Traffic Jam on the Axis of Evil

To judge by the experience with Iraq, economic and military pressure on Iran will not bring about a change of either regime or policy. It may well be that dialogue with the country may be of greater benefit.

In another two days, following the return of King Abdullah from his trip abroad, Jordan will formulate its reply to the complaint put forward by Iran.

Iran does not understand why Jordan suddenly accused it of initiating terrorist actions against Israel from Jordanian territory, or why it did not hear about this charge from Amman itself instead of reading about it in the London-based Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat, which makes frequent use of Israeli sources.

Jordan's new ambassador to Iran was summoned urgently to the Foreign Ministry in Tehran to provide an explanation. On Thursday, a denial was issued that Abdullah had made the statement attributed to him, but it was not accompanied by an official explanation.

Jordan will have quite a bit to explain. After all, it has in the past year worked to tighten the kingdom's relations with Iran. Until the king comes up with the explanation, Iran can find consolation in the unequivocal declaration of the Saudi minister of commerce during a visit to Iran last week, to the effect that any American attack on Iran will "draw Saudi Arabia closer" to Iran.

The "axis of evil," to use the phrase of U.S. President George W. Bush, consisting of Iran, Iraq and North Korea, is in the meantime only an American-Israeli concept. Russia has condemned the slogan, Europe is continuing its "constructive dialogue" with Iran, and the Arab states have come out in defense of the Islamic state.

Iranian officials do not understand what brought about this sharp shift in the position of the U.S. administration. After all, just a few weeks ago, Secretary of State Colin Powell shook the hand of his Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharazi, in New York.

Iran, which was one of the first countries to condemn the attack on the World Trade Center, allowed U.S. planes to use its airspace in order to deliver humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, promised to allow planes to land in its territory and undertook to allocate $500 million for the rehabilitation of Afghanistan. Everything seemed to point to Iran's becoming the next candidate, after Libya, for admission to the American club. And then came the change. Israel linked the weapons ship "Karine A" directly to Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and reports to the effect that Iran had granted refuge to members of Al-Qaida were disseminated in Washington.

Iran is not an innocent state that has suddenly been subjected to accusations. It manufactures long-range ballistic missiles, its nuclear reactor will undoubtedly play a large part in the production of nuclear weapons, it finances Islamist movements, supports Hamas and Hezbollah, and, above all, Khamenei continues to assert relentlessly that Israel does not have the right to exist. On the other hand, in contrast to the 15 Saudis who were found to be implicated in the events of September 11, not one Iranian name appeared on the blacklist.

Iran was one of the consistent opponents of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and assisted the Northern Alliance there. And as for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Khamenei has not met with him in public for years, and Palestinian Authority officials have not forgotten that he labeled Arafat an egotist who is betraying his people. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Khamenei could easily compete over which of them has less liking for the Palestinian leader.

The point, however, is not to catalog Iran's good and bad deeds in a given period. Iran is an important country, particularly in regard to the concrete and potential threat it represents. Its inclusion in the "axis of evil" does not remove that threat; at most, it thickens the ranks between the liberals and the fanatics, and brings the line closer to opportunistic countries such as Russia or some Arab states.

It may be possible to delay but not to prevent Iran's military build-up, and its arms industry and nuclear research program are among the most developed in the region. So the problem becomes how to neutralize its motivation to make use of the weapons it already has and will acquire in the future.

To judge by the experience with Iraq, economic and military pressure will not bring about a change of either regime or policy. It may well be that dialogue with the country in which democratic processes are meaningful may be of greater benefit.