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photo of a demonstrationintroduction: may 2, 2002

In his State of the Union address on Jan. 29, 2002, President Bush uttered words that caught many listeners around the world -- and some in his own administration -- by surprise.

"Iran aggressively pursues [weapons of mass destruction] and exports terror," Bush declared, "while an unelected few repress the Iranian people's hope for freedom. ... States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world."

Many cheered the president's tough language. Many others -- in Iran, Europe, and the U.S. -- were dismayed, even outraged. Only a few months earlier, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, relations between the two old adversaries seemed to be warming up, as Iran quietly offered support for the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan. Secretary of State Colin Powell even shook hands with the Iranian foreign minister at the U.N. in November -- a simple yet historic gesture that seemed the most tantalizing hint of rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran since the hostage crisis in 1979.

Does Iran, a complex and vibrant society that is crucial to peace and stability in the Middle East, really belong in an "axis of evil"? Is the cause of democratic reform in Iran being helped or hindered by the U.S. war on terrorism? And if President Bush is serious about the "axis of evil," what is the next move in the critical diplomatic game being played by Washington and Tehran?

In "Terror and Tehran," FRONTLINE explores these questions and others. Starting with an intimate look at the personal struggles of Iran's hard-pressed reformers, the report examines the U.S. case against Iran's support of terrorism, then goes on to offer a glimpse of the prospects for new dialogue between the two countries. Through interviews with Iranian government officials and reformists, U.S. intelligence and foreign policy experts, and top journalists, the report examines what it may take to get the United States and Iran back on a course toward productive talks.

"Putting Iran in the 'axis of evil' is sort of a feel-good, one-day event," says Elaine Sciolino of The New York Times, who has covered Iran since 1979. "The United States President 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? ... What comes next?"

As FRONTLINE reports, a possible clue came not long after Bush's State of the Union speech, during a private conversation involving the president's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Dela.). Asked whether he thinks the administration wants to move in the direction of direct talks with Iran, Biden says, "I'm positive they do. And the reason I'm positive is not conjecture. I met with the administration and with Dr. Rice. ... They would like to move in that direction."

But many obstacles remain. "We think it's very likely that they are violating and planning to violate further their obligations and build nuclear weapons," former CIA Director James Woolsey tells FRONTLINE. "Iran is probably the leading terrorist-sponsoring state in the world right now ... 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."

As this report reveals, one of the most vexing questions facing U.S. policymakers is how the U.S. should deal with a country that has two competing centers of power: an elected president, Mohammad Khatami, backed by moderate reformers seeking engagement with the West and a more open society; and a handful of unelected ruling clerics, presided over by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who have the ultimate say over which direction Iran will take.

Within Iran, the internal power struggle is escalating. In "Terror and Tehran," FRONTLINE speaks with Iranian reformers and political activists who report being imprisoned and threatened for challenging the current regime. Other activists report the disappearance and/or murder of family members -- some of whom were early supporters of Iran's revolution two decades ago -- for advocating governmental reform.

FRONTLINE asked the economist Fariborz Raisdana, part of a reformist group that tried unsuccessfully to run in the parliamentary elections in 2000, how dangerous it is to openly criticize the regime in Iran today. "It is more than a little bit dangerous," Raisdana says, "because you are walking on a sword. But anyway, some people have accepted the responsibility and they are ready to accept the danger and the risk."

Iran's religious leaders are also struggling to connect with the nation's youth. With two-thirds of the country's population now under the age of 25, most Iranians today have no memory of the 1979 revolution, and discontent with the status quo is rampant. Major student demonstrations in the past year have continued to put pressure on the Khatami government to pick up the pace of reform.

Even more distressing to Islamic leaders is the fascination that the West holds for the nation's youth. "They go after the more flashy aspects and that's what attracts the younger generation," says Massoumeh Ebtekar, a vice president of Iran who served as a spokesperson for the students at the U.S. Embassy in 1979 and has since become a prominent reformer advocating women's rights.

Now, some Iranian moderates fear that President Bush's hard-line talk of an "axis of evil" may have given the religious leaders the weapon they need to silence their longtime critics and unify the country against the perceived threat of the United States.

"If the reformers who are fighting for democracy in Iran felt they were under pressure in the past, they will certainly be under greater pressure in the future," says Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei, an influential religious leader known to be sympathetic to democratic reform. "And for that, Mr. Bush bears responsibility."

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