terror and tehran
homeaxis of evilinside iraninterviewsdiscussion
photo of fruminterview David Frum

... So when an important speech has to be [made], like the State of the Union address, to what extent does that become an opportunity to make an important statement of policy? Or is it just a rallying of the troops or rallying of the nation?

Any State of the Union is like a moon launch. It draws on the resources of the entire executive branch. It is the great opportunity to define the next year, what the president of the United States is going to ask the Congress to do. So it is always a matter of intense importance, intense seriousness, that mobilizes resources from all over the government. That's true of the most conventional State of the Union [addresses], in the most placid of times, [but even more so for a] State of the Union given in a time of national emergency and recession and crisis. ...

Typically, States of the Union are a series of paragraphs, each of which is interesting to some group of people in the government, but each of which is uninteresting to most of the rest of the government. This speech was a speech, in which the president laid down a coherent doctrine, a coherent vision of the future of American foreign policy. The foreign policy portions of the speech were a totality, and they were understood and talked about and debated as a totality. ...

How tough was this debate [inside the administration about the State of the Union address]?

I'm not sure that anyone except the president himself would really know the answer to that, because the debate is not all formal. There are many, many people who have access to the president's ear, who speak to him, who give him their views. So he hears this extraordinarily wide range of opinions, and he then settles it in his mind. And that's, in many ways, the ultimate mystery of presidential leadership -- that somehow, in his own mind and in his own room, he decides, "I want to do this," and "I want to do that." ...

How deep were the divisions that this policy statement reconciled? We hear about divisions between the State Department and the Pentagon, between conservatives and moderates.

David Frum, a former editor at The Wall Street Journal, was a speechwriter for U.S. President George W. Bush until February 2002. Though Frum has neither confirmed nor denied it, it is widely believed that he coined the term "axis of evil" for Bush's State of the Union address. Here, Frum discusses the president's speech, saying that Iran's inclusion was justified and that everything the president said about the Islamic Republic was "exactly true." Frum also says that Iran is now a "powder monkey" for the suicide bombers in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, providing arms and other support and destabilizing the region, and that the president's problems with Iran amount to a Manichaean struggle between good and evil. Frum was interviewed by correspondent Linden MacIntyre on April 8, 2002.

I think they can easily be exaggerated. Remember, this 2002 State of the Union was the third in a series of important statements by the president about what his approach to terrorism was going to be. The first was the speech to the joint session of Congress on Sept. 20, the second was a speech to the United Nations in October, and this then was the third. And each of them amplifies and fills out things that were implicit before.

But there were actually few new departures. Everything in the 2002 State of the Union was implicit in the Sept. 20 joint session speech. That was a speech in which the president laid down his definition of what made a state a sponsor, a harbor, of terrorism -- a state of special concern to the United States.

... I'm trying to come to terms with just how major a consolidation this was. ... If it wasn't the reconciliation of a lot of very divergent viewpoints, what was it? ... Can you just give me a sense of the magnitude of this statement of foreign policy and the issues that it resolved?

The whole State of the Union speech was a very important statement, 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. ... We don't know how close they were to having them, but they wanted them and they were pursuing, seeking 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; not because these regimes are as powerful as the Soviets and the Nazis were -- they're not -- but the weapons they are pursuing are more powerful than anything that the Soviets and the Nazis had. And the regimes themselves are that much more reckless, more bent on death and destruction; not [more] than the Nazis, but certainly [more] than the communists. ...

The most arresting part of that most recent speech was the phrase "axis of evil." Can you tell me how that [came about]? From the mind of the president? Or was that the product of a resolution of various conflicting [camps] within the administration?

... The president said on Sept. 20, in his first speech on terrorism to the joint session of Congress, that his doctrine was that terrorism did not just mean the particular individual killer who went out and took innocent life. It was everyone behind that killer, the entire apparatus of support that made mass terrorism, the killing of civilians, possible -- those who feed them, equip them, arm them, train them, prepare them. And it was pretty clear on Sept. 20 that he had states in mind. ...

He made it clear from the beginning that this is not about a few fanatical individuals acting irrationally. This is the expression of well-organized groups with serious political goals. And he was going to respond to all of that; he said that from the beginning. The State of the Union in 2002 then filled in the details.

... [And yet] the power of the speech can be attributed to the provocative nature of [that] single phrase, "axis of evil."

