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SOU: Bush's Message for Iran

We all remember these famous words from President Bush's 2002 State of the Union Address:

"States like these [Iran, North Korea and Iraq], and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world." 

But here are excerpts from two other State of the Union addresses given by President George W. Bush. Can you tell which one was given in 2006 and in 2008? 

Excerpt One: 

"[Iran is] a nation now held hostage by a small clerical elite that is isolating and repressing its people. The regime in that country sponsors terrorists in the Palestinian territories and in Lebanon — and that must come to an end. The Iranian government is defying the world with its nuclear ambitions, and the nations of the world must not permit the Iranian regime to gain nuclear weapons. America will continue to rally the world to confront these threats.

Tonight, let me speak directly to the citizens of Iran: America respects you, and we respect your country. We respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom. And our nation hopes one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran."  

Excerpt Two:

"We’re also standing against the forces of extremism embodied by the regime in Tehran. Iran's rulers oppress a good and talented people. And wherever freedom advances in the Middle East, it seems the Iranian regime is there to oppose it. Iran is funding and training militia groups in Iraq, supporting Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon, and backing Hamas’ efforts to undermine peace in the Holy Land. Tehran is also developing ballistic missiles of increasing range, and continues to develop its capability to enrich uranium, which could be used to create a nuclear weapon.  

Our message to the people of Iran is clear: We have no quarrel with you. We respect your traditions and your history. We look forward to the day when you have your freedom. Our message to the leaders of Iranis also clear: Verifiably suspend your nuclear enrichment, so negotiations can begin. And to rejoin the community of nations, come clean about your nuclear intentions and past actions, stop your oppression at home, cease your support for terror abroad. But above all, know this: America will confront those who threaten our troops. We will stand by our allies, and we will defend our vital interests in the Persian Gulf." 

If you guessed that the first excerpt was part of the 2006 SOU address, and the second was part of the 2008, congratulations you are correct! 

Whether or not you think Bush's speech writers have run out of ideas, one thing is for certain: The Iranian government didn't like Bush's message to Iran any better the second time around.

From the Associated Press: "Iran's Foreign Ministry on Tuesday called U.S. President George W. Bush's accusations against Iran in his State of the Union address as redundant and insignificant, state television here reported.The TV quoted ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini as saying the American leader's annual speech offered “repeated and stereotype (statements) … which lacked any new point and issue.”  The government spokesman had his own message for the US government:  “We advise the U.S. president to put the real concerns of American people on his agenda: economic recession, violations of human values and the severe psychological crisis of the its military people, dismayed over occupation of Iraq,” Hosseini said. 

[Side note: Because the US and Iran cut diplomatic ties between the two after the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, the US-Iranian public conversation is relegated to more symbolic modes of communication. On the same day as the President's address the US Ambassador to the UN struck the wrong chord with the Bush administration for his choice of seat next to the Iranian foreign minister at the World Economic Forum meetings in Davos, Switzerland.]   Yet the point is not that the President's speech writers, in their seven long years of wordsmithing, have run out of ideas. Rather, comparing the two addresses reveals that not much has changed in terms of Iranian-US relations over the past two years. And considering how tensions have grown between the two nations, perhaps that's not such a bad thing. 

The 2008 address does distinguish itself from the 2006 by a growth in and refinement of the list of grievances the President gives for the Iranian regime: Oppression of the Iranian people, funding and training militia groups in Iraq, supporting Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon, backing Hamas’ efforts to undermine peace in the Holy Land, developing ballistic missiles of increasing range, as well as its increasing capability to enrich uranium, which could be used to create a nuclear weapon. 

However there has been a major change between 2006 and 2008 in regards to the nuclear grievances. In December of 2007 US intelligence services published a National Intelligence Estimate detailing Iran's nuclear capabilities. The report found, contrary to the administration's accusations, that Iran stopped working on a suspected nuclear weapons program more than four years ago.  The NIE had the effect of soothing escalating tensions between the two nations in the short term, but Bush's determination to halt Iran's uranium enrichment program has not been deterred.  Michele Keleman of NPR offers an analysis of President Bush's rationale for repeating a strong warning against Iran's nuclear intentions:  

"U.S. diplomats are in the midst of negotiations on a U.N. sanctions resolution aimed at building up pressure on Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions. News that the U.S. intelligence community believes that Iran halted a nuclear weapons program in 2003 has made the sanctions debate more complicated, according to diplomats involved. So the president has been repeating, often, all of his concerns about Iran's behavior, to remind U.S. partners why they need to act."

IPS's reporting offers a reason why Bush's remarks on US foreign policy in general sound so familiar: "With just less than one year left in his presidency, George W. Bush remains as focused as ever on the Middle East and Iraq and appears reluctant to take on any major new foreign policy challenges in the time that he remains in power." 

Out of the hour-long address Bush's remarks aimed at Iran were not the most widely-reported by the US media. Aside from the Iranian press' publication of Tehran's reaction, one Israeli online news outlet thought Bush's message for Iran deserved a headline, pointing out that Bush said he would be willing to “confront those who threaten our troops” and defend its allies and interests in the Gulf.

One final note: The Council on Foreign Relations made available a video of a meeting on “U.S.-Iran Relations: Past, Present, and Future” The distinguished panelists (Trita Parsi and Barbara Slavin) discuss relations between the United States and Iran, including Iran's role in Iraq, the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, and prospects for an improved U.S.-Iran relationship in the future. 

Download link 



Melinda Brouwer

Melinda Brower holds a Masters degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She received her bachelor's degree in Political Science and Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received a graduate diploma in International Relations from the University of Chile during her tenure as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. She has worked on Capitol Hill, at the State Department, for Foreign Policy magazine and the American Academy of Diplomacy. She presently works for an internationally focused non-profit research organization in Washington, DC.