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Is the ‘axis of evil’ beginning to implode?

Nearly 21 years ago, President George W. Bush forewarned on Jan. 29, 2002, in his first State of the Union speech that Iraq, Iran and North Korea were devolving into an “axis of evil” and were intent on destroying the West and its neo-liberal culture. Operation Iraqi Freedom ended Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in April of 2003; however, Iran and North Korea, largely unchecked, have continued to finance, train and equip terrorist organizations throughout the Middle East. 

Russia, meanwhile, under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, has gradually elected to embrace the “axis of evil” as global partners against what Moscow perceives to be unipolar Washington dominance — and in the process, given its faltering “special military operation” in Ukraine, has transformed the growing partnership into the Kremlin’s “arsenals of evil.” 

Desperate for resupply of ammunition, drones, ballistic missiles and other assorted military aid to carry out Putin’s terror campaign on Ukrainian civilians, Moscow increasingly has become overly dependent on Tehran and Pyongyang. Nowhere has this been more obvious than when the Kremlin appeared to resort to removing nuclear warheads from the 1980s vintage AS-15 Kent air-launched cruise missile (Kh-55) inventories to strike Ukraine.

Analysts believe Russia has fired more than 400 Iranian-made attack drones into Ukraine since August and reached an agreement with Tehran to begin manufacturing hundreds of unmanned weaponized aircraft in Russia. A separate report suggests as many as 200 Shahed-136 and Arash-2 kamikaze drones and Mohajer-6 reconnaissance and combat UAVs were shipped to Russia in early November, and that Iran has agreed to supply Russia with surface-to-surface missiles — Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar. But Russia soon may experience supply chain issues of their own, at a time when they can least afford it.

The weight of this new Russian-led “axis of evil” may be becoming too much. Moscow, reportedly, is withdrawing S-300 air defense missiles in Syria, thereby leaving nearby Iranian forces exposed to Israeli airstrikes. Tehran, teetering from domestic protests, undoubtedly does not welcome this development — or threat to its position in Syria and, by extension, its influence on Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

Domestically, Iran is in trouble — and so too, the “axis of evil.” The Iranian government has a history of cracking down on nonconformists, but the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman from northwestern Iran, who died in the custody of the morality police after being beaten for not wearing a headscarf while she was visiting Tehran in September, ignited a powerful and growing response among Iranian women that has been festering beneath the surface for years.

By the thousands, Iranian citizens have taken to the streets to protest this injustice. Demonstrations have taken place spanning Amini’s hometown to Tabriz, Mahabad, Zahedan and the capital city of Tehran. From all walks of life, sex, age and ethnic backgrounds, the intolerance and restrictions on freedom are reaching a culminating point across Iran. Fear of subjugation and imprisonment has been replaced with a renewed sense of protest regardless of cost. Female students at Al-Zahra University removed their headscarves and chanted anti-government slogans at police. Protesters in Tehran erected and burned barriers while shouting “Death to the dictator!” Demonstrators set fire to the ancestral home of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the city of Khomein. Then, at the World Cup in Doha, Qatar, the Iranian men’s soccer team stood silently as the Iranian national anthem played before their match with England, despite official threats of retaliation against the players and their families.

Solidarity throughout Iran is building and uniting a population once wholly subservient to the ruling Islamic theocracy, led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, whose rulings are enforced by the Intelligence and Public Security Police (PAVA), Islamic Police (The Guidance Patrol, aka morality police) and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. These protests are different from those in 2017-2018 and 2019-2020, when economics, politics and the cost of fuel drove the unrest. 

Restrictions upon personal freedoms are the driving force, its building momentum, and has the regime in the reaction mode to surpass its growth. On Nov. 8, a letter supported by 227 of the 290 members of the Iranian Parliament called for harsh punishments of protesters, asking the judiciary to issue “retribution” sentences [execution], which was followed by chants of “death to seditionists” — not very helpful. According to Carnegie Endowment fellow Karim Sadjadpour, as many as 15,000 Iranian citizens have been arrested and their fates are in question.

Iran’s recent announcement that it will abolish the morality police is seen for what it is by many — a publicity or public relations stunt designed somehow to appease a growing movement of subjugated citizens. It may have more of a “Band-Aid being ripped off an open wound” effect on a public weary of the strict religious guidelines of the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution.

What was once considered a distraction quickly has become a movement that could threaten the Iranian theocracy. The movement gained additional traction with the death of Mehran Samak, who was killed by security forces Bandar Anzali while celebrating the U.S. World Cup victory over Iran, and could impact Russia’s ability to continue its terroristic attacks on Ukraine’s civilians and critical infrastructure — thus removing yet another arrow from Putin’s diminishing quiver when he can least afford it.

How ironic would it be if Putin lost not only in Ukraine, but, given his desperation for weaponry from his “arsenals of evil,” caused the axis itself to collapse? Likely just as ironic as new reports that Iranian drones can’t operate on the cold winter battlefields of Ukraine. “Fubar,” as U.S. troops used to say in World War II. Everything is f—-d up beyond all recognition — including Putin’s “axis of evil.”

Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel, served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His background includes tours of duty with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), DIA, NSA and NGA.  He led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltics.  Follow him on Twitter @JESweet2022

Mark Toth is a retired economist, historian and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing, and global commerce. He is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, and has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world, including London, Tel Aviv, Augsburg and Nagoya. Follow him on Twitter @MCTothSTL.

Tags Ali Khamenei axis of evil George W. Bush Iran Iranian protests Russia under Vladimir Putin Russian invasion of Ukraine Saddam Hussein Vladimir Putin

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