terror and tehran
homeaxis of evilinside iraninterviewsdiscussion

analysis - the long reach of a speech
President Bush's State of the Union address on Jan. 29, 2002, caught many observers of U.S.-Iran relations by surprise. Some cheered. Many others were dismayed, even outraged. Does Iran belong in an "axis of evil"? Is the cause of reform in Iran being helped or hindered by the U.S. war on terrorism? What happens next? Here are the views of former Bush speechwriter David Frum, who worked on the "axis" speech; U.S. Senator Joseph Biden (D-Dela.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Iran's ambassador to Canada, Mohammad Ali Mousavi; New York Times reporter Elaine Sciolino; former CIA Director James Woolsey; Iranian Vice President Massoumeh Ebtekar; Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei; Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and Thomas Pickering, undersecretary of state for political affairs during the Clinton administration.


photo of frum

David Frum
A speechwriter for President George W. Bush until February 2002, Frum is said to have coined the phrase "axis of evil."


Can you just give me a sense of the magnitude of this statement of foreign policy and the issues that it resolved?

read the interview The whole State of the Union speech was ... about as important a statement as the president could give, because he was warning the American people of threats to the security -- not just the security, the very survival -- of the whole nation. If the kinds of people who crashed those planes into the World Trade Center had weapons of mass destruction, had nuclear bombs, they would have used them. ... And they are backed and linked to governments that are seeking such weapons even more strenuously than Al Qaeda itself.

Among these governments are North Korea and Iran and Iraq, and they present a threat to the United States as profound, as terrible, as communism in its day and Nazism in its day. ...

How did Iran get in the cross hairs?

It's not the first time that someone has pointed the finger at Iran. Every other year, the State Department produces a list of terrorist states, states that sponsor terrorism and use it as a political tool. ... And every year, Iran has been identified as the single most important state sponsor of terrorism in the world. ...

The Bush doctrine on terrorism is a serious proposition, and it's going to define his presidency. It governs his conduct, and all governments in the world should know that and should act accordingly. ...

"Axis of evil" is a phrase that has large implications that I think the president really considered. First of all, it makes it clear that the struggle America is in is a moral struggle, that you're not dealing with competing interests ... the normal stuff of politics. ... We're dealing with a struggle in which the United States is under attack from regimes and organizations that see, as a legitimate tool of politics, the deliberate targeting for death of thousands of innocent people as they go to work in a skyscraper. Those are the kinds of regimes the United States is struggling against, and that is a moral struggle, fundamentally. ...

He sent a message of hope to the people of Iran. He told them that he is serious in condemning their government, that he is not going to be one of those world leaders who tries to do business with and prop up their oppressors, that in fact he sees their oppressors as oppressors. That is a hopeful message to a people who are overwhelmingly sick of being misruled by these clerical fascists.

I think truth is not often spoken in international relations, and it is a little bit shocking to the ear when you hear it. The truth is very, very powerful. And when you're in a struggle of good against evil, truth is good's best weapon.


photo of biden

Joseph Biden
He is a Democratic Senator from Delaware and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.


We're told that the "axis of evil" line signalled a significant policy shift. Do you see it as that? If so, why now?

I don't see it as that. Within a week after that "axis of evil" speech the administration officials were talking about, publicly, "No, we want dialogue with Iran, we want dialogue with North Korea." In the president's Asian trip he went out of his way to point out that this did not preclude a dialogue. The night that he made the speech, all of us in my business assumed he meant, "That's it, no discussion. We're not talking." And I think that's how the people who were spinning his speech spun it.

But within a matter of two weeks, there was a -- I won't call it backpedaling because that's pejorative -- but I think there was a refinement of what they meant by it. ...

Do you think they overreacted to what they perceived to be what he wanted to say?

Well, you know, this is dangerous territory for me, guessing what the president's advisors meant and did. I can only speak to what my personal conversations with the president and his chief advisors, Condoleezza Rice and the Secretary of State, have been. Which is, [they] immediately let me know that this did not mean the president wasn't prepared to enter into serious discussions with anyone, including the Iranians and the North Koreans.

