Our new friends in the Middle East
Iran and Syria were demonised to justify the invasion of Iraq. Now Britain and the US want their help sorting out the mess ...


Published: 14 November 2006

President George Bush's State of the Union address refers to the "axis of evil": Iraq, Iran and North Korea. The implication is that Iraq is the first to be dealt with in the "war on terror". But Iran aids the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, keeping the lid on Shia unrest. Tehran is dismayed as international jihadists and Sunni insurgents target the Shia majority in the hope of triggering civil war. Mr Bush rejects an overture from Iran, under pro-reform President Mohammed Khatami, to review their relationship, frozen since the US embassy hostage-taking of 1979. Instead, the US accuses Iran of sponsoring terror and seeking nuclear weapons. The crisis deepens after Iran admits it has a uranium enrichment facility. Iran fears the US wants regime change.

Syria is added to the axis of evil by John Bolton, arch hawk, whose position as US ambassador to the UN is under threat after last week's mid-term elections. The neoconservatives believe a new democratic Middle East will sweep dictatorships from power after Saddam's fall, and Syria is in trouble after opposing the war and because senior Saddam aides - and weapons of mass destruction, the US claims - are brought across the border. Syria is accused of harbouring "terrorist" organisations. Syria tightens border controls, but fears of regime change are fuelled when Condoleezza Rice brands Syria as an "outpost of tyranny". Further setback for Syria when France and the US ensure expulsion of Syrian forces from Lebanon.

Robert Gates, the new US Defence Secretary, is an advocate of dialogue with Tehran to enlist its help in extricating allied forces from Iraq. Tony Blair, who wants Iran to help stop cross-border attacks on UK troops, backs this, setting the scene for demise of Bush's neoconservative policy. But Iran is now in the grip of a hardline leadership, headed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is defiant over its nuclear programme. Iran faces UN sanctions. Ahmadinejad will aim to make Bush and Blair sweat before he agrees to help.

President Bashar al-Assad, flush with success of Syria's proxy militia in Lebanon, holds the key to success in Iraq and Middle East peace. Courted by Bush and Blair, whom he upbraided at their last meeting. Syria harbours a leader of the radical Palestinian Hamas movement, and is a supplier of Hizbollah. Assad will play hardball on the UN's case against Syrian officials accused of assassinating former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. And there is the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in 1967.