This is in contradiction of "America as the Great Satan."
America is the Great Satan. But it's both.
How could it be both?
... It's like anybody that you envy. You hate them because they're so powerful
-- and it's especially true in a country like Iran, which is a great
civilization, built on [a] 2,500-year-old civilization. ... And Iranians think
of themselves as the center of the universe. When they talk about projecting
power, they want to be the regional power in the Persian Gulf. ... It's their
rightful place, they would say.
So when they see a country like the United States projecting power and, in
their view, putting them down or repressing them, they react viscerally. The
notion of the United States as the Great Satan started with Ayatollah Khomeini,
because one of the pillars of the revolution was against the United States.
Anything against the United States was terrific, against American, the American
government, American film, American culture. And it was based on the historical
reality that the United States in 1953 had overthrown the government in Iran
and reinstated the monarchy, reinstated the shah.
And yet I've never heard of an American being in danger there. You hear of
Americans being in danger in Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, all over, but never
Well, I wouldn't go so far as to say Americans have never been in danger there.
Certainly during the revolution, Americans were targeted. There's no question
about that. American businessmen were targeted. American journalists were not
kidnapped in Iran, but were certainly threatened. I, myself, was threatened.
Joe Alex Morris, the legendary war correspondent for the Los Angeles
Times, was killed during the revolution. And certainly Iranian-backed
groups in Lebanon were responsible for the kidnapping of a number of Americans
during the 1980s.
How has the Shiite religion affected the character of [Iran]?
... Iran is an Islamic country, but unlike most of the other countries in the
Islamic world, it's predominantly Shiite instead of Sunni, which is the
majority of the Islamic world. And the interesting thing about Shiite Islam is
that it's founded on debate and disagreement.
We in the West have this image of Iranian clerics, starting with Ayatollah
Khomeini, as being stern and rigid and never bending. But indeed, the nature of
the religion is to question your elders, question your superiors, and
constantly debate and argue. That's why when you go to a country like Iran, you
realize everybody wants to argue with you all the time. They think it's fun. We
think it's sort of difficult and hard to be talking politics all the time, but
for them, it's really what gives them life and vitality and vibrancy.
But it also is very dangerous for the Islamic Republic, because there are young
clerics who are questioning the nature of the Islamic Republic and how it has
emerged as counter to the ideal -- which was that it was going to be
participatory, that it was going to be democratic, not that it was going to be
a top-down kind of system where one person held an incredible amount of power.
So Shiism is almost an adjunct to the democratic movement.
Oh, no question about it. Shiism is part of the democratization and the reform
movement in Iran. And I argue, for example, that the holy city of Qom, that the
clerical establishment, the sort of Vatican of Iran, is the most dangerous
place in Iran, because there are seminaries there where students are taught to
fight back and to argue. You've got a whole generation of young clerics who are
saying, "Wait a second, this is not really the Islamic Republic. This
government is as repressive as that of the shah."
It's interesting, because a lot of people would say, "Well, Islamic Republic
means repressive republic." And you think that there's something in the heart
of Islam, of Shiite Islam, that militates against repression?
Absolutely, because Shiite Islam is not terribly hierarchical. A cleric
decides himself when he is a cleric ... when he has enough learning to put on a
turban and a robe. ...
They ordain themselves?
They ordain themselves, yes. ...
From your point of view as an American, as someone who's been traveling in
Iran, what is the case for a better relationship between United States and
The case for a better relationship between the United States and Iran is
geography. Just look at a map and look where Iran is. To its west is Iraq, with
which it fought an eight-year war. To its east is Afghanistan and Pakistan, and
we know a lot more about Afghanistan now than we did before Sept. 11.
But Pakistan, when it tested its nuclear weapon, it tested it in Baluchistan
province, which is right next door to Iran. You could even hear the test from
the Iranian side. Iran is north of the Persian Gulf and therefore north of
Saudi Arabia, which is its main competitor in the region. It borders Turkey,
which has a military relationship with Israel. It's on the Caspian Sea, which
is the oil-rich land which will be a multibillion-dollar area for oil
exploration when it really gets underway.
So boil that all down to what it ultimately means. Why should Americans and
Iranians be talking to each other? Mutual interests? They need each
Iran is too important for the United States to ignore, [in terms of] where it
is in the world and who its neighbors are, in terms of its natural resources.
It's got oil; it's got natural gas; it's got other mineral wealth.
I would argue that its biggest natural resource is probably its people. It's
got 65 million people and probably 65 percent of them are under the age of 25.