I made a speech not too long ago, in this interim period, where I laid out some specific proposals, and I invited members of the Majlis [Parliament], the elected representatives in Iran, to meet with us, members of the United States Congress. I said, consistent with the president's call for dialogue, I personally, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, invite Iranian parliamentarians to sit down with us in open dialogue, to try to deal with some of the things I mentioned. I shortly after that met with White House personnel. They were complimentary of my speech, encouraged me to pursue it.

So whatever was spun the night the speech was made, I think it ended up spinning a different piece of material than we thought it was that night, at least I hope so. ...

Do you think the administration wants to move in that direction [of engagement with Iran]?

I'm positive they do. And the reason I'm positive is not conjecture. I met with the administration and with Dr. Rice, the national security advisor. They would like to move in that direction. I think they have a problem though. And understandably, I might add. You know, there is evidence that some elements, the radical elements within Iran now who still control the levers of power -- the police, the military -- it's almost like a Faustian bargain has been made [with the reformers]. That "Okay, you can have a democracy as it relates to, you know, how you dress, walk, talk, etc., but guess what, we still control the police, we still control the foreign policy. And the administration has to deal with the perception as well as the reality, or the difficulty that the extreme element in Iran continues to cause.


photo of mousavi

Mohammad Ali Mousavi
He is Iran's ambassador to Canada, and one of only two Iranian diplomats in North America.


Sept. 11 should have offered opportunities for improvement in the U.S.-Iran relationship. It didn't. ...

read the interview Sept. 11, regardless of the devastating cost for the American public as a terrorist act against humanity, provided a great deal of opportunity for many, including Iran and America. It created an opportunity that international body would be united against terrorism. It seems now that some of those opportunities have been lost, including faster Iran-U.S. rapprochement.

In reality, in the past four months, what did happen was a rapprochement for a better understanding between United States and Iran. ... Iran's great deal of involvement against Taliban in Afghanistan, uniting with ... Northern Alliance, supporting them, the burden of the refugees during the past few months, its involvement in Bonn agreement which inspected interim government of Afghanistan -- all of them provided an opportunity of a better understanding of Iran's foreign policy by Western world, in particular United States. The trend was in a positive mode. But the new approach of President Bush labeling Iran within the three countries of "axis of evil," in my view, ruined the opportunities. ...

Completely and totally wiped it out? Or set it back?

Set it back. Set it back ... because the past four months was diminishing [the] wall of mistrust. But labeling Iran, in many [people's] evaluation in Iran, brought back that wall of mistrust, regardless of all efforts Iran did take in the past four months to be a part of global coalition against terrorism. ...

What's it going to take to get Iran and the United States to talk to each other?

I think they were talking to each other in the past few months, especially before Sept. 11, through multilateral channels. With this new labeling of Iran by President Bush, I think they should do something to remove that new mistrust. ... Well, they have made this labeling accusation, which many believes have been wrong -- even within the United States administration now. They should correct that.

Take it back?

Correct. Taking it back is one way.


photo of sciolino

Elaine Sciolino
A senior writer for The New York Times and the author of Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran (2000), she has covered Iran since the revolution in 1979.


How surprised were you when all this found its way into a few simple little words, "axis of evil"?

read the interview I wasn't surprised by "axis of evil." It really was a natural evolution from the war on terrorism. George Bush said, "We are at war. This is a war without end. There are those who are with us; there are those who are against us." So he had to define those who were against us and it was not too difficult to pick out Iran, Iraq, North Korea. [All three of them] have programs of weapons of mass destruction, ... have articulated public policies against the United States government. ...

How deliberate and how formal a statement of American policy was that phrase ["axis of evil"]? Or was that sort of up there as an advertising slogan?

It can be a policy that directs future military action or it can be an advertising slogan. That's the beauty of a throwaway line like that. It never has to be rescinded. It's clever. It captures the imagination of the American people. It keeps the American people on board with their president. But just articulating the term "axis of evil" doesn't give you an action plan then. It's an articulation like "evil empire" was. ... When Ronald Reagan uttered the words "evil empire" ... it didn't mean the destruction of the Soviet Union in a two-year time frame or a three-year time frame. It just meant that he thought the Soviet Union was evil. ...

I don't really think this administration cares about the diplomatic nuances that come with articulating a phrase or two. ... This administration is not big on nuance. It's big on projection of power and giving the impression that it can project power. So "axis of evil" is very robust; it makes the president and his team look strong. It's not that they sat around and thought, "OK, how's 'axis of evil' going to play in Europe?" -- where the Europeans think of "Axis" and they harken back to World War II. It doesn't work like that. ...

