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What was the biggest surprise you got in terms of how Iranians saw you?

I guess the biggest surprise I got going to Iran was that the Iranians really liked me as an American. ... The first time I ever went to Iran was with Ayatollah Khomeini, the father [of] Iran's revolution, on his plane. And when we arrived at the airport, it was chaos, more than a million people lining the streets. It was the makings of a real revolution. And across one of the main boulevards was a banner that said, in four different languages, "Welcome to the journalists coming with the ayatollah."...

I will say, a few weeks later when we went to the holy city of Qom with Ayatollah Khomeini for the first time since he had gone into exile, there was a band of young men around the flatbed truck upon which we journalists were put. And they were chanting something. I asked one of my colleagues what were they chanting, and he said they were chanting, "Where's the BBC man? We want to kill him." But then, the BBC man was British, not American.

What is it about the Iranian character, psyche, that accommodates this sort of schizophrenia? ...

We often forget that Iran has a long tradition and history with the United States. Iranians have been coming to the United States as students for decades. American businessmen were in Iran developing the oil fields. ... There was an American financial advisor to the Iranian government in the early part of the century. There is a sort of fascination with American culture, ... American power, and the ability to project power -- despite the fact that they feel ambivalent about it -- and the American sense of independence and innovation.

It's hard to overemphasize just how important America is to Iran. Even an ordinary soldier who has never, will never have a chance to come to the United States will ask about you about life in the United States and ask you to help him get a visa. There's an expression in Farsi that translates into "America as the golden land," the golden country.

Elaine Sciolino is a senior writer in the Washington bureau of The New York Times and the author of Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran (Free Press, 2000). She has covered Iran since the revolution in 1979. Sciolino says that when U.S. President George W. Bush placed Iran squarely in the "axis of evil," he played directly into the hands of the hard-line clerics in Iran. Iranians, she says, are a proud and nationalistic people who resent foreign powers that meddle in their internal affairs. What is happening now in Iran, Sciolino says, is a battle for the soul of a nation. She was interviewed by correspondent Linden MacIntyre on April 17, 2002.

This is in contradiction of "America as the Great Satan."

Well, 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 Iran.

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 Iran?

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 other?

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 Iran?

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 experiment - and the United States is trying to isolate this country. 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 different lens.

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 impossible. ...

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 slogan?

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 fighting Israel.

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 evil."

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 respond?

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 Library.

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 Iran. ...

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 licenses.

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 sense.

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 communication.

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 towards Iran?

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 trajectory.

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 noses?

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 navy? ...

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 is on.

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 work.

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. ...

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