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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 April, 2003, 12:28 GMT 13:28 UK
The 'democratic domino' theory

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

There are some in the Bush administration who hope that the fall of Saddam Hussein will be followed by a "democratic domino" effect across the Middle East.

It is a reverse of the old theory which held that unless the United States fought in Vietnam, nations right across south-east Asia would collapse into communism like dominos.

It didn't really happen in south-east Asia, and there are others in Washington who say that the new prediction will prove wrong in the Middle East.

Secret reports

A secret State Department report quoted recently by the Los Angeles Times said of the region: "Liberal democracy will be difficult to achieve."

Indeed it warned that anti-Americanism was so pervasive that elections could actually produce militant Islamic controlled governments.

We are hopeful that a number of regimes will draw the appropriate lesson from Iraq that the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction is not in their national interest
US Undersecretary John Bolton
This runs counter to the views of people like Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Defence Secretary who has said that Iraq as the "first Arab democracy" would "cast a very large shadow, starting with Syria and Iran, across the whole Arab world."

Certainly, Washington wants change in Syria and Iran, just as it does in North Korea, which along with Iran and Iraq was named by President Bush's as part of the "axis of evil."

The US Undersecretary for International Security John Bolton has already said: "We are hopeful that a number of regimes will draw the appropriate lesson from Iraq that the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction is not in their national interest."

Syria first on the list

He specifically mentioned Syria, which according to CIA reports to Congress has a chemical weapons programme. Although not formally a member of the "axis", Syria is, in the eyes of officials like John Bolton, very much a candidate.

"It is a wonderful opportunity for Syria to foreswear the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction," he said.

Syria is said by CIA reports to the US Congress to have stocks of sarin nerve agent and to be seeking others. It also has Scud missiles believed to be capable of delivering chemical weapons.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has set the tone for US policy by keeping up his barrage of public criticism of Syria for allegedly providing military help to Iraq.

This American attention to Syria does not mean that it is going to swing its 3rd or 4th Infantry Division across the desert towards Damascus. It does mean that Syria will be kept under political pressure.

And it also means incidentally that there could be tension with Britain which has made very deliberate efforts to develop better relations with the young Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Iran not far behind

As for Iran, that too is on the American agenda.

The United States does not like its Islamic leadership, thinks the country ripe for a democratic upheaval and is suspicious of Iran's nuclear power generation programme. It fears that Iran might develop a nuclear weapons programme despite Iranian denials.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN's nuclear watchdog, has recently asked Iran to explain its nuclear designs and is awaiting an Iranian report. The IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei paid a visit to Iran in February.

North Korea toughest case

Then there is North Korea, the most difficult and dangerous problem of all. It is set to become the first country to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its expulsion of IAEA inspectors has led the Security Council to express its "concern."

So far, the United States has played a waiting game over North Korea. Its UN Ambassador John Negroponte stressed after the Security Council meeting that his government wanted a peaceful solution.

But for the United States that means the dismantling of any North Korean nuclear weapons facility.

However, North Korea has not followed Mr Bolton's advice on lesson learning from Iraq. It has reached the opposite conclusion, that it can defend itself only by developing what it called a "tremendous" deterrent force.

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