyed a cordial welcome from the public in Iran. They also noted the muted tone of the organized demonstrations last week, marking the 23rd anniversary of the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran. True, the country's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered a halt to the advertising of American-made products, but stipulated no punishment for anyone violating the order and did not ban the sale of the products. The number of American flags burned on the streets was "flagrantly meager and the organizers of the demonstration demanded that flags not be burnedt randomly so that the public would not be harmed," according to one report. Iranian commentators and academics living outside Iran maintain that the declarations of war against Iraq have widened the gaps between the public that supports rapprochement with the West and the conservatives.

The resolution adopted on Friday by the Security Council on the return of United Nations inspectors to Iraq - if Baghdad accepts the resolution - could defer the American attack on Iraq by three months or more. That interim period could provide Washington with the opportunity to reexamine the components of the "axis of evil" after its decision not to go to war against North Korea. Iran might now be more amenable to a dialogue with the United States - a dialogue that could reduce the Iranian nuclear threat more than threats of war or vilifications of the Tehran regime. "After all," an Iranian commentator observed, "no Iranian hijacked a plane to topple the Twin Towers."