It's a literate people; it's a highly educated people; it's a highly
inquisitive people that looks outward to the rest of the world because of its
history, tradition, culture, character. It's always going to be important.
How would you characterize current American foreign policy regarding
The Bush administration actually started out with an open mind towards Iran, by
all indications. In fact, early in the administration, the White House tasked
the various agencies of government to do an inter-agency review of Iran policy,
as it did with Iraq policy and most of the big areas of the world. But the
review, which was going to question whether the status quo worked or not, got
derailed with Sept. 11. It's not that the Bush administration was ever going to
be soft on Iran. But it was beginning to look at Iran through a little
Vice President Cheney, for example, when he was the head of the oil company
Haliburton, had actually made a number of statements and speeches arguing
against the current sanctions regime against Iran, saying that unilateral
sanctions, which the United States now has against Iran, don't work. Colin
Powell put together a team that was very outward-looking towards Iran. In fact,
Richard Haass, who's the head of the policy planning department of the State
Department, had been the point man in the first Bush administration, dealing
with Iran during the Gulf War.
... Dealing with them to try and find some ground for cooperation?
Yes, and asking such questions as this: Does Iran have legitimate defensive
military needs? And does the United States need to understand that and come up
with a policy that would allow Iran to rebuild its military for defensive
purposes, given the fact that Iran does live in a very dangerous neighborhood?
Another question was, do unilateral economic sanctions work? Do they make
sense? Is it in our American interest to continue these sanctions? Because it
was the Clinton administration that began to lift some of the sanctions as sort
of a test to see whether there could be more interchange and cooperation.
Then there was Sept. 11. But even after Sept. 11, they were talking to each
other about mutual areas of cooperation. [Iranian President Mohammad] Khatami
came to New York City. Iran made certain offers to the United States. What went
wrong? What soured that?
Sept. 11 was seen by both the American and the Iranian sides as an opportunity
for dialogue, and possibly cooperation. There were a number of different steps
that both sides took. For example, early on, the United States sent a message
to Iran saying, "We will protect and guarantee your territorial sovereignty and
integrity. We have no designs on you, should we go to war against Afghanistan"
-- which borders Iran. Iran has about a 560-mile border with Afghanistan.
The Iranians, in turn, said, "We will protect any American soldier, Air Force
person who happens to land on Iranian territory. We will not take anyone
prisoner or hostage. We will guarantee his or her safe passage."
Iran allowed American wheat to transit through its territory through the World
Food Program under the United Nations into Afghanistan. The Iranian and
American officials were actually talking to each other, sitting at a table
together in Geneva, talking about the future Afghan government. This happened
before Sept. 11. But after Sept. 11, there was even more cooperation. And
indeed, at the Berlin talks, where the shape of the Afghan government was
fixed, the Iranians were extraordinarily helpful with the anti-Taliban group
called the Northern Alliance in trying to push them to make concessions. ...
It wasn't as if there was a sea change suddenly in the Bush administration and
they said, "Gosh, Iran is so cooperative, and now it's not." It's that there
was a decision along the way that Iran was not one of us, as the Bush
administration would say, but one of them. ... Once George Bush got up and
said, "You're either with us or you're against us," the question was then,
well, where do all these different countries fit in? Where does Iran fit in? Is
Iran with the United States or against the United States? And despite the
efforts of Secretary of State Colin Powell and some of his team to try to woo
Iran, entice Iran, and seduce Iran to become part of the "with us," it was
First of all, Iran is diametrically opposed to a peace process that will result
in a two-state solution in Israel, an Israel and a Palestinian state. That's
Iran's official position. And despite the fact that President Khatami has
modulated the position from time to time, it is still official Iranian policy.
Iran, according to the U.S. government, is the world's most active sponsor of
state terrorism -- in particular, Iran supports Hezbollah, the Shiite
guerrilla group in Lebanon, and supports two Palestinian anti-Israeli groups in
the occupied territories. And because it gives material aid to those two groups
and military aid to Hezbollah in Lebanon -- largely because of that -- the
United States has branded Iran terrorist.
Iran, like many countries, has a dreadful human rights record, which does count
for something, and Iran is developing weapons of mass destruction. Now, there
are disagreements within the administration just how far they are moving in
their nuclear program, for example. But intelligence analysts in the
administration will say there's enough evidence that indicates that Iran is
seeking a nuclear weapon.
