What a lot of people failed to realize about the term "axis of evil" when it was first used in the 2002 State of the Union address, was that the point wasn't that Iran, North Korea and Iraq were in some sort of alliance. The "axis of evil" was the connection between states with weapons of mass destruction and non-state terrorist groups like Hizbollah or al-Qaeda, not connections between these particular states. And that is why even though the U.S. has long abandoned this term, it continues to be used in the Israeli media because they face the threat of Iranian and Syrian-backed terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hizbollah.
The term is of course long gone in Europe and America because it is associated with the failings of the Bush administration - it never got that much airplay, anyway. Later in 2002 John Bolton (then undersecretary of state for arms control) gave a speech entitled "Beyond the Axis of Evil" which added Syria, Cuba and Libya to the list - the inclusion of Cuba, especially, only muddying the water. But if we get behind the language and look at the actual issues, we find they are still very much alive.
The concern over weapons of mass destruction and terrorism is going to be a structural one in global politics now, for ever. It's fading at the moment because it has been a while since a major terrorist incident and there are other more pressing worries, but the first instance of WMD use by a non-state terror organization is going to lead to a paradigm shift as severe as the one which followed 9/11. The responsible group will be taken apart insofar as it can be and the state which originally manufacutred the weapons used is going to have some explaining to do; the severe consequences for all involved are likely to preclude Syria or Iran actually making this happen on purpose.
The Israeli use of "axis of evil" points to a problem that is at least much more immediate. The Hizbollah number two who just got killed, Imad Mugniyah, personified the "axis of evil" as Israelis understand it - an international terrorist who spent his time between Damascus, Tehran and Hezbollah strongholds in Beirut, working tirelessly against Israeli and U.S. interests.
This axis is, interestingly, almost entirely a Shi'ite affair (with the exception of Hamas) and is part of a concerted effort by Iran and Syria's minority Shi'ite Alawite government to spearhead a kind of Shi'ite revival in the Islamic world. The Sunni states have failed to destroy Israel - Egypt has even become its closest Arab ally - and their relationship to the main Sunni terror organization, al-Qaeda, is complicated by the fact al-Qaeda hates the Sunni states almost as much as it hates the west. Only in the Syria/Iran-Hizbollah/Hamas axis is there a clear, structured connection between states and terror groups working for the same aims. The attendence by high officials of the Iranian government at Mugniyah's funeral is only the most obvious indication of this.
As far as Iran, Syria and its clients are concerned, the Sunni states and al-Qaeda might talk a big game, but they've actually done very little to attack Israel. Hizbollah are the guys who inflicted what basically amounted to a defeat on the Israeli military in 2006, and Hamas are the ones who have radically changed the dynamic of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This is why it's so hard for Israel to dismiss the rhetoric of Iran's President Ahmadinejad about destroying Israel as mere bluster, like much of the world does: he already does quite a lot towards this end through his support of the main groups seeking this destruction. And these groups are fresh from a string of victories and feeling cocksure.
Iranian support for anti-state elements in Iraq is another extension of this phenomenon. The horrible irony of the U.S. invasion of Iraq is that, even though it eliminated the possibility of Saddam Hussein again manufacturing WMD and then giving them to a non-state terror group, it did the Iranians the biggest favour they've been done in a long time by allowing them to extend their influence into Iraq. The Mehdi Army and the Badr Organization - Shi'ite parties and militias - are likely to be decisive in determining Iraq's future, and are already receiving Iranian money and weapons towards this end.
Because the most immediately worrying link of states and terrorists is this one between Iran and its client groups - regardless of a possible WMD link, which as I've said is unlikely - the U.S. invasion of Iraq really made conditions better for what the Israelis still call the "axis of evil" rather than being a step towards tackling it. Already Hizbollah, Hamas, and Iranian clients in Iraq would be a formidable force if they turned their guns concertedly against the U.S. and Israel and used their global influence towards this end. Hezbollah's chief Hassan Nasrallah threatened to do just that minutes before I wrote this, saying to Israel after the assassination of Mugniyah: "You have crossed the borders. With this murder, its timing, location and method — Zionists, if you want this kind of open war, let the whole world listen: Let this war be open."
And it will be. These are not the words of a man or head of an organization who is scared. Iran's clients are on the rise and its influence in the region is growing. The Shi'ite revival led by Iran is here and its feet and hands are already bloody from those it stepped on to get to the top. This war, for Israel, the Lebanese, and the rest of us, is going to get a lot more open and a lot worse before it gets any better. Worst of all, the toppling of Saddam Hussein just opened up a new theatre of operations for Iran's influence. If you thought you'd seen an axis of evil, you ain't seen nothing yet.