The “Axis of Evil”, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Signaling

By John Haupt

Flag_on_Saddam_Firdos_Square_Statues_face_2003-04-09
Photo: Marine Lieutenant Tim McLaughlin

In 2002, during his State of the Union Speech, President George W. Bush labeled Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as members of the “Axis of Evil”. These three nations had one important commonality: they were all allegedly engaged in the process of enriching uranium in order to obtain nuclear weapons.

At the time of President Bush’s speech the US was engaged in both bilateral and multilateral sanctions against the Iraqi government. These sanctions had an enormous impact on the Iraqi economy, and they were effective at stopping Saddam Hussein from launching more military strikes against nations in the region. Further, UN weapons inspectors did not report on any evidence to show that Iraq was engaged in the development of nuclear weapons. Yet, in 2003, the United States decided to lead an invasion into Iraq to overthrow the Iraqi government and halt its weapons development programs.

Regardless of whether or not evidence was found by US led forces, this event provides insight into how sanctions followed by the use of military force might act as a signal to deter other nations from attempting to obtain nuclear weapons. One might expect that an invasion of a nation who is seen as not complying with international demands to stop the development of nuclear weapons would lead others on the same path to halt their programs in order to alleviate the threat of invasion and preserve their power. However, at the same time, one might believe that this threat might lead nations to work faster to obtain a nuclear weapon to deter any threat of an invasion into their country.

In the cases of Iran and North Korea, a similar pattern emerges for both countries. With Iran, the government seems to have halted its nuclear program in 2003 because of the US led invasion in Iraq. In October of 2003, seven months after the start of the invasion, Iran agreed to meet with IAEA, and in December, Iran signed an additional protocol to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, these positive steps were quickly reversed less than one year later when Iran began construction on centrifuges for uranium enrichment at its Natanz plant. With North Korea, similar to Iran, in August of 2003, they agreed to partake in Six-Nation talks with the US, China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia. In 2005, these talks looked promising as an accord was agreed upon that stated that North Korea would abandon its nuclear program for security and economic related guarantees. However, in 2006, North Korea was able to successfully test a nuclear bomb and become a member of the group of nuclear weapon states.

Based on the behavior of both Iran and North Korea, the invasion of Iraq by US led forces could have been a contributing factor that brought both Iran and North Korea to the table and, in the case of Iran, temporarily halted their nuclear program. In this way, it could have signaled to these nations that the US was serious about making sure they did not obtain nuclear weapons and was willing to engage in military operations in order to maintain the status quo. However, the deterrence was only temporary as both nations resumed their quest to enrich uranium.

Some questions for further analysis:

  1. What were the motives for both Iran and North Korea to come to the table after the invasion of Iraq? Were they genuinely interested in making a deal due to the signal that was sent after the Iraqi invasion or were they simply trying to temporarily appease the US and its allies to avoid a situation similar to the one in Iraq?
  1. If these nations were interested in making a deal, what occurred during the negotiations, in US military capabilities, or in the minds of the Iranian and North Korean leaders, that led each to resume their pursuit of uranium enrichment?
  1. If the threat of military intervention was not enough to permanently stop Iran and North Korea, what can this tell us about nuclear nonproliferation in the future?
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