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

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

So what was the motive? What was behind it?

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

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

So when you say that it is counterproductive to American interests, define that for me.

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

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

Mathews tells FRONTLINE why she thinks the "axis of evil" phrase was a "terrible mistake," and offers her views on what course U.S. policy toward Iran should take, emphasizing the importance of containing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. She was interviewed by FRONTLINE producer Neil Docherty on Feb. 21, 2002.

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 Israeli-Palestinian problem.

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 attention.

Is the rhetoric legitimized by the real possibility of weapons of mass destruction?

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 any kind of direct intervention on our part  and I include verbal intervention  on behalf of the moderate forces, the reformers, will backfire. 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.

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