... The power of this speech derived from the fact that it was given after President Bush showed the intensity of his commitment to taking on terrorism, and the effectiveness and power of the American armed forces in dealing with it. The words of the speech were so powerful because they were backed by proven resolve and demonstrated military accomplishment. And people came to the speech to know ... "What are you planning on doing now?" That's where the speech was powerful, important, because it was not just words; it was words that had already been backed by deeds. And it was a speech in which people were looking for an indication of the deeds to come. ...

[We] could go back over presidential statements on the subject of terrorism over the last 20-something years, ever since Ronald Reagan. Terrorism comes up a lot. This is the first time that I'm aware that somebody actually pointed a finger at, for example, Iran. ... 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. [The State Department has] done this since at least the middle-1990s. ... And every year, Iran has been identified as the single most important state sponsor of terrorism in the world.

Iran has, in a way that is almost qualitatively different from any entity on earth except maybe the Palestinian Authority, used terror as a conscious tool of state policy. And the United States has said so again and again and again. It hasn't always said so from a State of the Union [address]. [It] said so in print, and it said so through its actions. The United States maintains sanctions against Iran because it recognizes Iran, and has recognized Iran, for a long time as a terror-sponsoring state.

They said that about Libya. They now talk in a friendly manner with Libya. Not so many years ago, Pakistan was on the list. Pakistan is now a principal ally. ... What did Iran do, particularly in the wake of Sept. 11? ... What did they do in a few weeks that would change things so dramatically?

... Ever since the election of Khatami in 1997, people in the West and in the United States have hoped that Iran would temper the bloodthirstiness and cruelty of its conduct on the international stage. ... [There was] a lot of hope that things would get better, that the Iranians would cease to use murder as a tool of state. In fact, under Khatami, after about 1998, things began to get worse. They got worse and worse and worse.

Iran's own behavior is the single most determinant of how other people respond to Iran. That's true of any country. [It's true of] countries like Libya and Pakistan. ... As they have become less implicated in terrorism, [they] have seen a warming response from the United States. ...

After Sept. 11, there was some early indications that perhaps Iran would cooperate. [Iran] had reasons of [its] own for disliking the Taliban. The Taliban [was a] band of murderous fanatics, from their point of view, and they preferred a different band of murderous fanaticism. ... [But] it became pretty quickly apparent that the Iranians were working to sabotage good order in the western part of Afghanistan.

How did that become [apparent]?

It became apparent [that] they gave refuge to individual members of Al Qaeda. ...

How did it become apparent to the United States? Al Qaeda people may very well have gotten into Iran as they got into Pakistan, as they got into a lot of places.

As you well know, getting into Iran is no joke. Iran is not separated from Afghanistan by the Himalayas the way Pakistan and Afghanistan are. And Pakistan, of course, is cooperating with the United States in the hunt for members of Al Qaeda who may have slipped across the border and are hiding in the mountains.

That's not the situation with Iran. It is not [that] people [are] hiding out inside Iran. They seem to have been given refuge inside Iran. Iran has been providing weapons and other forms of assistance to subvert the hopes for good order and tranquility and peace in the western part of Afghanistan, because they have an eye to preventing the consolidation of a benign moderate representative government in Afghanistan. The last thing they want to see is a peaceful, orderly, open, pro-Western government in Afghanistan on their eastern border. That is very, very dangerous to them.

This is one of the most repressive regimes in the world. It's a regime that is hated by its own people. It's a regime that is truly terrified of the prospect of a revolution inside its own boundaries. To have regimes nearby that offer the example and hope of a better life, particularly Afghanistan, the Western part of which is so culturally Iranian, is a very frightening thing to the present rulers of Iran. ...

You've suggested ... that the mullahs, the powerful people in Iran, are desperately afraid of the arrival in the region of more Americans than are there now. You have suggested that that's one of the motives for meddling in Afghanistan, and it's one of their motives for attempting to provoke some kind of a showdown with its own reformers at this point.

If you are a dictator ruling a desperately unhappy and oppressed people, the one thing you cannot afford to let your people have is any hope that there is anything that can be done to remove you. And that is the situation the mullahs are in. They must deny the Iranian people hope. ...

The American army of liberation in Afghanistan sent a tremendous message of hope to people in Iran. It showed them that regimes like the Taliban are not here forever, that they can't last, that liberty is powerful. That has to be a terrifying thing to the mullahs. And that may explain why they have, almost from the beginning, tried to sabotage and destroy the American mission in Afghanistan -- because they're frightened of the power of the liberating example of that army.

There are now American troops elsewhere in the region. And wherever the American armed forces go, wherever the American flag flies, there's a message of hope and liberation. For a regime that is trying to snuff out hope and fasten oppression on its people forever, that message of hope and liberation is very, very disturbing.