The U.S. administration has drawn the line in the sand. What comes next? What happens when the people on the other side of the line thumb their noses?

Putting Iran in the "axis of evil" is sort of a feel-good, one-day event. ... President Bush makes clear to the American people [that] Iran is our enemy. Then what? How do you then put that phrase into effect? Do you bomb Iran? Do you take out a military installation that you think may be the source of weapons that are going to Hezbollah and Lebanon? Do you destroy their nuclear plant that they're building with Russian help? ... Do you destroy their navy? ...

Isn't it surprising, though, that these aren't the kinds of questions that are asked before you make the speech?

This is an ideological administration. This is an administration that's very sure of itself. This is an administration that's even said, "God is not neutral." So if you own the truth, then it doesn't make any difference what comes afterwards, because everything will just fall into place.


photo of woolsey

R. James Woolsey
He was director of the CIA from 1993 to 1995.


What was your reaction to the now famous "axis of evil" remark in the State of the Union address?

read the interview Oh, I was quite positively impressed by it. I thought it was a nice summation. As I thought about it a little bit, I thought "axis" was a little bit of a stretch, because although there are close ties [between Iran, North Korea, and Iraq] they are not aligned in the same way formally that the Japanese and Italians and Germans were in the 1930s. But I thought that it echoed the "evil empire" statement that President Reagan made about the Soviet Union, and I think in the spirit of calling a spade a spade, it was quite right. ...

But the question now is, who did he support or strengthen by that statement? One now hears the mullahs, the most hard-line mullahs, ranting about this threat from outside again.

Well, let them rant. ... I think certainly the government can trump up a big demonstration and get people chanting "Death to America." But the people of Iran are a sophisticated people, they're a well-educated people. There's a large diaspora in the West. There are a lot of communications in and out on the Internet and otherwise. They fully understand that we have nothing against the Iranian people. It's the [ruling clerics] who manage the terror and are working on the weapons of mass destruction and the ballistic missiles and all the rest. ...

How real is the risk that the mullahs, given the power they have, will share weapons of mass destruction with subsidiary terrorist operations?

It's possible. Iran is probably the leading terrorist-sponsoring state in the world right now, and their intelligence services are very active doing this both financially and with all kinds of assistance. And one would hope they would have more sense than to share any type of weapons of mass destruction with terrorists. But I don't think one can count on the common sense of the mullahs. ... So I think we need to do everything we can to help the reformers in Iran. ...

A lot of important reformers are saying, however, that the "axis of evil" speech had the opposite effect.

Well, some of them have to say that, because they're in Iran, and the mullahs can hear what they're saying. A lot of the ones who communicate out privately and so forth through the Internet don't say that. They say that the message came across loud and clear.

And if you remember, there were a lot of people back when Ronald Reagan gave that speech in the early 1980s in Florida and called the Soviet Union an evil empire, our allies in Europe and all of the official Soviets and a lot of other Soviets said, "Oh, this is terrible, this is terrible. What is this wild cowboy saying?" And once the Soviet Union collapsed, we started talking to the real dissidents, to the Sakharovs and the rest. They said there were three wonderful things the United States did during the Cold War: Radio Free Europe, the Helsinki Declaration, ... and Ronald Reagan's calling the Soviets an evil empire.

And so we're providing heart, I think. The president provided heart to the Iranian reformers, and they know that. They know we have nothing against them. They know we are not lumping them together with the mullahs. We're on their side.


photo of Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei

Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei
One of the most revered and influential religious authorities in the holy city of Qom, Saanei was a protégé of Ayatollah Khomeini. Today he is a reformist who speaks in favor of greater freedom and democracy.


What is your reaction to President Bush's reference to Iran as a source of terrorism, as a source of instability in the world?

read the interview ... When a powerful political figure states such a thing about Iran, the result is that in case the supporters of reform want to make a move or react upon this, then the opposition of the reform movement would accuse them of supporting American policies, Bush policies, and this is a very heavy accusation.

And our people do not have good memories and good experiences with the U.S. policies, rather they have very bad experiences. The point is that if Bush and other likeminded powerful politicians really believe in such a thing, they could have resolved their issues through political channels and through dialogue with the [Iranian] representatives. There was no need to broadcast it on an official occasion and for the whole world.

