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photo of R. James Woolseyinterview R. James Woolsey

What was your reaction to the now famous "axis of evil" remark in the State of the Union address?

Oh, I was quite positively impressed by it. I thought it was a nice summation. As I thought about it a little bit, I thought "axis" was a little bit of a stretch, because although there are close ties -- for example, the ballistic-missile program between Iran and North Korea, and there'd been some intelligence and terrorism cooperation between Iraq and Iran in the past, possibly some shipments of some things from North Korea to Iraq -- they are not aligned in the same way formally that the Japanese and Italians and Germans were in the 1930s. But I thought that it echoed the "evil empire" statement that President Reagan made about the Soviet Union, and I think in the spirit of calling a spade a spade, it was quite right.

It is a complicated statement with respect to Iran in a way that's not complicated with respect to Iraq and North Korea. Iraq and North Korea are total and complete dictatorships, along with Burma -- now Myanmar -- that may be the most repressive regimes on earth. They ruled for years by torture and murder. They work on weapons of mass destruction in violation of international obligations. There's nothing about them that's not evil, the regimes.

Iran is much more complicated, because there are reformist-minded members of the parliament, certainly. President Khatami -- one can argue whether or not he is playing "good cop, bad cop" with us, or whether he's in fact a reformer somewhat thwarted. ... But certainly there are brave newspaper editors, there are brave reformers. ... There are brave ayatollahs in Qom who criticize the mullahs in Tehran, saying, "Come home to Qom, come back to your holy city. Stop running terrorist operations." There are all of the young people. About half of the country is under 21, has no memory of the shah and his secret police. To them, the mullahs are the ones who keep them from leading the kind of lives they want to lead. We had these marvelous demonstrations last [fall] in Tehran, and I think elsewhere in Iran, with tens, hundreds of thousands of young people cheering the United States and chanting. My favorite chant was, "Death to the Taliban in Kabul and in Tehran."

James Woolsey was director of the CIA from 1993 to 1995. He believes that President Bush's use of the phrase "axis of evil" to describe the Iranian regime was appropriate. He compares Bush's statement to Ronald Reagan's speech calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire," claiming that Bush gave encouragement to the reformers in Iran. Woolsey was interviewed by FRONTLINE producer Neil Docherty on Feb. 23, 2002.

You're making a really strong case for not including Iran in the "axis."

I'm absolutely not making such a case. The mullahs are very much part of an axis of evil. We have always distinguished in the United States between bad governments and good people. We didn't go to war against the German people, but against the Nazis. We never had, on the whole in this country, bad feelings about the Russian people. We were in the Cold War against the communists. And for that matter, although they can't speak the way some Iranians are brave enough to do, we're certainly not at odds with the North Korean and Iraqi people, either.

As a matter of fact, Bernard Lewis, probably our leading scholar in this country -- and some would say in the West -- on Islam and the Mideast, says that, in addition to Israel and Turkey, the only two countries in the Mideast where the United States is really quite popular among the people are Iran and Iraq. And the reason is because the people see us as being at odds with governments that they hate. So I think there's absolutely no sense in which President Bush suggested or meant that the Iranian people were an enemy of ours or were evil or anything else.

But the question now is, who did he support or strengthen by that statement? One now hears the mullahs, the most hard-line mullahs, ranting about this threat from outside again.

Well, let them rant. There was a very good article in The Wall Street Journal a few days after the speech reflecting one outside observer's comment on all of the Internet comments that were pouring out of Iran from young people about the speech, basically saying, "Way to go. We know they're evil, yes."

I have no problem with this at all. I think certainly the government can trump up a big demonstration and get people chanting "Death to America." But the people of Iran are a sophisticated people, they're a well-educated people. There's a large diaspora in the West. There are a lot of communications in and out on the Internet and otherwise. They fully understand that we have nothing against the Iranian people. It's the [ruling clerics] who manage the terror and are working on the weapons of mass destruction and the ballistic missiles and all the rest. ...

What do you say to the Iranian who makes the point that Saddam Hussein was a real close friend of the United States for some time, and got the capacity to do a lot of damage in Iran through that friendship?

I would say they are partly correct. What happened, of course, back in the 1980s was as a result of the Iranian hostage-taking, which was taken very personally by all Americans. The hatred for the Iranian government in this country was very, very strong. And well into the Iran-Iraq war, the United States did provide some assistance, intelligence mainly, to Saddam Hussein. In retrospect, I think that was a bad decision. But the Iranian government at the time never made any kind of statement about the United States, or working with us or dealing with us, other than "Death to America." And they really shouldn't have expected that we were going to do anything friendly to them, and they shouldn't have expected that we would regard ourselves as anywhere other than at odds with the Iranian government, which the Reagan administration at the time did and chose to provide some assistance to Saddam, it's true. In retrospect, it's a bad decision.