How real do you think is the prospect of American troops on the ground, next door in Iraq? And what does that mean?

... President Bush has said on I don't know how many different occasions and I don't now how many different ways that Iraq is a threat to the peace of the region and to the safety of the world; and he's going to do something about it. I believe him. When the present regime in Iraq gives way to a more open, more tolerant, more peaceful regime, that's one more beacon of hope for the Iranian people, and one more source of danger to the Iranian regime. ...

A day is coming when the region of the Middle East is going to be more benign, and when Iran is going to be bracketed by regimes that show respect for their people, that show respect for the world we govern, that show more religious tolerance, that do not use terror as a tool of state. So the government of Iran, the oppressors of the Iranian people, are going to find themselves increasingly isolated and alone and unique. And that is bound to have powerful effects on Iranian politics. ...

Iran has always been fairly open about its ... involvement with a lot of what they call liberation movements. Can you say that there has been some new element added to the American intelligence about Iran, post-Sept. 11, that would lead to this rather dramatic change in the policy?

... Iran has made itself the armory of the suicide bombers in the West Bank. It is now outfitting people who are firing missiles into Israel from across the Lebanese border. It is acting as the powder monkey of what may be the most dangerous conflict in the entire world. It is acquiring missile technology from China. It is developing nuclear warheads. ... Iran is a state that is pushing the region in the world toward ever more radical, more violent, more terrifying conflict. ...

The explanation for the reaction of the United States and other democracies to Iran is Iran's own behavior. That is the source of the problem the world has with Iran. It is a state that relies on murder as a tool of foreign policy, that has threatened to commence a nuclear war against Israel. This is a very dangerous regime to Iran's neighbors. It is also cruel and oppressive to its own people. ...

Now, the Iranian argument would be, "Well, we do have a nuclear program, but it is, first of all, power-generating. But even if we are interested in nuclear weapons, it's only because everybody else in the neighborhood has them." What is the response to that?

... Nobody else in Iran's neighborhood has ever declared its willingness to be a first user of nuclear weapons.

When did they do that?

The president of Iran, in his Jerusalem Day speech, announced his intention, should he ever acquire these weapons, of using them to destroy Israel, to entirely annihilate the population of another state. That is a very serious threat. It's also, by the way, a threat not just to Israel, but to all of the region, because once the Israelis are on notice that the Iranians intend to use their nuclear weapons in this way, do you think the Israelis would be mad enough to permit the Iranians to acquire these weapons? They will not.

My reading of the speech that you refer to is that it was a former president, Rafsanjani, who was making a rather academic discussion of what would happen if Israel and Iran or any other Arab [group], or any other country--

Rafsanjani, you're right. I'm mistaken. I'm sorry.

And it was more of a hypothetical situation of what a horrifying prospect it would be if people in the region started throwing nuclear material at each other.

A threat couched in hypothetical form is still a threat. And Iran's own record of behavior indicates that threats like this are to be taken very, very seriously. Iran has been a source for many of the world's conflicts -- not just the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but many regional conflicts since 1979. Iran, by the way, has also got on its hands and on its conscience the blood of many hundreds of Americans. There is an unopened account with the United States.

Now America has responded, and the world has responded to Iran with, really, under the circumstances, amazing openness and goodwill. The election of Khatami was responded to [with] genuine enthusiasm by people in the West. They really wanted to see Iran be a force for good. Iran, despite all its economic troubles, [has] great economic resources, a highly educated people, an ancient and powerful and attractive culture. This is a country that has the potential to be a great force for good in the Middle East, and people really want that to happen. ... They want to believe the best, and the hand of friendship has always been outstretched from the West and the United States to Iran -- never the other way.

Iran's own behavior over the past while has become so threatening, so frightening, that it is just natural that people have no choice but to respond to it.

The Iranian response to the accusation of being a provider of arms would be that if all things seem to be as they appear, a shipload of arms destined to a government organization -- the Palestinian Authority -- is not necessarily an act of international subversion. It's what goes on all over the place. And what is the principal American objection to that?

The arms that the Iranians are trying to introduce into the West Bank would have raised the level of violence in that conflict to what would have been then an unprecedented level. These are much more destructive explosives, much more destructive rockets, much more accurate tools of killing. Iran, by sending these weapons, was seeking to escalate the level of violence to a whole new degree of tragedy and sadness. ...

