ISLAMABAD — New claims by the Bush administration that draw attention to Iran’s covert nuclear program are certain to intensify security concerns surrounding the oil-rich Middle East.

In U.S. President George W. Bush’s view, members of the so-called axis of evil — Iraq, Iran and North Korea — must be restrained in the interest of global security. But for many in the Middle East and other parts of the Islamic world, Bush’s approach is likely to be seen as part of a continuing Western attack against predominantly Muslim countries.

Victims of the prolonged Palestinian conflict and their supporters still have questions about Israel’s nuclear program, which obviously does not appear on Washington’s security radar screen.

Two of the three “axis of evil” members happen to be Islamic countries, yet the state of Israel receives no mention in the discussion surrounding international nuclear concerns. At this crucial time — ahead of a possible United States-driven war against Iraq — the claims concerning Iran’s nuclear potential may well appear to many in the region as the first step toward an eventual attack on that country, too.

Warnings about the danger of widening the rift between the Western and Islamic worlds, along with the prospects of a widening economic gap, have so far failed to restrain the hawks in Washington.

The Washington-led campaign demonstrates that nuclear-security questions have become embroiled with global politics to the extent that there are few clear solutions. For a long time, the Western world has suspected Iran of seeking nuclear weapons to buttress its security arsenal, hit hard by years of U.S. sanctions.

Ironically, though, while Iran may well find itself on the hit list after Iraq, the two countries have remained bitter enemies since their prolonged war in the 1980s. Understanding Iran’s security choices is mainly about understanding its predicament — it borders countries that are either unfriendly, such as Iraq, or with whom it has a recent history of uncomfortable relationships, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The presence of U.S. military forces in the Persian Gulf region has intensified what some Iranian officials privately describe as a “locked in” feeling. Thus Iran’s reluctance to become an active partner in the community of “responsible” nuclear states may be just as much a result of an assessment of its immediate surroundings as its belief that security threats will increase following further U.S. military action in the region.

The key to reining in Iran’s nuclear potential depends on:

(1) Directly engaging the regime of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and the Western world.

Political dialogue by itself will not necessarily lead to unlocking Iran’s nuclear riddle. Still, opening a new chapter in relations with the only country ruled by Islamic clergy could mark the first step toward a broader discussion of security questions. Ultimately, countries engaged in political discussions are bound to make progress toward changing the texture of their relations as opposed to those that exist in isolation from each other.

(2) Ending the condemnatory attitude that bunches countries together as an “axis of evil.”

This only antagonizes those who must cooperate to bring about key security- policy changes. For the Iranian leadership, the force of public opinion is bound to work against any opening to the West led by the U.S. — a country long condemned by Iranians as the “Great Satan.” Heated words are bound to vitiate prospects for a fresh dialogue.

Breaking away from the rhetoric may create room for countries like the U.S. to work quietly toward laying the basis for resuming a new peace process that leaves the Iranian leadership confident of warding off fresh domestic criticism of a new opening to the West.

(3) Dealing aggressively with Israel, whose nuclear potential is considered across the Islamic world as tolerated by the West.

Arab nationalists and others in the Islamic world have long vociferously demanded a review of Western policies toward Israel in its treatment of the Palestinian community. The Israelis’ counterargument has emphasized the insecurity of the Jewish state. However, the answer to Israel’s security dilemma lies in further bolstering its already considerable conventional military capacity.

Leaving Israel’s nuclear capability unquestioned will only prompt Iran and other Middle Eastern nations to strive for a nuclear capability as a bedrock of national defense.

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