A pivotal moment for 'axis of evil'

US Attitudes toward Iran and North Korea may be doing an about-face as Tehran talks tough and Pyongyang softens its line.

US relations with North Korea and Iran - the remaining members of President Bush's "axis of evil" - may be fast approaching crucial times.

This week, top diplomats from nations involved in the North Korean nuclear talks are huddling in Washington for strategy sessions. Full six-party meetings are set to resume next week - and US officials hope to build on what they call the positive ex- perience of the last session of discussions.

The effort to contain Iran's nuclear efforts appears headed in the other direction.

The two nations have long presented the West with seesawing expectations. Until recently, US officials were more optimistic about progress with Iran, and frustrated with the prickly North Koreans. But there are also signs the two cases are intertwined in complicated ways as the United States confronts what is left of the axis of evil.

For now, US attitudes about Iran and North Korea may have switched. "In recent months, I think we've almost had a reversal of fortune," said Ted Galen Carpenter, a Cato Institute foreign policy expert, at a recent forum on these issues in Washington.

That doesn't mean a deal with North Korea is close, or that the Iranian situation is beyond hope. It does mean that the efforts to confront these challenges may adjust to new realities.

The original "axis of evil," as outlined in President Bush's 2002 State of the Union address, had a third member: Iraq. But Iraq's challenges are no longer related to the possible development of atomic weapons. Nor is the option used in Iraq - force - a likely one for the remaining "axis" nations. The administration occasionally still talks tough - in a recent interview with Israeli television President Bush said "all options are on the table" if Iran persists in ignoring international demands that it halt its nuclear program. But given the extent of the US involvement in Iraq, and the size of the Iranian and North Korean militaries, many in Washington judge it improbable that the US would attempt preemption again.

"We lose credibility in the face of the world when we say things like, 'Well, don't forget, what happened to Iraq could happen to you, Iran,' " said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, in a Reuters interview.

For their part, Iran and North Korea are far from allies. The "axis" phrase (which, it should be said, the White House has long since abandoned) implies a relationship that does not really exist.

Yet that doesn't mean they don't watch and learn from each other, or even talk about their respective positions. Experts note that in recent months the North Koreans have begun speaking more like the Iranians, insisting on a right to civilian nuclear power.

"I would be shocked if the Iranians hadn't gone to the North Koreans" and compared positions, says George Perkovich, a nuclear-proliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The 13 days of intense six-party talks involving North Korea that ended Aug. 7 went surprisingly well, according to the chief US envoy to the negotiations. Delegates worked on a set of principles for further talks, said Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

The US and its partners are looking at similarly serious ways to address North Korea's energy and security concerns, said Mr. Hill. With less than 30 percent of North Korea's overall electrical capacity currently online, energy is a particularly acute problem.

Iran, on the other hand, has only sounded more and more confident - some might say belligerent - since it resumed uranium conversion operations earlier this month.

Two words might account for Tehran's new forcefulness: oil and Iraq. Iran is a major oil producer, and thus might be able to manipulate already high world prices even higher if the West tries to punish it for its nuclear activities. And as Iraq's neighbor to the east, Iran is well positioned to interfere further there.

Iran also has a new hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has been adamant about pursuing the country's right to civilian nuclear energy.

Some experts predict that Iran may pull back from its nuclear negotiations and risk being referred to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions. Security Council members China and Russia could well be unwilling to censure a nation with which they have economic ties.

"I think the Iranians are willing to live with ... a possible referral to the Security Council," said Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, at a recent Washington issue forum.

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