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Wednesday, 31 July, 2002, 16:37 GMT 17:37 UK
Analysis: Bush's hierarchy of demons
US Secretary of State Colin Powell
Powell: Talks with North Korea as US targets Iraq

Last January, President George Bush branded North Korea as part of an axis of evil, along with Iran and Iraq.

Now, the American Secretary of State, Colin Powell, has had a brief meeting in Brunei with the North Korean Foreign Minister, Paek Nam-sun.

It was the highest level contact for nearly two years, and an illustration of the fact that Washington does not treat its three betes noires in exactly the same way.

Kim Jong-il, North Korean leader
US is cautiously engaging with N Korean autocrat
A meeting between Mr Powell and his Iraqi counterpart is not, at present, conceivable.

In the Bush administration's hierarchy of demons, Iraq is the state cast into outer darkness.

The drums of war are beating, albeit in confused fashion, to bring down President Saddam Hussein.

But on Tuesday, the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, made a distinction.

United States policy was for regime change in Iraq, he said. It had not been that for some other countries - and he added: "I guess life is untidy".

So what is Washington's policy towards the other members of the axis of evil, North Korea and Iran?
Bush's axis of evil
North Korea: "arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction"
Iran: "aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror"
Iraq: "continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror"

There is a continuing debate between the State Department, the Pentagon and the National Security Council, focused on the alternatives of engagement and confrontation.

The Bush administration seems to be edging back towards cautious engagement with the North Koreans; the principle of dialogue, indeed, was never actually scrapped.

The Americans may have been encouraged by a statement on Monday by the Russian Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov.

The North Koreans had told him they were ready for unconditional talks with both the United States and Japan, on the whole range of the issues dividing them.

If the dialogue does resume, the American agenda will include alleged North Korean exports of missile technology.

But a key focus will be pressing Pyongyang to agree now to international inspection of its nuclear facilities.

Better relations

The matter is becoming urgent since an international consortium including the United States, Japan and South Korea is about to start work on the building of a nuclear power station in North Korea.

The project is running six years late but is still central to American efforts to prevent the North Koreans developing nuclear weapons.

In return for inspection, North Korea wants better relations with Washington.

The case of Iran is different.


In Washington, the conviction that Iran is dangerous is growing

The administration may not have a policy of regime change, as Mr Rumsfeld put it, but a statement by President Bush this month praising Iranian pro-democracy demonstrators seemed to come close to inciting the overthrow of the regime.

He said the unelected real rulers of Iran were not listening to the people - and they had no better friend than the United States.

American officials said the administration had concluded that President Mohammad Khatami and the reformers were weak, ineffective and not serious about delivering on their promises.

Mr Khatami responded with a warning against big power interference in the region, including any attempt to decide the future of Iraq.

He said the United States was promoting war in a way they had not seen before.

Bullying

Some critics of the Bush policy say it could even drive the Iranians and Iraqis into an unlikely alliance.

In any event, the result is that Iranian reformers make common cause with religious conservatives against perceived American bullying.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami underneath a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini
Iran's relations with US growing more fractious
In Washington, though, the conviction that Iran is dangerous is growing.

That feeling is reinforced by reports from Moscow that Russia plans to build more nuclear reactors in Iran, in addition to the one at Bushehr near the Gulf coast.

A few months ago the United States and Iran were co-operating, tacitly at least, on the installation of a new government in Afghanistan.

Now, relations have sharply deteriorated, to the point where Iranians wonder if they will be the next target after Iraq.

Mr Bush's axis of evil may be fraying at the edges, but he hasn't abandoned it.


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