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, and they are opposed to any kind of two-state solution to the
My belief is, and I don't think there's too much doubt about this, that the
"axis of evil" speech strengthened the hands of the conservative mullahs and
weakened the reformers who said, "Look, there are options for us in dealing
with the United States. There is a path that serves our interests." It's hard
to argue that in light of that ["axis of evil"] statement. ...
Now, to put the best possible light on the statement, is there any value to
it as a shot across the bow of the hard-liners, the non-accountable element of
the Iranian elite?
I think it is important that we be taken seriously, that our intent be taken
seriously. And I think we have done that, and the administration has done it
brilliantly in Afghanistan, in phase one. Phase two isn't so great. This
phrase, which has this kind of lasting mental impact, really sets the stage for
phase two, and it sets the stage for at least Iran and North Korea that any
sort of compromise is a dead end with us.
And in fact, I think in Iran, the true situation is exactly the opposite, that
time is on our side in Iran, with one huge exception. And that's what makes it
so difficult. And that exception is their pursuit of weapons of mass
destruction. If it were not for that, I think it would be pretty obvious that
the right way to go with Iran is to let this government destroy itself by doing
such a poor job of managing the economy and losing the trust and confidence of
the people until it undermines itself terminally. We can't just do that,
because of the weapons of mass destruction. But it doesn't serve our interest
to undermine the very substantial body of opinion in Iran that believes that
the U.S. and Iran could find a modus vivendi.
Now, there's another factor in the "evil" equation, which is the sponsorship
of terrorism. Iran makes no bones about the fact that they founded Hezbollah,
that they are in support of what they call "liberation movements" in Lebanon
and Palestine. How legitimate is the ["axis of evil"] phrase as a way of giving
them a heads-up that we're not going to put up with this anymore?
Well, what you take on has to be, in some degree, related to what you think
you can solve all at once. Foreign policy is a game of making choices. It's not
a game of saying, "Here are the ten things I want, and I want not nine, I want
ten." We're not going to get ten right away. This is a difficult set of
problems. And our interest is in avoiding making it worse, avoiding creating,
nourishing, the swamp in which that sort of resentment breeds, and dealing with
the principal threats first. And the principal threat, I think self-evidently,
is the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction by both these two states; North
Korea, much less so.
And Iran is perceived as a serious threat in that?
Iran is unequivocally engaged in that pursuit, has been for a very, very long
time, back before the revolution, under the shah. Iran has always seen Iraq as
a tremendous threat, and of course there was Israel's nuclear weapons, too. And
they insist that they're clean with respect to biological and chemical weapons.
But my understanding is that nobody with access to classified information who
follows this closely believes that. So their pursuit is active. The program,
the nuclear program, at least, is not so terrific technically. In fact, a lot
of people say it's a real mess. So it's not a tomorrow concern, but it's a very
serious and very real one, in fact what I believe should be our focus of
Is the rhetoric legitimized by the real possibility of weapons of mass
No. I think the rhetoric is not legitimized, only because it doesn't help.
There is no way that it is constructive to our interest, which is to find a way
to undermine and control that program.
So the proper way to go ...?
I think, first of all, that what we do in Iraq has an enormous effect on
Iran. I think step one is that you focus not on Saddam Hussein and not on
regime change in Iraq, but on the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. And
you rebuild and then build even further an international consensus that this,
that the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction by regimes that have proven
themselves prepared to use them, is an unacceptable threat. And you rebuild the
consensus from the early 1990s around an inspection regime -- this time an even
tougher inspection regime, with armed capability behind it. That, in itself,
will have an enormous effect on Iran.
Then you have to deal with the Russians more effectively than we have, because
that's their principal supplier. And that's a question of increasing the
incentives. We have offered them, I think, inadequate incentives to give up
what is for them a very substantial sum of money. And dropping our objection to
their providing conventional weapons to the Iranians, I frankly think it's just
silly. There's no legitimate basis for that complaint. We're just banging our
heads against a wall with them without getting anywhere. So we have to do what
we can to shut down the Russian supply.
At the same time, we have to stop making this so much an American crusade.
There are 180 countries in the nonproliferation treaty regime. All of them have
a stake in that regime. We have to broaden the base of leadership in saying
pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, even if technically legal -- as Iran
still is -- by a country that is a member of the NPT is unacceptable, right? We
let North Korea get away with it. We're not going to let another country get
away with it under our noses. And one way we can do that, there is a group
called the New Agenda Coalition, which includes a bunch of very serious
countries -- Sweden, Brazil, South Africa, others. We could use them, for
example, to help move this debate and discussion forward.
I also think we will have to use some of our intelligence, make public some of
what we know about what's going on in both Iraq and Iran -- even though it will
cost us in terms of sources and methods -- the way we did in the Cuban missile
crisis, when Stevenson went to the U.N. and put up the pictures of what the
Russians had in Cuba. And nobody could any longer say, "Well, maybe. It's us
against them. Who's lying?" We have to strip away this veil of hypocrisy behind
which the French and the Russians hide their commercial interests and make it
impossible to do that. If we do all that, then I think we really do stand a
chance of slowing, of crippling both programs to the point where they are an
acceptable threat. This is not what you would do if you had your druthers 100
percent. But that's not the real world.