What, if anything, do you think that the United States can or should do to help open up a bit more of that democratic breathing room and reform momentum in Iran?

I think we should maintain, at best, a very cool and correct and distant relationship to the mullahs who dominate the power instruments, at least, of the government. I think we should criticize them strongly when they do such things as put intelligence operatives and Revolutionary Guard personnel and the like into Afghanistan. And if those people cause difficulties in Afghanistan, we should dispatch them quickly. But under no circumstances I can conceive under the current situation should we get involved in military activity against Iran itself. That would drive the reformers and the students into the arms of the mullahs, and that's the last thing we want.

What about opening up some kind of a rational channel of communication?

We've tried that. We've been trying it for years. We've tried all sort of variants, ping-pong diplomacy. We've tried poets. We've tried opening up the pistachios. We've tried back-channel communications of half a dozen different kinds. We always find ourselves stiff-armed and worse by the mullahs, because they can't continue in power without us as an enemy. The mullahs will thwart the efforts of the good Iranian reformers and the wonderful Iranian people as long as they control the instruments of power, because like all dictators, they need an enemy, and their favorite and chosen enemy is us.

So I think from time to time we will try things like this. The Clinton administration tried it a lot. The Bush administration may, at some point. But it won't succeed until the mullahs are sufficiently weakened by the popular movements within Iran that basically they're overthrown.

Now, in a long history of foreign relations, the United States has found a way to share a bed with some odious bedfellows. Does it really boil down to just a handful of non-accountable, non-elected clerical extremists in Iran that blocks a relationship with this whole civilization?

They're more than a handful. They control the intelligence services. They control the military. They control the instruments of power of the state, they control the judiciary. They're sort of like the Communist Party in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, during the period of the new economic program, where there was private enterprise, there were some more or less independent media and so forth. But the instruments of power, of the state, were controlled by the Communist Party.

I think the Iranian mullahs are going to lose. I don't know whether it's going to be a matter of a few months or a few years, but they're on the wrong side of history. The instruments of power of the Iranian state are controlled by the mullahs. Certainly the United States, my goodness, were allied for nearly four years with history's greatest murderer, Joseph Stalin, in order to defeat a more immediate enemy, Adolf Hitler. All countries have to do this from time to time, but we have managed to prevail, together with our allies, in three world wars in the twentieth century -- two hot, one cold -- and I think we will prevail in this war against terrorism that has come at us from the Mideast. And for some aspects of it, we may have to forge temporary alliances with some relatively unpalatable folks.

I think the country that is first and foremost in our sights, and should be, is the regime is Iraq, because I think the Iranian mullahs are going to lose. I don't know whether it's going to be a matter of a few months or a few years or a number of years, but they're on the wrong side of history. They're going to end up on the ash heap of history. The students, the young people, the women, reformers, the brave newspaper editors, the brave members of the Shia clergy who are opposed to the Velayat-e faqih [rule of the Islamic jurists], those people are going to win. And we ought to do everything we possibly can to help them. But overtures to deal and make nice with the Iranian government -- we've made a number of those, and they failed.

How big a stumbling block is the fact that, whether deliberately or as a sort of collateral effect, Iran has been involved with fairly violent organizations in Lebanon and Palestine?

Oh, it's a big stumbling block. It's one of the things we absolutely have to stop. It's one of the major reasons why it's perfectly reasonable to call the mullahs who control the power instruments in the state "evil." But we will make progress on that. ...

What is the case against Iran on the issue of weapons of mass destruction? How real is that case?

Well, there is no underlying [reason] for one of the greatest oil producers in the world to need to get into the nuclear [energy] business. And if they do for some reason want a nuclear reactor for power purposes at Bushehr, there's absolutely no reason for them to be getting into the rest of the fuel cycle, reprocessing, and so forth, unless what they want to do is train and produce people and an infrastructure that can have highly enriched uranium or plutonium, fissionable material for nuclear weapons.

They are working essentially in a joint venture with the North Koreans ... on a medium-range ballistic missile to carry weapons of mass destruction. I think there's really no particular argument about this, at least in this country, among anybody who's ever followed Iran. Certainly they're working on nuclear weapons, and certainly they're working on ballistic missiles.

But again, we don't have any reason to hold this against the Iranian people. It's the mullahs who manage the terrorist operations and fund Hezbollah and also fund these programs in weapons of mass destruction, of ballistic missiles. ...

How do you answer the Iranian who says, "We are surrounded by people with weapons of mass destruction. We need our own"?

