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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Evil Axis Ramifications

It came as no surprise that U.S. President George W. Bush abandoned hope last week of working with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's reformist government. After all, he had famously and controversially labeled Iran part of the "axis of evil" in his State of the Union speech, and Khatami, who was elected in 1997 and re-elected last year, has yet to trounce his conservative adversaries. But Khatami's angry response revealed the possibility that, with its bellicose and intolerant words, the Bush administration may well achieve what 20 years of diplomacy has failed to bring about: an alliance between the beleaguered Tehran and Baghdad. Such an alliance would portend further instability in a region that contains two-thirds of the world's proven oil reserves -- and frustrate the United States' aim to be the unchallenged foreign power in the region.

"We wish to caution the great powers against further interference in the affairs of this region and against the exacerbation of the flames of war," warned Khatami last Tuesday, newly incensed by Bush's apparent advocacy of the overthrow of the regime to which he belongs and, as I discovered on a recent visit there, reflecting sentiments that are prevalent in Iran. Khatami's warning came at the end of a fortnight of invective between Tehran and Washington, triggered by Bush's statement earlier this month in which he criticized the country's "uncompromising, destructive policies." Bush went on to further anger Khatami by praising the student demonstrations in Tehran, demanding that the government listen to the "Iranian people who have no better friend than the United States."

Such statements are counterproductive. By making Iranian reformists appear as stooges of Washington, thus undermining their nationalist credentials, they end up harming those the Bush administration is trying to bolster and aiding instead their adversaries, the conservatives. The upshot is that reformist and conservative leaders vie with one another in denouncing the United States for poking its nose into Iran's domestic politics.

This time, popular resentment was expressed in the form of one of the largest anti-American protests in Tehran since 1999, with followers of both camps participating. "Different factions, although they have disputes, told the Americans to mind their own business and told them not to interfere in Iran's internal affairs," Ayatollah Ali Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran, told worshipers in Tehran.

These latest verbal salvos resound against a backdrop of growing distrust between the two countries over Afghanistan. Iran had been infuriated by Bush's allegation that its government had provided refuge to al-Qaida fugitives -- an accusation denied stoutly by Tehran. While in Tehran, I heard foreign diplomats back the Iranian version.

More specifically, Washington is upset by Iran's special relationship with Afghanistan's western region around Herat, and unjustly so from an Iranian point of view. There are long-established cultural and economic ties between this Farsi-speaking area and Iran. After his defeat by the Taliban in 1995, local warlord Ismail Khan, an ethnic Tajik belonging to the Iranian-backed Northern Alliance, took refuge in the eastern Iranian city of Mashhad. It was from there that he coordinated his attack on the Taliban regime in western Afghanistan last October as part of the Pentagon's anti-Taliban campaign.

Two months later, the Iranian delegation worked closely with its U.S. counterpart in Bonn, Germany, to install Hamid Karzai as leader of the interim Afghan government. Since then, Tehran has backed Karzai consistently.

On the U.S. side, under the pretext of making war-ravaged Afghanistan secure, the Pentagon rushed to set up "an observation post" at the Qala-e Qalat fort near the Afghan-Iranian border.

Compounding the Iranian leaders' anxiety about the U.S. entrenchment to the east is Bush's plan to overthrow the regime of President Saddam Hussein in Iraq, with which Iran shares its 1200-kilometer western border. Having fought a bloody war with Iraq in 1980-88, the Iranians have no illusions about the nature of Saddam or his authoritarian regime. But, 14 years after the end of that conflict, they would rather deal with the Saddam they have known than a henchman installed by Washington as his successor.

What, the Iranians wonder, if the Americans succeed in overthrowing Saddam without attacking his country? The idea prompts talk of forging an alliance with Iraq for the sake of self-preservation. As it is, the Iranians and Iraqis are on the verge of resolving the long-running dispute over the exchange of prisoners of war. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi was the first minister to visit Baghdad since 1980 when he boarded the maiden Iran Air flight from Tehran in October 2000 to meet the Iraqi leader. His trip started a process that led to considerable warming of relations.

What's more, both countries are pursuing staunchly pro-Palestinian policies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Last month, the Iranian government hosted an international conference that rejected the U.S.-sponsored peace process, such as it is. The stands of Iran and Iraq on the Palestinian issue are in line with that of Syria, a neighbor of Iraq and a strategic ally of Iran for the past two decades. Being on Washington's list of countries that sponsor international terrorism, Syria could be another Bush administration candidate for regime change someday -- after Iraq and Iran. Syrian President Bashar Assad cannot be unaware of that.

This, therefore, raises the possibility of an Iranian-Iraqi-Syrian alliance, stretching from the Arabian Sea to the Mediterranean -- an alarming prospect for the Bush White House but one that flows logically from its campaign for regime change in Iran. The administration's current policy risks driving its declared enemies into each other's arms, where they will pose a more potent challenge to the United States.

Dilip Hiro, author of "War Without End: The Rise of Islamist Terrorism and the Global Response," contributed this comment to The Washington Post.