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Axis of Evil

Three years ago, President Bush issued a stern warning about three countries that he believed threatened the international community with weapons of mass destruction and state-sponsored terrorism -- Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

President Bush says, "States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking the weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger."

Much has happened in the past few years in all three countries. Iraq has seen the invasion of a U.S. led coalition, the ouster of dictator Saddam Hussein, the election of an interim government, and the unleashing of a persistent and deadly insurgency. In Iran, voters recently elected hard line candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be the country's next president, surprising many international observers. Tehran has also announced it intends to resume its nuclear program despite the objections of the European Union and the United States. And North Korea is currently participating in six-party talks on its nuclear program, following a 13-month boycott by Pyongyang.

Steven Cook, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, says the tumultuous events in Iraq have created a decidedly mixed picture. But he says Iraq's democratic evolution has had a significant impact on the Middle East as a whole.

"I don't think there are too many Arabs right now who are looking at the situation in Iraq and say I'd like my country to look like that," says Mr. Cook. "But at the same time, I think that the elections last January did give momentum to the already present demands in countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan."

But the reason for the U.S. led invasion of Iraq, Baghdad's weapons of mass destruction, has been shown to be invalid. And this, Mr. Cook says, has led to problems for the U.S.

According to Mr. Cook, "One of the issues that the United States is confronting, the reality of the situation in Iraq, is that Iraq clearly had nothing to do with 9/11 despite the administration's best efforts to kind of ally Iraq and 9/11 during the 2004 presidential election. But what we're facing now in Iraq is that it is the central front in the war on terrorism as a result of the American invasion, which is an unfortunate unintended consequence of that invasion."

The Iraqi insurgency is believed to consist of groups linked to the former Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein and members of international terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida. Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations says the insurgents have created a substantial new threat.

Mr. Cook adds, "There clearly is an evil lurking in Iraq in the form of an insurgency that is composed of former Baathists, foreign fighters and Iraqi tribesmen. But it is a fundamentally different kind of situation than what President Bush was talking about when he outlined the axis of evil three years ago."

President Bush also named Iraq's neighbor, Iran, as part of the world threat. Recently, Iranian voters surprised the international community by electing hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the country's new president.

Abbas Amanat, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Yale University, says the country's Shi'ite Islamic government has emerged from the contest in a stronger position.

Professor Amanat says, "Now, the Iranian regime, particularly the hardliners, feel that [with] the election of Mr. Ahmadinejad, they have a certain vote of confidence, a certain mandate, domestically in Iran, and internationally. They feel they are not as threatened as was the case a few years ago, with the United States being bogged down and in trouble in Iraq, and the fact the Shi'ite regime in Iraq inevitably is going to be inclined more toward Iran."

Iran's announcement that it intends to resume its nuclear program has also renewed fears about its intentions. Professor Amanat says Iran's presidential election has boosted Tehran's confidence in that area as well. He says, "We can see, of course, in the next few months and years perhaps a greater assertiveness, a greater degree of confidence and them trying to implement some of the policies, including the nuclear policy, of the Iranian government."

North Korea also belongs to President Bush's axis of evil. In the past three years, Pyongyang has argued with other nations about nuclear disarmament. North Korea is currently taking part in six-party talks in Beijing on its nuclear program. The other participants are South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

James Lilley, a former U.S. ambassador to China and South Korea, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. He says North Korean officials have done little to moderate their repressive regime.

"They have hundreds and thousands of their people in gulags," says Mr. Lilley. "They have families in there; they have created starvation because they are putting their money into their military, perhaps 30 % [of their economy]. They have driven refugees into China; they have a totally dominant ideology which is sort of a crack-pot, self-reliance ideology. They have these goose-stepping troops; it's shades of Nuremberg, Germany in 1935. It's shades of 1984, [by author] George Orwell."

North Korean ruler Kim Jong-Il has tried limited reforms of the country's economy. But Ambassador Lilley says these attempts have failed. He is skeptical about North Korea halting its nuclear program.

Mr. Lilley says, "I think the process right now is that they are feeling intense pressure, both from their internally failed economic system and from their closest allies, such as China, and some good inducements from South Korea. And the combination of these factors has made them adjust some of their language. Whether they're really going to go ahead and dismantle their nuclear program, we don't know."

When President Bush delivered his speech on the axis of evil in 2002, he outlined what he saw as a persistent and deadly threat. Iraq, Iran and North Korea remain at the center of world attention. And, most analysts say, their status will no doubt continue to affect the international community.

This story was broadcast as part of VOA Focus series. To hear more Focus stories, please click here.