The Iranians often speak as if encouraging the murder of civilians were everywhere a normal tool of policy. It is not. It is a distinctive Iranian contribution. I shouldn't say "distinctive," because Iran's not unique. But Iran is one of a list of very, very few countries that uses the conscious murder of civilians as a tool of policy. It's a different kind of regime from other regimes -- even other troublesome regimes.

I'm still, I guess, trying to put my finger on what button mobilized this very dramatic gesture by the president of the United States sometime between September and January.

The president of the United States, in his September speech, laid down certain rules about what kind of behavior would get a regime on the wrong side of the United States. He then went to the United Nations in October and he said, in effect, "The slate's clean. We are prepared to wipe away all memory of past transgressions. If terror has been a tool of policy in the past, if you stop today, it will not be held against you. We are prepared to start afresh with every country in the world."

The Bush doctrine on terrorism is a serious proposition, and its going to define his presidency. It governs his conduct, and all governments in the world should know that and should act accordingly. And there has been something of an opening to Libya as a result of that. The United States is willing to start afresh and to test the good intentions of the Libyans. But the rules are binding. If a country continued to use terrorism as a tool, [continued] to support and outfit terrorism, if it continued to acquire the weapons of mass destruction that will make the terrorism of the future, should it occur, vastly more devastating than even the worst of what we've seen so far, that country then becomes a threat to its neighbors and a threat to the United States. The president could not have been more clear about this.

I think it is wrong to see to see a change of policy between ... [the president's speech on] Sept. 20 and the State of the Union. What we have is an explanation of the consequences of a policy the president laid down very clearly on Sept. 20.

... Americans have for some time shown an interest in doing business with Iran, notwithstanding the political tensions. It's a ... Westernized country. It's very wealthy, ... a potentially large market. It seems that George W. Bush blew that out of the water in the State of the Union address.

Iran's economic difficulties are completely home-generated. ... When you operate a repressive, cruel regime with thousands, possibly tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of political prisoners in which ... judicial murder is an ordinary tool of government, you're going to have a very hard time attracting foreign investment.

But that hasn't stopped American businessmen from attempting to--

No. American businessmen are very enterprising, and are always looking for new opportunities. Good for them. But Iran's economic problems are the result of Iran's own behavior and choice of the kind of society it wants to be, the kind of state it wants to be. ... If Iran is to realize its economic potential, it has to become a society based on law. A regime in which life is not safe, in which the law is not respected, in which terror is a normal part of life is not a regime that is going to prosper. ...

Five or six years ago, well within the time framework of its most sinister activities, the man who's now vice president of the United States [Dick Cheney] was lobbying to do business with Iran, was working for companies that were actually doing business with Iran. How big of a leap was it for this administration to sort of move past that?

There was, in the middle- and later-1990s, a real moment of optimism that maybe Iran was going to reform spontaneously [and] maybe the present theocratic regime could find in itself the resources to reform. ... For all that was wrong with the election that brought Khatami to power -- remember, in that same election, it was by no means a free election; there were 234, I believe, candidates who were told they were not allowed to run -- Khatami was the least-repressive choice. And the people chose him. And there's great optimism about that.

But since then, the situation in Iran has become steadily worse, [and] that has had economic implications for Iranians and it has [had] foreign policy implications. ... The Iranian state chose worse. And that is the fate that Iran has brought on itself. ...

There may be individual Americans who want to do business with Iran; I don't know. There is a network of sanctions that says what people can do and what they can't. But the real restraint on American and international involvement in [the] Iranian economy are Iran's own laws. A society in which life is not safe and property is not safe, a society where law is not respected, in which murder is an ordinary tool of state -- that's not a society that is going to be very successful in opening up to the world market and persuading the world to come in [and] invest, do business, bring technology.

If Cheney as a citizen and businessman lobbied for the exclusion of Iran from the oil embargo, lobbied for the exclusion of Iran [and] Syria from other sanctions, has Dick Cheney changed his mind?

I don't know.

Well, he must have. ...

I just don't know the answer to that.

Saudi Arabia has been identified as a major supporter of an organization like Hamas, which is probably more involved in terror than any other organization we can think of right now, and yet we see no sanctions against Saudi Arabia. How do you explain what seems to be a contradiction [in this administration's policies]?

I think I can explain it in two ways. The first is, for the Saudi Arabian government, murder is not a tool of foreign policy. The individuals, Saudi Arabians, may support, sometimes even unknowingly, murderous organizations. And the Saudi Arabian government has not always been a strong voice in condemning terrorism as it should be. That's a very different thing from yourself being deeply implicated in murder as a tool of state, as the Iranian government is. ...