Well, the most dangerous person who has weapons of mass destruction, who is right next door and has used them against Iran, is Saddam Hussein. And he's working on nuclear. He has chemical and bacteriological. My answer would be, "Yes, he is a real threat. He's a threat to you. He's a threat to everybody else in the region." Through terrorism, he's a threat to us, and the best thing we could do for Iranian security is get rid of the Baathist regime in Iraq and have a decent regime there. Whether it would be a regime like Bahrain, which has now a king, was an emir, but has constitutional freedoms, or whether it would look more like a representative democracy, or something in between, that would be up to the Iraqi people to decide. But democracies and nations that enjoy freedom normally are not aggressive. People don't want to go to war. The people who start wars are dictators, and the reason they do is they need foreign enemies in order to keep themselves in power. So Saddam is a danger to Iran, and the best thing we could do for Iranian security is to help the Iraqi people get rid of him and his Baathist regime.

But doesn't America run the risk of adding fuel to the nationalist fires of Iran by saying, "You can't have these weapons?" Particularly nuclear weapons, which somehow get associated with national issues and sovereignty and imagery?

Well, Iran has certain international obligations through the [nonproliferation] treaty and the like. And if they are fulfilling those obligations, it seems to me that our arguments with them are policy disputes, and nations have policy disputes all the time. What we are concerned about, since we see them with all their oil and we see them getting heavily into the nuclear business -- including the reprocessing steps which are relevant to producing fissionable material -- is we think it's very likely that they are violating and planning to violate further their obligations and build nuclear weapons. But as I said, I can understand Iranian concerns about their neighbor, Baathist Iraq.

What about their Pakistani neighbor, who also has nuclear weapons?

Pakistan does have nuclear weapons, but Pakistan has recently taken a rather substantial step toward liberalization and democracy. Parliamentary elections are called for next fall. President Musharraf, with his last speech, is about two-thirds of the way toward being a Kemal Ataturk. And if Pakistan is not in the throes of Islamism and religious terror, such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda provided in Afghanistan, if Pakistan is a nation more like Turkey in the years to come, Iran won't have anything to fear from them. Pakistan has no designs on Iran that I know of.

The critics say there are ways of getting the message across to the Iranians short of drawing lines in the sand, short of colorful and inflammatory rhetoric -- that there are covert back channels, ways you have done it traditionally.

The United States has tried covert and back-channel communications with Iran off and on for the last decade and a half. None of it has ever come to anything positive, because the mullahs always stop it. The reason the mullahs always stop it is they need us as an enemy. They need us as an enemy in order to keep a rationale for repressing the Iranian people. Otherwise, they're not in power anymore. They're already so unpopular that if they couldn't gin up feeling against us, they would lose ground even further.

Our job is to make sure the Iranian people understand that not only do we have nothing against the Iranian people, we want nothing for Iran other than peace, prosperity, economic growth, worldwide sales of their oil, happiness and friendship. ... The United States has absolutely no strategic interest at odds with the Iranian people. We have a lot of Iranians in this country as a result of the mullahs' repression. I know a number of them. They're wonderful people.

We have no problem with the Iranian people; it's with the mullahs. The Iranian people are being repressed by a terrible, dictatorial, evil regime. And what we need to do is make sure the Iranian people understand that we have nothing at all against them. We're on their side.

How real is the risk that the mullahs, given the power they have, will share weapons of mass destruction with subsidiary terrorist operations?

It's possible. Iran is probably the leading terrorist-sponsoring state in the world right now, and their intelligence services are very active doing this both financially and with all kinds of assistance. And one would hope they would have more sense than to share any type of weapons of mass destruction with terrorists. But I don't think one can count on the common sense of the mullahs. ... So I think we need to do everything we can to help the reformers in Iran. They're going to win. It's just a question of when, and the more help we can be to them directly and indirectly, I think the better it would be.

A lot of important reformers are saying, however, that the "axis of evil" speech had the opposite effect.

Well, some of them have to say that, because they're in Iran, and the mullahs can hear what they're saying. A lot of the ones who communicate out privately and so forth through the Internet don't say that. They say that the message came across loud and clear. And if you remember, there were a lot of people back when Ronald Reagan gave that speech in the early 1980s in Florida and called the Soviet Union an evil empire, our allies in Europe and all of the official Soviets and a lot of other Soviets said, "Oh, this is terrible, this is terrible. What is this wild cowboy saying?"

And once the Soviet Union collapsed, we started talking to the real dissidents, to the Sakharovs and the rest. They said there were three wonderful things the United States did during the Cold War: Radio Free Europe, the Helsinki Declaration -- which all of the free nations of that part of the world did, the Declaration for Human Rights -- and Ronald Reagan's calling the Soviets an evil empire. And so we're providing heart, I think. The president provided heart to the Iranian reformers, and they know that. They know we have nothing against them. They know we are not lumping them together with the mullahs. We're on their side.

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