... The best way to serve Iran is to help those who are talking about reform, about Islam, about dialogue, and are sincere about it. Those who are blocking reform's movement should not be helped or supported. We have seen that the powerful political figures of the world believe that they should support the reform movement of Iran, whether they are on the right or on the left. ...

I think a great injustice has been done to the supporters of democracy and freedom and true Islam due to Mr. Bush's speech. And what he said has put more pressure on the best men and women in this country. ... In brief, if supporters of democracy in Iran had been under pressure yesterday, they will be under more stress and pressure tomorrow. And if they were not under pressure, they will be, and Mr. Bush has caused this situation and is responsible for that, unless he corrects his statements and resolves his issues with diplomacy and takes the pressure off the freedom lovers' shoulders [in Iran].

In my opinion, Mr. Bush and people like him have never been and are not interested to look after freedom loving Iranians or the Iranian Muslims. ...

I repeat what I said before, if Mr. Bush wants to serve the Iranian nation and bring security to the world, not political arguments and power games, he should express his ideas clearly and logically for all the people of the world. He should not take a defensive stance and use some political rhetoric that is really offensive and unprofessional, which indicates that the speaker does not have common sense and mere intellect.


photo of Massoumeh Ebtekar

Massoumeh Ebtekar
She is vice president for the environment in Mohammad Khatami's administration, and one of the highest-ranking women in the Islamic world.


What about the most recent statement by President Bush that portrayed Iran along with Iraq and [North] Korea as agents of international terror? What does that do?

read the interview That's a strategic mistake that they're making. I think Iran is a very successful example of an independent state, a democratic state. I think that the example of Iran in terms of being able to establish an independent economy, an independent political structure, a new example of bringing together religion and democracy, this is very different. ... The example of the Islamic Revolution in the world is an example of where many nations within the world look up to.

What does it do to the reform movement ... when someone with the power of the president of the United States makes a statement that this country and this regime is part of the agency of terror, part of the agency of destruction in the world? ...

... The response is an overwhelming response: All different factions [are] united. ... I think that that's natural, because it's a response to preserve the independence and the integrity of Iran. There's no question to that. So in a way, it's brought together these different factions on a common point, on a common stance. ...

Foreign intervention, foreign pressures could also injure the reform process, the democratic processes in the country. I think that they are making a mistake, a strategic mistake, which they have been making the past years and they made initially in terms of not understanding the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

The strategic mistake [is] that the time for unilateralism has passed away. The global community is not going to bow and submit to the messages of unilateralism that the Americans are sending. The global community is looking for an international arena where democracy is cherished, like it's cherished within the American state. It should be cherished at the international level as well, if we're not dealing with double standards, if we're dealing with a set of values and standards, universal values that we have in the Charter of Human Rights. ... The problem lies in these double standards and the fact that an arrogant government is trying to impose its will upon the global community.


Jessica T. Mathews
She is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that publishes the journal Foreign Policy.

What was your reaction when you heard that particular line in the State of the Union address, "axis of evil"?

read the interview I thought it was a terrible mistake from the first moment; a mistake, because it plays directly against our interests. I think it was obvious right away that it would strengthen the extremists and weaken those who we want to strengthen, in both Iran and North Korea.

So what was the motive? What was behind it?

Well, you have to go ask whoever was responsible for writing it, and the president. But I take it that it was more than just political -- that these are serious people in the administration. They know that the audience is not just American, and therefore, that there were important foreign audiences hearing these words. ...

You know, in the Vietnam War, we forgot about the forces of nationalism. We thought of communism as this monolith, and that was our terrible mistake. It could be that there are some people who just see -- at least for Iran and Iraq -- Islam or terrorism as a monolith, without recognizing the role of domestic politics in these countries, the divisions of opinion, the potential role of nationalism as a force for what happens and what policies are adopted. ...

This war is probably less importantly military than it is political. And the political goal has to be to strengthen the hands of those who oppose extremism, radicalism, use of force, and weaken those who hate the United States, which includes the conservative mullahs in Iran. ...

