Commentary Magazine


Libya and Iran

On Thursday, I listed French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s welcoming of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi in Paris as the fourth best handshake of 2007. Qaddafi’s controversial mid-December visit to France—his first in 34 years—marked the first step in the West’s normalization with Libya, a reward for Qaddafi’s promise to end Libya’s nuclear weapons program, cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, accept responsibility for airline terrorist attacks that killed 440 people, and compensate the victims’ families. In her year-end press conference, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hailed these “strategic decisions,” vowing to meet with the Libyan foreign minister in early January 2008 and to visit Tripoli later in the year.

But before Rice cements Libya’s acceptability and enters Qaddafi’s ceremonial Bedouin tent, perhaps she should scrutinize Libya’s strategic decisions more carefully. Last week, Libya announced that it was expanding its cooperation with Iran, with the two states declaring “close attitudes over many issues including Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Lebanon.” Iran further expressed its appreciation for “Libya’s logical stances in regard to the country’s nuclear issue and human rights issues,” and announced that it would seek additional partners in Africa and Latin America. That means that Hugo Chavez should expect a phone call in the near future.

For the Bush administration, Libya has long been the epitome of successful foreign policy: a rogue regime that—immediately following the U.S. invasion of Iraq—destroyed its weapons of mass destruction, renounced terrorism, and sought respectability. Indeed, little has deterred the administration’s mission-accomplished attitude towards Libya. When a Libyan court sentenced five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor to death earlier this year for infecting 400 children with HIV—the medics confessed under electric-shock torture—the administration never threatened to rethink normalization with Tripoli, simply calling for the medics’ release and applauding the Libyan government when it complied.

If severe human rights concerns were not reason enough to reconsider our rapprochement with Libya, its strategic alignment with Iran must raise some red flags. Normalization with Libya is only valuable when it rewards nuclear disarmament and western alignment, ideally setting an example for similar states to follow. But with Libya now leaning towards Iran, endorsing its nuclear position, and seeking joint ventures in other hemispheres, Rice needs to reassess whether Libya is deserving of its newly elevated status.