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 for which you will go down in history, rightly or wrongly. ... How much of a slogan is this? How glib is this? Is it, would you say, a considered statement of precision? ...

People often note that George Bush is not a naturally spontaneously articulate man, and there's some truth to that. But his response to that is to be a man who is even more respectful of words and their power than people to whom words come more easily. He understands what words do, what words mean and the impact they have. And he especially understands the impact and power of presidential words. He thinks about these things very, very hard, and weighs them very carefully.

"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.

As in, good versus--

As in good versus evil. And the president has used that word, "evil," in many, many contexts. What he wants to say about this, [is that] this is not a clash of interests. We're not fighting over trade routes here. We are fighting about deep questions -- about how people should live, and what kind of behavior is acceptable in the world. We are under attack by people who believe that murder is a normal and acceptable tool of politics, and the president's saying that's not acceptable and we will fight that, and we will fight that because it's wrong, because it's wicked. And the people who would do such a thing are wrong and wicked.

He sees this first and foremost as a moral struggle, and that's what gives it its power -- that if you are going to rally a democratic society and you're going to draw on its full power and potential, democratic societies are moral societies. They care about right and wrong, and they want to know what principles are at stake when we're called on to do all the things the president's called on the United States to do. He's serving notice that we are dealing here with regimes that represent a moral challenge. Also a strategic challenge, that's true; but above all, a moral challenge.

The word "axis" applies a relationship, a loose relationship as the original Axis had. And that relationship is real. There's a lot of evidence of cooperation between Iran and Iraq and Al Qaeda. These are obviously regimes with very, very different ideologies, one from another, as Germany and Japan and Italy had very different ideologies during World War II. And yet they found a common interest in their shared hatred of free societies, and especially the United States. You'll recall that during the Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein felt his air force was in danger, he flew it to Iran; that at that point, the Iran-Iraq war was just a couple of months old, three years behind them. And yet he still preferred to trust his air force to the mercy of the Iranians. ...

He never got it back, either.

He never got it back. That was a big mistake. ...

It has been suggested that George Bush was looking for a phrase that had the historical resonance of "evil empire," and that he latched onto this one with one eye cocked to the future history books.

... Democratic leaders have to give their people answers, answers to questions like, Who's attacking us? Why? What are we going to do about it? How are we going to do it? And when will we know we've won? So they are always looking for clear and powerful language that brings home to people the kinds of dangers they face, the way the danger's going to be met, and how long the struggle is likely to last. So yes, that's what President Bush was looking for when he looked at the language in the State of the Union speech.

But if you define the struggle as a conflict between good and evil, you are summoning up something of biblical proportions. ...

Struggles between good and evil are not endless. Sometimes they're [lost]; sometimes they're won. The war of 1939-1945 was a struggle between good and evil and it came to an end. The Cold War was a struggle between good and evil and it came to an end. I wouldn't be so pessimistic about the power of good. Good tends to prevail.

And where does this one end? What possible end game can you envisage for this Manichaean struggle that the president of the United States has defined in the last six months?

I think it's very easy to envision an outcome for Iran in which Iran becomes a much better place for its own people and a safer country in the world. The regime that now misgoverns Iran is desperately unpopular with its own people. I think there's plenty of evidence the overwhelming majority of Iranians would like to see a more secular, more democratic regime at peace with itself, at peace with its neighbors, able to bring economic development.

And the real question is, how long can this regime survive? ... When this regime goes, the Iran that will emerge... I think we have good reason to hope that that will be a country that has a strong economic future ahead of it, that will grow, that will be at peace, that will be more secular and more democratic. That is an ending to a struggle between good and evil. Struggles between good and evil do tend to end with the triumph of good, and what that means is not necessarily even a military struggle.

People in Iran -- reformers, democrats -- are telling us that the apocalyptic view that the United States has taken of Iran as of now sets back the exact project that you say that you have in mind.

There are people who do say that. There are many others who say the opposite. And the Iranians who oppose the president's approach tend to live in the West, where they are freer to speak. But let's remember, this term "reformer" in Iran covers a very, very large territory.

There are people in Iran who would like to see a regime that retains the clerical fascism that exists in Iran now, but is a little bit less economically irrational, a little less cruel, a little less hated by its own people and a little less inclined to bring Islam itself into disrepute. Those people are called reformers.

There are also people who would like to see Iran become a true democracy, a truly secular society, capable of true dynamism and economic growth. Those people are called reformers, too.