What impact has this kind of "High Noon," "Wild West" diplomacy had on the
foreign policy professionals in the State Department?
Well, I know there was a great deal of unhappiness with the "axis of evil"
phrase and speech within the department; that a great many people felt it was
unwise and counterproductive for American interests. ...
The United States has a historic and highly talented foreign policy
establishment, professional public servants. Is it overstating it that they
have sort of been caught flat-footed by this statement?
No, I think that's accurate. It's certainly by no means the first time,
right? You could make a list as long as your arm of cases where foreign policy
decisions in the White House and in the State Department, and the foreign
policy establishments in those two entities, have been at each other's throats,
and deeply divided on what is the right policy to pursue. So there's nothing
new in that. This happens to be, could turn out to be, a particularly important
case of it. ...
This phrase came through a lot of drafts, involved a lot of speechwriters
and a lot of expertise. How do we account for a clunker like that in the middle
of an otherwise fairly conventional State of the Union speech?
I think what is happening is that there is a very powerful debate going on, an
unresolved debate within the administration between those who see Sept. 11 as
having confirmed their view of the world, which was that unilateralism is the
right way for the United States to go, that the assertion of force and American
strength is the most direct route to achieving American interests. ... Versus
another strain of thought that says, "Hey, it's obvious from this you can't
fight this war alone. You need cooperation to control weapons of mass
destruction, technological exports, international cooperation on police,
international cooperation on intelligence, international cooperation on
tracking down drug money, on controlling movement of arms, on tracking
telephone calls." It's a very long list. And clearly we need that, clearly we
needed at least the cover of a presumed coalition. And over time, this view
would say, we need that international cooperation.
That debate -- well, I was going to say it's unresolved. I think right now the
balance of power, so to speak, within the administration is with those who see
the events of the past five months as having confirmed a view that unilateral
leadership by the United States is the right way to go. ...
This president has an unprecedented national consensus behind him. How much
of this do you think is aimed at prolonging or even increasing this national,
this domestic consensus?
My guess would be that the president is very aware of what happened to his
father, that less than two years after the end of the Gulf War, he was
defeated. ... Now, one is guessing here, but I guess I'd go this far. 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.
The democratic reform movement in Iran seems to have used up most of its
initial enthusiasm and maybe even most of the space available to it within the
constitution there. Can you see any value in this kind of saber-rattling by
America to maybe frighten the mullahs into creating a little bit more breathing
room for the democratic forces in that country?
I don't, really. I think that's a dead-end policy. It may create a little
short-term breathing room, wiggle room, but that will close down right away
again. I think the truth is that there is almost nothing the U.S. can do
constructively on the political front in Iran right now. This is a "damned if
you do, damned if you don't" situation.
And sometimes there are those problems where there just isn't an answer. I
think any kind of direct intervention on our part -- and I include verbal
intervention -- on behalf of the moderate forces, the reformers, will backfire.
There's some things that will be far worse than others. I do think that a
prolonged military action in Iraq will backfire in Iran, will probably increase
the desire to have nuclear weapons as the only protection, the only form of
deterrence against it happening to them, too.
I think their most potent enemy is the venality and corruption and incompetence
of the conservative mullahs, the degree of damage they have done to the economy
of Iran and the poor governance that they are providing; and the strong
pro-Western, pro-American, pro-democratic feeling in the huge majority of the
population. That's why I think our policy ought to focus very narrowly on the
weapons of mass destruction.
And you're suggesting that the Iran problem, such as it exists for the West,
is in process of solving itself?
I would not expect a quick resolution. I think it will take a long time.
And there's all kinds of threats to it. What happens in Iraq could threaten it.
What happens in Afghanistan. We have to recognize that Iran now finds itself
surrounded by countries that are either pro-American or actually have American
military forces and American bases in them. This is not a happy situation for
them either. And if Afghanistan turns into a stable, pro-Western country --
Herat, in Afghanistan, used to be part of Iran not very long ago. So this is a
country in which they feel they have enormous interest, just as the Pakistanis
felt, [in] what kind of government is there. So the outcome for them -- not
that we're anywhere near yet a stable, pro-Western government in Afghanistan,
and may never get there -- but Iran feels its interest enormously engaged
there, and not productively. Our interests ran with Iran's as far as getting
out the Taliban. But putting in a pro-Western government, then they diverge,
particularly when it's a strong government in Kabul. That's not in their
interest. And so there's all kinds of things that could derail this nice
movement. But it's the only track that I can see that we have.
home | introduction | iran and the axis of evil | inside iran | interviews
producer chat | readings & links | chronology | discussion | video
FRONTLINE | wgbh | pbsi
khatami photo copyright © reuters newmedia/corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014
WGBH educational foundation