For the Bush administration, awarding Libya with restoration of full diplomatic relations should be a lesson to Iran and North Korea. Give up your nuclear weapons programmes just as Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi did, administration officials argue, and you too can reap the benefits of political and economic ties with the US.

But for some experts in the Middle East and nonproliferation diplomacy, the lesson may be just as much for the US: It is direct talks and security assurances that underlie Libya’s transformation from a rogue proliferator and purveyor of international terrorism, they say, not primarily a threat of force.

“Direct talks were crucial in getting Libya to change its ways, because that’s how Qaddafi became convinced that if he did policy change, we would not do regime change,” says Bruce Jentleson, who was a State Department official in the Clinton administration when secret talks were initiated with Libya. “The lesson here is that while it’s useful to have force as a backdrop, this is really a story of serious diplomacy’s success.”

The US announced that it was restoring full diplomatic relations with Libya, a process that began in 2003 when Qaddafi agreed to give up his country’s aspirations for weapons of mass destruction, including its nuclear and chemical weapons programmes. Secretary

of State Condoleezza Rice also said Libya would be removed from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The long-anticipated US announcement was interpreted in some quarters of the Middle

East as the US backtracking on the region’s democratisation, or that the US is putting access to oil fields first in a period of deepening energy insecurity.

Libyan dissidents say they fear Qaddafi will use his new status as a partner of the US to further consolidate his political power at home and tamp down any groundswells for political reform.“Oil is a factor, but it is not as crucial a one as security is,” says Jentleson. The US “didn’t make this decision because Qaddafi underwent some full transformation; we still don’t particularly like him,” he adds. “But he wanted to stay in power and was willing

to move on something important to us, so we struck a deal.”

Yet despite the Bush administration’s call for other states on the outs with the US to heed the Libyan example, its application to other cases may be difficult, some experts say. “I don’t see very good transference of this case to others that are on everybody’s mind right now, partly because there were no urgent issues on the US-Libya agenda to throw it all off,” says Jon Alterman, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Iranians have engaged in talks with the US, particularly when the Bush administration

decided Iran could be helpful on Afghanistan. But that does not mean the stage was set for

the kind of “incremental progress” that made the Libya deal possible. — The Christian Science Monitor