How does Iran's behavior differ -- in terms specifically in the real
hot-button issue of terrorism -- from the involvement of, say, Saudi Arabian
interests in Hamas? ...
It's [not] so much of designating countries either with us or against us. It
depends on the attitude of the individual country. The Saudis say, "We're with
you. We're working on this. We're trying to cooperate. We're trying to root out
terrorism." And the Saudis aren't providing weapons to anyone in the region, so
they get a pass. Or they get America's grievances told to them privately, not
publicly, and not through punitive measures like sanctions.
It's the same thing with Pakistan. I mean, Pakistan could be branded a
supporter of terrorism, because so many of the Al Qaeda fighters have ended up
in Pakistan. Pakistan has such a long and porous border with Afghanistan. But
because the regime in Pakistan has linked arms with the United States and
everybody's singing kumbaya together, they get a pass, too.
... The coalescence of right-wing power in the [Bush] administration, in the
Pentagon, and to a lesser extent, the State Department -- how much of that
contributed to this new hard line with Iran?
I would argue that what was happening when it seemed as if there was
cooperation with Iran is that it was just a time of omission. It was a time
when no one was really paying much attention to Iran, so you could take these
little baby steps in the darkness and have ... your dance on the balcony and it
wasn't noticed. But once the relationship sort of took center stage, once the
couple dancing out on the balcony came into the barroom under the chandeliers,
people said, "Holy cow, what are we going to do about Iran?" ...
How surprised were you when all this found its way into a few simple little
words, "axis of evil"?
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. ...
What was a little strange about the articulation of "axis of evil" is that, in
the minds of Americans, they're all linked somehow. Somehow it seems as if
North Korea is in collusion with Iran and with Iraq against the United States,
when that's not the case. ... There's nothing in particular linking Iran, Iraq,
North Korea. First of all, Iran and Iraq fought a war for eight years. They
don't even have a peace treaty yet, and so it's kind of ludicrous to think that
the two countries would act in concert against the United States.
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
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.
So what happens now? ...
Well, something unexpected happened since the articulation of "axis of
evil." It's called that funny little war between Israelis and Palestinians.
That has been a wakeup call for this administration, and it has forced this
administration to renege on all of its promises that it would not become the
911 for foreign policy, that it would not get involved in a long protracted
negotiation in the Middle East. And it's also put on hold whatever war plan
there was to attack Iraq militarily and overthrow Saddam Hussein.
How easy or difficult would it have been [for] people who advised the
president in coming up with this phrase to foresee that it is a statement of a
whole bunch of principles and a dogma that can come back and bite us very
quickly and very soon? ...
I don't really think this administration cares about the diplomatic nuances
that come with articulating a phrase or two. In the war of diplomacy, the only
weapons are words, and that's why every comma is watched in a conflict like the
one between Israelis and Palestinians.
But 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 perception in American administrations that Iran is a big problem, a bad
lot, has been around for a long time, at least 20 years in this particular
period of history. And I guess the question is, did this administration ... do
their homework? Did they realize that every president for a long time has been
trying to come to terms with the enigma and the reality of Iran?
A new administration comes in, it doesn't know everything. George Bush is
not a foreign policy expert. Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser,
is an expert on Europe and the former Soviet Union, but she doesn't know the
Middle East; she doesn't know Asia. She doesn't pretend to. Colin Powell knew
the world, but he only knew Iran through the Persian Gulf War. Donald Rumsfeld
was last secretary of defense in the 1970s.
So you come in and you've got to master the world. It wasn't like everybody was
sitting around in the first few months of the Bush administration saying, "What
do we do about Iran? What's our position on Iran?" They had to worry about
Russia and China and the Middle East first. So it was only when Sept. 11
happened, and suddenly the United States found itself militarily on Iran's
border that Iran had to be dealt with. And now Iran has to be dealt with,
because it supports the groups that are supporting those Palestinians who are
But obviously the question of Iran is one that has troubled successive
administrations. After the Iranian Revolution, the Carter administration
continued to have diplomatic relations with Iran. Even though the shah had been
America's guy, the United States recognized the revolutionary government; it
recognized the Islamic Republic. And it was only within months when Iranians
seized the American embassy and took dozens of Americans hostage that the
United States then broke diplomatic relations.
But I like to call Iran the "Bermuda Triangle" of American foreign policy,
because Iran helped get Jimmy Carter defeated; Ronald Reagan had to deal with
American hostages held in Lebanon by Iranian-supported groups; and then
Iran-Contra, which ... was the illegal sales of arms ... to Iran and the use of
the profits to pay for the rebel movement in Nicaragua.