Even saying the word "Iran" is misleading, because it sounds like it's one thing, and it's not. It's two countries. On the one hand, you have the most pro-American populace by far in the region, and a very reformist-minded, and at least pro-Western, elected government. Now, the problem is that the elected parts of the government are steadily losing power to the unelected parts of the government, those that are run by the conservative mullahs -- the intelligence and the military and security branches, which really control the government, both domestically and in foreign policy. And they have exactly the opposite view. They still see the U.S. as an enemy. ...

It would be unusual for a president to utter a State of the Union speech without consideration of his political interest in it. And there are many people who believe that this was entirely a political statement, designed to appeal to an American audience that's still responding very much to the "with us or against us," "Let's go get 'em" sort of feeling. I think that underestimates the seriousness of what was said and of how the administration has behaved in the last five months. I mean, they have taken this war as seriously as it possibly can be taken. And I give them the credit for thinking that this was a very serious foreign policy statement, not just directed at an American audience, not a throwaway political line. But having said that, I also think it was a terrible mistake.


photo of Thomas Pickering

Thomas Pickering
He served as U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs from 1997 to 2001.


read the interview There's a sense on the part of the United States that, as it looks at Iran, it has a deep sense of very serious problems -- the problem of Iranian support for terrorist organizations; the problem of Iranian opposition to the Middle East peace process and certainly to a peace process with Israel; and a deep sense of concern on the part of the United States about nuclear proliferation or weapons of mass destruction proliferation in Iran. Those are important problems, and those problems don't get solved by continued division. They don't get solved by not talking. They don't get solved by non-engagement. ...

The ayatollahs have seized upon the phrase "axis of evil" and run with it for the goal line. Is that cause for some concern in the West? Or is this something that we're going to pass through?

Well, I think it will be something that we'll pass through. I think that, from time to time, it's worthwhile reminding people that there are serious problems. And sometimes that comes with a jolt; sometimes it's exploitable. But I think it's worthwhile reminding them. It is at the same time worthwhile reminding people that the door remains open to possibilities of talk.

And I think often it's fascinating. I watched U.S.-China relations build, I watched relations between the United States and Russia build over a period of time. Sometimes a certain amount of frank, straightforward conversation -- despite the fact that one side or another may take advantage of it with its own public -- is useful to set the stage to keep things clear.

RELATED LINKS

"Prospects for Progress: America and Iran After 9-11"
A speech by Sen. Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at American Iranian Council, March 13, 2002

"On to Iran!" by Reuel Marc Gerecht
"President George W. Bush's stunningly forceful State of the Union address has probably forever altered U.S.-Iranian relations. It may provoke a redrawing of the intellectual map of the Middle East, giving liberal democracy its best chance in the region since the end of World War II. In following through on his promise to counter and preempt hostile Iranian actions, the president will likely accelerate the collapse of the clerical regime." (The Weekly Standard, Feb. 18, 2002)

"A Risky Message to Iran," by Abbas Amanat
"Demonizing Iran may play well with the American audience, but it has already caused discomfort among America's European allies. Actual military action against Iran would be disastrous. But after the United States' success in Afghanistan, there may well be willingness in certain quarters within the Bush administration to entertain that idea, given its statements that Iran supports terrorism and wants to develop weapons of mass destruction." (The New York Times, Feb. 10, 2002)

"Iranians for Bush," by S. Rob Sobhani
"'President Bush has spoken to our hearts, which yearn for freedom. He will be remembered as another Abraham Lincoln by the freedom-loving people of Iran.' These are words of support from within Iran, in reaction to last week's State of the Union address, uttered by an Iranian calling the Voice of America's Persian service. As a guest at the station that night, I witnessed hundreds of calls, faxes and e-mails from inside Iran praising Mr. Bush. For the first time since the establishment of the theocracy, a U.S. president had chosen to speak to, and for, Iran's downtrodden." (The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 6, 2002)

"Iran in the Balance," by Puneet Talwar
"Iran's potential for democratic development far outstrips that of many of its troubled neighbors. If encouraged, the country could become a stabilizing force in a region vital to American interests." (Foreign Affairs, July/August 2001)


home | introduction | iran and the axis of evil | inside iran | interviews
producer chat | readings & links | chronology | discussion | video
tapes & transcripts | press reaction | credits | privacy policy

FRONTLINE | wgbh | pbsi

khatami photo copyright © reuters newmedia/corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Losing IraqJuly 29th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS