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Critics pour water on US foreign policy’s fiery vision

February 20, 2005

By GUY DINMORE

In his second inaugural address, President George W. Bush spoke of lighting “a fire in the minds of men” and how “one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world”.

The fiery imagery of the speech was uplifting for his admirers, disturbing for tyrants. Others, especially Russian specialists, wondered why the president or his speechwriters had borrowed the words from the character of a revolutionary nihilist in Dostoevsky’s novel The Possessed.

Still, a month later, as Mr Bush flies to summits in Europe – including a neutral-territory rendezvous this Thursday with Russia’s Vladimir Putin – analysts and diplomats perceive a US foreign policy that is as inclined to pragmatism and opportunism as it is dictated by an overriding vision.


Indeed, in the case of Iran and North Korea, European diplomats and Democratic critics are not convinced there is any coherent US strategy. Washington has seen a stream of foreign dignitaries coming to confer with the new, reshuffled team led by old familiar figures: Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, and Stephen Hadley rising to replace her as national security adviser. One senior European official asked his White House counterpart whether the president’s vision of spreading liberty and democracy would be applied equally to friends and foes. “We can be pragmatic when we like,” the US official joked in reply. That outlook has been reinforced by developments in the Middle East, where four autocratic regimes are under scrutiny: allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and suspected state sponsors of terrorism, Iran and Syria. Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egypt’s foreign minister, was in Washington last week when the International Atomic Energy Agency voiced concern over previously secret aspects of Egypt’s nuclear programme. At the same time the US State Department was criticising arrests of opposition politicians. But the administration has decided not to take the embarrassing step of referring an ally to the United Nations Security Council for failing to declare its nuclear activities. “Rogue scientists” were to be blamed instead. Mr Bush singled out Egypt and Saudi Arabia in his State of the Union address, saying they should “show the way towards democracy in the Middle East”. But this message, diplomats said, had since been diluted. Ms Rice assured her European audience that countries would reform at their own pace. In a further sign that the Bush administration is hesitating to shake up key allies, a senior official told the FT that a review of policy towards Saudi Arabia was needed, to “recalibrate the relationship”, but would not lead to substantial changes in the strategic partnership. There has been a distinct hardening of policy towards Syria and Iran, however – especially since Syria came under suspicion for the Beirut bomb that killed Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, last week. US officials have given warning of further sanctions and even hinted at military action to deal with Iraqi insurgents in Syria. However, senior Europeans, including Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister, have come away from talks with Ms Rice heartened by the impression she does not favour the military option in dealing with Iran’s nuclear programme. While the US is open to rejoining nuclear talks with North Korea after an eight month hiatus, it refuses to take part in the current negotiations between Europe and Iran, saying its presence would confer legitimacy on the Islamic regime. “I don’t understand our policy. I’m not being facetious. I don’t understand the policy,” Joe Biden, the Democratic senator from Delaware, told Ms Rice last week. Anticipating a breakdown in the EU-Iran process, the Bush administration is looking for support to take Iran to the UN Security Council for a resolution of condemnation. Since Russia and China are unlikely to agree to meaningful economic sanctions, diplomats say the US wants the Group of Seven industrialised nations to take action. Japan, which imports about 15 per cent of its oil from Iran, is not happy with that prospect. The unresolved tension between pragmatism and ideology seen in personal terms as a struggle between “realists” and “neoconservatives” in the administration may also be played out in another energy-rich country on the fringes of the Middle East: Azerbaijan. Ali Karimli, chairman of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan, a western-oriented opposition party, was also in Washington last week, lobbying for US guarantees that it would demand that President Ilham Aliyev ensure parliamentary elections scheduled for November were completely free and fair. Azerbaijan was in the “coalition of the willing” that ousted Saddam Hussein and is integral to the pipeline that will carry oil to Europe from central Asia, circumventing Russia and Iran. But Mr Aliyev’s relations with the US have soured. Wayne Merry, a former State Department and Pentagon official, says the US will do anything to avoid a nasty war inside Azerbaijan and would not want pro-democracy parties to take to the streets as they did in Georgia and Ukraine. At the same time, Azerbaijan has shifted firmly towards Russia, and to an extent to Iran. Speaking at the Nixon Center, Mr Aliyev has given warning that radical Islam is on the rise in Azerbaijan, responding to popular dissatisfaction with the US and the political vacuum caused by the crackdown on secular parties. Mr Aliyev and Mr Putin both allied themselves to the losing parties in Georgia and Ukraine and could be getting on the wrong side of history again. This week in Moscow, the Russian president rolled out the red carpet for Mr Aliyev, the son of the former president Haidar Aliyev, who was a KGB colleague of Mr Putin in the former Soviet Union. Mr Putin proclaimed 2005 the “Year of Azerbaijan”. In 2004 it was the “Year of Ukraine”. South China Morning Post February 21, 2005 SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 13 HEADLINE: Tehran’s troops no match for threatened US might; But agents around world could wreak havoc if Bush launches an attack BYLINE: Borzou Daragahi in Tehran Clothing store manager Hamid-Reza lost numerous relatives in the Iran-Iraq war and would be ready to give his own life for Iran against any aggressor. But he fears his country would be no match for the United States, which is threatening to punish Iran over its nuclear programme. “What will I do?” Hamid-Reza, 23, asked. “Get inside an inner tube and go fight against the American battleships in the Persian Gulf?” Though Iran has begun publicly preparing for a US attack, many doubt whether its conventional forces are up to a battle. It has recently begun to mobilise recruits in citizens’ militias and leaking plans to engage in the type of “asymmetrical” warfare that has bogged down American troops in neighbouring Iraq, officials and analysts say. Tensions between Tehran and Washington have increased over Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology. Tehran insists it needs nuclear power to meet domestic energy needs and bolster its scientific knowledge. Washington officials insist they support the European efforts to pursue diplomacy, but refuse to rule out a military option if Iran refuses to give up its alleged development of a nuclear arsenal. Meanwhile, Iranian authorities say they have been getting ready for war. Newspapers have announced efforts to increase numbers in the country’s seven million-strong Basiji militia, which were deployed in human wave attacks against Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. The military has paraded long-range North Korean-designed Shahab missiles before television cameras. Generals have conducted war games near the Iraqi border. Iran’s army includes 350,000 active-duty soldiers and 220,000 conscripts. Its elite Revolutionary Guards number 120,000, many of them draftees. Its navy and air force total 70,000 men. The armed forces have about 2,000 tanks, 300 combat aircraft, three submarines, hundreds of helicopters and at least a dozen Russian-made Scud missile launchers of the type Saddam Hussein used against Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. But both outside military experts and Iranians concede the country’s antiquated conventional hardware, worn down by years of US and European sanctions, would be little match for the hi-tech weapons of the United States. Still, Iran could create problems for Washington and the world. Experts say its security forces include intelligence agencies with extensive overseas experience. Iran’s highly classified Quds forces, which answer directly to Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are believed to have operations throughout the Middle East, in Central and South Asia, North Africa and in Europe and North America, according to a December report by the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies think tank. Within minutes of any attack, Iran’s air and sea forces could threaten oil shipments in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Iran controls the northern coast of the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway oil tankers must navigate to get out of the Gulf. Iran could activate Hezbollah militia in Lebanon to launch attacks on Israel and operatives could also attack US interests in Azerbaijan, Central Asia or Turkey. “Iran can escalate the war,” said Nasser Hadian, professor of political science at the University of Tehran. “It’s not going to be all that hard to target US forces in these countries.” But most analysts agree Iran’s trump card would be to unleash havoc in neighbouring Iraq, where Iraqis who spent years as exiles in Iran are about to assume control. Though the US alleges Tehran has already been interfering in Iraq, many brush off the low-level infiltration as minor compared to the damage it could cause by allowing Iraqi militiamen into Iran or backing extreme Islamist groups.

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