Actually the one who did the best on Iran was Reagan's successor, George Bush
the father, because he came into office and in his first inaugural speech
announced that goodwill begets goodwill when it came to Iran. He really was
searching for an opening to find some sort of areas of cooperation and maybe
rapprochement. In fact, there was one time when Bush thought that
then-President Rafsanjani was calling him up on the phone and he actually
picked up the phone to talk to him, only to discover that it was a hoax.
When President [George H. W.] Bush changed the posture for the first time
probably since 1980, why? And in what way?
... George Bush, after the Persian Gulf War ... did initiate a formal
inter-agency policy review to see if there were steps that could be taken to
break down the distrust between the United States and Iran. And the conclusion
was that anything that would be meaningful to the Iranians would be politically
unacceptable in the United States. So nothing was done.
Then Clinton came into office. And what happened when Clinton came into office
was, shortly after taking over, his chief diplomat dealing with the Middle East
in the State Department came up with the phrase "dual containment" -- meaning
that both Iran and Iraq equally had to be contained by the United States. So it
was the official policy of the Clinton administration to do everything in its
power to stop the allies from sending any kind of technology that could be used
for weapons of mass destruction and even to do business with Iran.
By the end of the Clinton administration, there was a bit of a shifting in
policy, and even a partial lifting of economic sanctions. But the Bush
administration then reversed it again. So now Iran is part of the "axis of
In 1997, the people of Iran signaled that there was momentum towards some
point of democratization there. Did Washington notice? And if so, how did they
What happened in 1997 is that the Iranian people went to the polls in record
numbers to elect the guy who wasn't supposed to become president. The guy who
was supposed to become president was a cleric who was the speaker of the
Parliament. He's kind of like the Newt Gingrich of Iran, very politically
powerful, very well connected, had the endorsement of the establishment. And he
was defeated by a little-known cleric who happened to have something called
authenticity and charm -- Mohammad Khatami, who had been a minister for 10
years, but for the five years before that election, had run the National
It would be as if the Librarian of Congress decided to run for president. He
had no organization. He had no money. He was a populist candidate, would get on
a bus and kiss babies and shake hands. And he had such an extraordinary
personality and such charm. It sounds sort of trite or superficial, but he's as
charming as Bill Clinton. And that goes a long way. He charmed the people of
Iran. He charmed them with his personality, with his good looks, and with his
promises. He pledged to create a civil society that would be governed by the
rule of law and tolerance.
And it hasn't really materialized. Is that because he was not totally
honest, or is that because he never really had the power to do it?
I think Mohammad Khatami was and is an honest politician. And I don't think
anyone has ever questioned his integrity. But he doesn't have the power to do
it, and despite the fact that he's a charming politician, he's not a guerrilla
fighter. He doesn't have the stomach for back-room politics. He doesn't connive
or strategize or metaphorically kill his enemies. Instead, he has an alliance
with the man who has even more power than he -- Ayatollah Khamenei, who is the
Supreme Leader in Iran. And even though he is not popularly elected, Ayatollah
Khamenei has control of the armed forces, the intelligent services, the media,
the judiciary, and the clergy.
The essence of the Supreme Leader's power is in the doctrine called the
velayat-e faqih. ... Explain that for a North American audience.
... It's hard to translate, but probably [it means] the rule of the Islamic
jurist. It stems from the notion that there should be one arbiter of all
Islamic law and of government. And indeed, in Ayatollah Khomeini's early
writings, he did talk about this notion and this idea that there shouldn't be
democracy; there has to be a single arbiter. Now, when Ayatollah Khomeini was
alive, he didn't have to prove his bona fide. Everybody said, "Well, of course
you're the leader, because you're the leader of the revolution, and you're the
strong, strong character."
Ayatollah Khamenei doesn't have the same credentials, and certainly doesn't
have the same personality. But he has the power. And his power is often at odds
with Khatami, who is also a cleric, but one level down. But it would be wrong
to think that these two guys hate each other or are constantly fighting each
other or are lobbying for power. They need each other. They work together in a
very strange way. They can't exist without each other. It's like an old married
couple where divorce is not an option.
First of all, the two of them deeply believe in the preservation of the Islamic
Republic, no matter what. So neither of them is going to do anything that is
going to jeopardize the system as it exists. Khatami doesn't want to overthrow
the system. He wants to open it up. He wants to reform it. He wants to
transform it, but not at the expense of destroying it.
