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Remembering Libya when
dealing with Iran



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991
Comments to

May 15, 2006

LONDON - Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya. All (until the fall of Saddam Hussein) under pretty evil leadership. All the same, and yet very different. All have or had the urge to develop nuclear weapons. The three first were labelled early on in his presidency the "Axis of evil" by George W. Bush.

Yet Libya was probably the worst and is now the best. Indeed, because the "axis of evil" speech appeared to demand "regime change" it is probable that omitting Libya from that speech was an important factor in the long effort to persuade Libya to drop its guard, to open up its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons factories for American and British inspectors to roam over and dismantle at will, and to give up its sponsorship of international terrorism, at which it far outshone all the others.

For those who worry about Iran's propensity for evil deeds today they should look again at the record of Muammar Qaddafi.

The CIA linked Qaddafi with the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the 1975 raid on a meeting of OPEC ministers in Vienna, the 1985 seizure of a cruise ship and the pushing of a wheel chair-bound American overboard, deadly attacks on Rome and Vienna airports in the same year, the killing of a British police woman by a sniper in Libya's London embassy, and financial and military support for the IRA, the PLO and the Japanese Red Army at the time of their most murderous activities. He also led the rejectionist camp against the 1979 Camp David accords. Finally, there was the bombing of a discothèque in Berlin in 1986 killing two American soldiers, which sparked President Ronald Reagan's decision to bomb Qaddafi's family compound, killing his adopted daughter.

That brutal but understandable use of force by Reagan led to the revenge blowing up in mid air of a Pan Am airliner full of American students over Lockerbie, Scotland and the downing of a French passenger jet over Niger.

By any standard this was as bad as terrorism has ever been - at least until September 11th.

Nevertheless, the three post Reagan presidents all followed more or less the same strategy. They played down the call of Reagan for "regime change". Instead they pursued only Libyan "policy change". They worked through the UN. They made use very effectively of economic sanctions. They grabbed at every olive branch that Qaddafi offered - including his immediate condemnation of Al Qaeda, following September 11th.

This worked. What there is precious little evidence for is the claim of vice president Dick Cheney that "five days after we captured Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi came forward and announced that he was going to surrender all his nuclear materials to the United States". Although no one can doubt that all along Qaddafi was aware if it came to a show down his country was no match for American might this appears to have featured rather little in his calculations. The compromise that led to his announcement about forsaking development of weapons of mass destructions was well in the works long before the U.S. invaded Iraq.

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Indeed it is probably true that the big deal might have come earlier if the Lockerbie families hadn't pushed so hard that there be no political negotiations on wider matters until their issue - a trial of the Libyan agents and compensation - had been settled. As it happened, their delaying tactics worked in the final big deal's favour, as by then oil prices had fallen and the Libyan economy was in disarray, partly too because of bad management and partly because of the wearing effect of tough sanctions.

There was also mounting opposition to Qaddafi inside Libya, including elements in the army and Islamic fundamentalists. Qaddafi became more and more convinced - partly by his son studying at the London School of Economics - that if his oil industry was ever to recover it needed the special American expertise that had got it of the ground in the first place.

Bush appears incapable of learning the lesson of Libya. With the threats of force, including the use of nuclear weapons, he has backed even liberal Iranian opinion into a nationalist corner. And he is articulating a "regime change" position at a time when Iran is reaping the benefits of high oil prices and is less dependent than ever before on U.S. oil expertise.

Admittedly, it was his father that initiated the "non regime change" policy towards Libya. Is that a good enough reason for refusing to countenance a similar workable policy towards Iran?


Copyright © 2006 By JONATHAN POWER


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