During his State of the Union address, President Bush shocked political observers around the world by declaring that Iran is part of an "axis of evil" along with Iraq and North Korea. No country was more shocked than Iran because the declaration signaled a sudden and negative shift in US policy toward Iran. It also shocked Iranians because it showed that, after 15 years of being tagged as "The Great Satan," we're finally their equals in the sport of bitchy name-calling.
Prior to Bush's speech, the US had a more nuanced policy toward Iran. We tried to bolster Iran's more pro-Western (or perhaps a better term would be less anti-Western) elements by toning down aggressive rhetoric and re-opening political and economic channels.
Lee Greenwood was never in danger of charting a hit single there, but after September 11, the Iranian government reached out to the US in ways without recent precedent. They offered condolences for our 9/11 loss and supported our attack against the Taliban. Iranians hated the Taliban as much as anyone and they were key supporters of the Northern Alliance back when the only Afghans Americans knew of were crocheted wool blankets. By many accounts, Iran was key to getting certain reluctant Afghan warlords to support Afghanistan's post-Taliban government led by Hamid Karzai.
So what went wrong? Why'd Bush go all "axis of evil" on them?
Well, the US thinks Iran is talking out of both sides of its mouth in Afghanistan (do countries have mouths?) by simultaneously supporting the new government yet working to undermine it by arming pro-Iranian warlords. We suspect Iran is moved to undermine the new government because they fear Afghanistan will become a US-occupied puppet regime. The US already has substantial military forces in neighboring Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
We also suspect that Iran allowed some senior al-Qaeda forces to escape Afghanistan through their country. The Christian Science Monitor reports that Osama bin Laden's personal chef has told the US that bin Laden is hiding in Iran. I suspect we'll find out all about that in the chef's upcoming autobiography, Steady Diet of Terror.
But perhaps the single biggest factor: a shipment of arms by Iran to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority which was intercepted by Israel. Iran supports anti-Israeli Muslim terrorist groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah. The intercepted arms shipment strengthened Israel's argument that Iran was the biggest threat to peace in the Middle East although how you threaten a peace that doesn't exist hasn't been explained. The Bush administration seems to believe that this new get-tough approach will force Iran to play by our rules. Iran's recent request for our help in identifying fleeing al-Qaeda is a good sign. Meanwhile, they're trying to think of clever playground taunts to equal "axis of evil."