Not at the expense of the Islamic character of the system?
So that doesn't leave a whole lot of room for change. If the Islamic
character is dictated by a Supreme Leader who is not directly accountable to
anybody except God, where do you see any possibility for meaningful reform from
the popular point of view?
But that's where the people come in. And I would argue that the reform movement
has moved beyond President Khatami. President Khatami can leave the political
scene tomorrow, and the reform movement will continue. There are people who are
in Iran now risking their lives for the reform movement, who are in prison as
political prisoners, who have lost their jobs. ... The reform movement is quite
big, and it's not going to die. Political reform movement in Iran dates back
100 years. It's not like a lot of other governments in that part of the world.
Participatory politics fighting back against the system has a long tradition in
How big a drawback is it that power, as the cliché has taught us,
corrupts, and that the people who hold most of the power now appear to have
become quite corrupt on the basis of non-accountable administration? Is that a
problem for the democratic [movement] and the reformers?
Corruption is endemic to Iran. Corruption was part of power politics during the
time of the shah. ...
I think it is a factor that an awful lot of the clerics have an economic stake
in keeping the Islamic system the way it is -- not only in terms of a strong
Islamic republic, but in terms of strong control of the economy by
quasi-governmental foundations in which they, the clerics, have an awful lot of
control. If you open things up, if you allow for foreign investment, if you
make it interesting for Europeans, Americans, Japanese to come in and invest
their money, it's going to degrade this system, which does give preferential
treatment to a few.
For people who don't understand that system very well, tell us what a
foundation is. ...
Well, you know, I'm of 100 percent Sicilian descent, so I think the best way to
explain it, it's like little Mafia families. They each have control over
certain sectors. So just like in New Jersey, you might have one family that
controls the port. You might have one clerical family that controls the port.
You might have one foundation that controls all of the contracts that are given
out on natural gas. ... [There's] the Foundation of the Oppressed, which has
everything from the monopoly of Coca-Cola to chicken parts to shipping
And these are absolutely non-accountable to anybody, non-transparent,
controlled by one or two very important clerics, in most cases?
They're not accountable to the Parliament. They're supposed to be, but the
books are closed, are secret. There were hundreds, probably thousands of
privileged people who benefit from this system. ...
[In Iran, you have a] Westward-looking population, very young, with the
kernel of a democratic system in place. And yet you have a United States
foreign policy that increases the isolation. It sounds like there's something
kind of out of whack there.
It sounds like there's something out of whack [when] you've got a country that
is experimenting with two volatile chemicals -- Islam and democracy, and
democracy is an important component in this chemical experiment -- and the
United States is trying to isolate this country. And this is the complexity of
a place like Iran.
Iran's is its own worst enemy. The fact is, Iran doesn't say any of the right
things when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict. You can argue, why should
Iran care about the Palestinians? It's far away. The Iranians are not Arabs --
they're Persians. Why not just kind of be in sync with the rest of the Muslim
and Arab world? Why do you have to be the ones out there blasting the United
States and calling for Israel's demise? The Iranians are not going to ever get
off the State Department's list of terrorist countries as long as it continues
to provide support to the three groups that are the most active anti-Israeli
groups in the region. And the same for Syria. Syria and Iran are both on that
list for that reason.
What about the other Iran? What about the Iran made up of people who want
visas to come here? What about the people who want democracy that's sort of in
the Jeffersonian traditions?
Did you ever know somebody who would be a great colleague and is a great
colleague, but then you go off on a trip and that person does something really
stupid to shoot himself in the foot? I mean, why in the world did the Iranians
load a ship full of weapons and send it to the Palestinians? That was just a
stupid thing to do. They were caught red-handed. It made absolutely no
strategic sense. Why was there official Iranian involvement in the bombing of
Khobar Towers, the American military barracks in Saudi Arabia? It made no
Now, you could say, "OK, that was in the old days. That was in the days before
Khatami was president." But Bill Clinton sent a personal letter to President
Khatami saying, "Let's cooperate to find out the truth about Khobar Towers."
And Khatami said no. So the United States has been burned by Iran. ...
Do you think that there are voices in the administration now that think that
[the "axis of evil" speech] was a bit of an overstatement, counterproductive?
Have there been second thoughts?