But that's a big territory. There are a lot of people who go by the name of reformers in Iran,who are trying to preserve the main outlines of this repressive regime. And there are other people who go by the name of reformers who are trying to move beyond this regime to something that's truly secular and democratic. ...

It is true that people who hope to preserve some vestiges of Khomeinism don't like what the president said. But the people who want to move beyond Khomeinism to democracy tell the press, tell the president, tell the White House that they like what the president said.

You seem to be saying that the reformers who don't accept President Bush's and the American vocabulary aren't reformers at all. ...

What I'm saying is that ... we need to be aware that, under the rubric of reform, there are a lot of different people with a lot of varieties of points of view. And that the people who are most frightened and appalled by what the president said are the people who are seeking to preserve some vestiges of the old regime. ...

Think of exactly what the president said about Iran -- let's disassemble its parts. He said Iran is a state that sponsors terrorism. That's true, and universally acknowledged. He says Iran is a state that is pursuing weapons of mass destruction. That's true, and acknowledged by the Iranians themselves. He said Iran is a state in which an un-elected few suppress the democratic desires of the many, and you saw that with your own eyes.

Which of those statements are troublesome? He said that Iran and Iraq and states like these, that sponsor terrorism and seek weapons of mass destruction, are linked together in an axis of evil, which is, I think, right; which suggests how reckless they are. Well, what other term would you use to describe it?

It seems to me that everything he said was exactly true. You have to wonder, when people find the truth so unspeakable, what is it exactly that they are afraid of? What part of this truth are they trying to conceal from the eye?

But I guess the question [is], what's the point? What now? Having defined this problem in black-and-white simplistic terms, what now?

... If the problem is black and the problem is white, black-and-white terms are not simplistic; they are truthful and accurate. And [to] say "gray" when you see black and white is to be untruthful. What the president did with his powerful language was to serve notice on the Iranian regime that limits on its conduct that have not been enforced for 20 years are going to be enforced now, that there are going to be real and important consequences to using murder as a tool of state internationally. There are going to be real and important consequences [if it continues] to pursue nuclear weapons and the missiles to carry them. So he's giving the Iranians information they need to have. ...

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.

What is the "or else?" Obviously, there is an "or else" factor. What do you think it is?

I think it's the universal rule of the American government that it does not make threats. ... It spouts out doctrines, it spouts out limits. And then if people defy those limits, then there are consequences.

I don't know that there is some plan in a drawer of a "what else." But I do know this: that from the point of view, not just of the American government but everybody in the region in the world, to have one of the potentially wealthiest, most numerous, most sophisticated, most advanced societies in the region committed to murder as a tool of state, seeking weapons of mass destruction, oppressing its own people, dragging what should be a rich country into poverty, [is] a terrible thing for everybody. And I think everybody should welcome the efforts of President Bush and the U.S. government to seek an Iran that is an asset to its neighborhood, rather than a threat to its neighborhood. ...

[The phrase "axis of evil"] had such an impact that the discussion of the authorship has almost eclipsed the discussion of the axis of evil, axis of hate. ...

One of the things that I learned from the speechmaking process is that presidential speeches, ... if they have an author, the author is the president.

Come on. Every so often, they come up with a gem that rises above the normal. What about this one?

The power of words comes not just from the words themselves, but who says them and under what circumstances. I could come up with a million brilliant slogans and I could paint myself blue and chant them in the town square. They wouldn't have much impact. The power of the phrase the president of the United States uses depends on the fact that he's the president and he's saying them. And the more effective and successful he's been as president, the more powerful his words become.

Presidents have often denounced terrorism in the past. I suspect that many of the speeches in which they denounced terrorism contained powerful and compelling phrases we don't remember. And the reason we don't remember them is because the speeches in the end meant nothing, because in the end, the president did nothing.

The phrases that President Bush uses when he talks about terrorism are powerful, because President Bush has proven that he's serious about terrorism, that ... it's not just words, that he's going to do something about it. And the speeches are powerful and the words are powerful because they're indications of what's in his mind. ...

The fact about who was on the White House staff when presidents did and said things are facts [that] belong so deep in the footnotes that they really are properly of interest only to the most abstract specialist. What is going to happen in the Middle East, what is going to happen with Iran, what is going to happen in Iraq, the decisions that are going to be made, ... those reflect on the president and his top advisers and the people who are on the staff at the time.

There are lots of people who contribute and do lots of important things. And their reward is the knowledge that they've helped the president achieve ends that they support. But the appropriate person to recognize is the person without whom it couldn't happen. ...

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