I don't know if there have been second thoughts. I really don't. What I do know
is that most people in the administration -- even a lot of people who were
involved in making policy -- didn't have a clue that "axis of evil" was going
to be articulated that night by the American president. Colin Powell knew in
the State Department, but nobody else did. And again, what do diplomats do?
They use words as their weapons. Words are important, and there probably would
have been a lot of opposition to the term "axis of evil" before the fact. But
once it's uttered, all you can do is salute your president and say, "OK, how do
we make the best of this?"
Sen. [Joseph] Biden (D-Delaware) has indicated to us that he's getting very
strong unequivocal signals from the administration that it's OK for him to
suggest quite a different policy -- a policy of engagement, a policy of
Because it's cost-free. It's cost-free for the administration to go to somebody
on Capitol Hill and say, "Go ahead see what you can do. See if you can do any
better than what we're doing."
Isn't it an admission, though, that perhaps the "axis of evil" line
overstates the true nature of what the administration wants to be a policy
I think you're giving the administration the benefit of the doubt that I won't
give it, because I think this administration's policy is "axis of evil."
But that doesn't preclude the administration from opening a second channel
through people on Capitol Hill. Because if you look at Iran, Iran does have a
participatory parliament. I was going to say democratic; I don't want to quite
use that word. But it's an elected parliament. It passes laws. It has strong
views. Parliamentarians have been put in jail, into prison, for what they have
said. There is a fertile area here for potential cooperation if American
lawmakers and Iranian lawmakers can somehow get together.
Now reformers in Iran have told us that they were stunned by the use of the
phrase, and that it has actually made their job more difficult. Would you agree
with that? You know a lot of them.
I honestly don't know how much more difficult "axis of evil" has made the
relationship between the United States and Iran. Because I don't think the
relationship between the two countries was really moving forward on an upward
What they're saying is that the "axis of evil" phrase plays into the hands
of the hard-line clerics, gives them a target, and gives them a place to stand
and demand internal cohesion, [a] common front. ...
... In the sense that "axis of evil" plays into the hands of the hard-liners,
yes, it hurts the reform movement. And one example is when Khatami gave a
speech to celebrate the anniversary of Iran's revolution and people in the
audience cheered "Death to America." A year after he was president, the same
thing happened -- this was back in 1998 when people chanted "Death to America,"
[and] he stopped talking and he said, "I want to talk about life, not death."
That didn't happen this time. He has clearly pulled back, because he is sensing
that he's not strong enough even to go that far now. But the United States for
some time, since the Reagan administration, has been trying to have a dialogue,
an official dialogue with Iran. The Iranians have said no. So it isn't as if
something was on track that then got derailed. It was that a bad situation was
made much worse by "axis of evil."
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
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
Isn't it surprising, though, that these aren't the kinds of questions that
are asked before you make the speech?
Because 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 that if you own the truth, then it doesn't make any difference
what comes afterwards, because everything will just fall into place.
I guess the one biggest area of agreement between the administration in the
United States and Iran is that God is not neutral. The debate is whose side God
Absolutely. And that makes it even more difficult, because each side is so
convinced that it's right.
The United States, the West optimists take some sense of hope from the fact
that there is a democratic movement in Iran. From all the time you've spent
there and your involvement with the reformers ... is it really too optimistic
to expect that there can be accommodation between this extreme form of Islam
and a democratic movement? Can this work?
I have no idea; that's why it's a process, and that's what makes it so
exciting. You have a battle raging, not for control over territory, but for the
soul of a nation. It's between these two impulses -- belief and democracy. And
belief doesn't allow for democracy. You can't turn around certain things in the
sharia or in Islamic law. You can't turn around that a father gets custody of
the kids or that a woman's inheritance is half of a man's. But you can try to
neutralize it with your democratic weapon by interpreting it in a certain way.
And the reason this isn't going to go away is these interpretations are going
on not only by secular reformers, but in the mosques by clerics.
... Given the fact that Iran has bedeviled four previous presidents of the
United States, what chance do you give this policy?
... I would say it depends on how you measure success. If success means that
the United States and Iran remain enemies, then it's a success. If the goal is
to improve the relationship and to find any opening possible to even just
neutralize Iran as an enemy of the United States, then name-calling doesn't
It's like with your kids. If you call them names, they're going to get angry.
But if you tell them you like them, they're doing a good job, you want to hear
what they have to say, then they sometimes respond.
That's not what's happening now though?
No, the United States has labeled Iran evil. I mean, it's the ultimate insult.
And you can't take back those words. ...
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 1995-2013 WGBH educational foundation