FIGHTIN’ WORDS: America’s Rhetoric and Policies against Iran: Comparing the Bush and Obama Administrations

This was written under the supervision of Tally Helfont in the summer of 2010 at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.  It was then published by the Journal of Undergraduate International Studies (University of Wisconsin-Madison) in their Fall 2013 issue.  I added the images afterwards for this blog.

Here’s a quote that I didn’t include in the article, but it sums up this research question quite nicely:

“We experienced both Bush Jr. and Obama. Were Mr. Obama’s [hostile] deeds any lesser than those of Bush? Mr. Obama has imposed heavy sanctions against Syria, Iran and Venezuela. Bush would severe heads with sword, and Obama with cotton thread. The important thing is that they both severe [heads].”
Mansour Haqiqatpour
Parliamentary National Security Committee deputy
November 19, 2012

Also, I just stumbled onto this website, which is a collection of writings for Slate Magazine from one of my heroes, Christopher Hitchens.  I am quite proud that the title of his collection mirrors the title I independently chose for this paper: Fighting Words.

Abstract: “It’s Morning Again” for US-Iran relations. Or, at least, it was supposed to be. When President Obama took office, analysts and journalists alike heralded a new chapter in the two countries’ long and difficult history. Whereas President Bush lambasted Iran as a member of the Axis of Evil, President Obama promised a policy of engagement without preconditions. And he was sincere. It was perhaps his rhetoric and tone that impressed us most.

But three and a half years into the Obama Presidency, US-Iranian mutual enmity is worse than it ever was under the Bush Administration. With renewed earnest, the news media speculates when, not if, there will be targeted air strikes. As Washington adopts more and more adversarial policies, the President’s rhetoric becomes more and more aggressive against Iran.

This article will analyze precisely those two components of America’s Iran posturing: rhetoric and policy. The author will chronicle US-Iran relations, analyzing the major events by comparing presidential rhetoric with policies, contrasting the Bush and Obama Administrations. The author will conclude by answering the question: when it comes to the Iranian issue, is President Obama really different from President Bush?


Words matter. Ever since Woodrow Wilson was in the White House, Presidents have increasingly relied on speeches. Whether it is to win votes along the campaign trail, to garner support in Congress for legislation, or to inspire the people during turbulent times, today’s president often serves as “Persuader in Chief.”[1]

And in today’s climate of hyper-partisanship, the rhetoric is arguably more biting than ever before. There are few issues that both sides of the aisle can discuss together, much less agree on. Iran, however, is one of those few issues. Since the 1979-80 Iranian Hostage Crisis, Iran has been an enemy of the United States. Presidents have made many speeches regarding Iran, and have crafted countless pages of policies against the Iranian regime. But in the aftermath of the Iraqi Occupation, many began to question President Bush’s inclusion of Iran in his so-called Axis of Evil. Bush’s approval rating dropped lower and lower, and President Obama was elected in many ways as a referendum on the Bush Administration. This rang particularly true for US-Iran Relations. Both President Obama’s rhetoric and his policies indicated to many a departure from President Bush’s tactics.

This article seeks to answer whether or not the two really were so different. In order to explore broadly the relationship between presidential rhetoric and foreign policy, this article focuses specifically on the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. But before diving into each respective administration, it is important to provide some background on Iran in the lead-up to President Bush’s inauguration.

A Brief Recap Post-Revolutionary Iran


Prior to 1979, when Iran was ruled by Reza Shah of the Pahlavi Dynasty, the West generally viewed Iran as a friend. Indeed, Tehran was the site of an important Allied conference between Premier Stalin, Prime Minister Churchill, and President Roosevelt. The Shah, for his part, was enamored with the modernity of the West. And while his White Revolution in the 1960s, which included visions of women’s rights in the face of Islamic customs, was arguably well-intentioned, it was accompanied with the kind of tactics one would expect from an authoritarian regime: strong-arming at gunpoint, imprisonment of dissidents, and torture.

In 1979, the Pahlavi Dynasty faced a conservative revolution. The winner of the fight against the Shah and his Western ideals was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who, upon taking power, established the Islamic Republic of Iran. A charismatic leader à la Mussolini, Khomeini was able to sustain the public fervor he had fomented to win the Revolution by scapegoating new enemies to replace the recently deposed Shah. America was an obvious choice, considering its history of meddling with Iran’s domestic politics to ensure the Shah’s hold on power. Meanwhile, after holding hostages in the American Embassy for over four hundred days, Iran quickly jumped to the top of America’s list of enemies.


But Khomeini’s charismatic leadership did not just focus Iran’s attention abroad. Several different factions of Iranian society and politics were brought together by the Iranian Revolution, having put aside their domestic differences in the name of an Islamic Republic led by Khomeini. As a result, his death in 1989 reopened old political wounds. The next Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, was not as respected and, therefore, unable to prevent partisanship and government in-fighting. Slowly but steadily, politicians much less conservative than Khomeini began to gain power. In the year of Khomeini’s death, Ali Rafsanjani of the Pragmatist Party won the presidential election. And while most of his two terms in office were countered by the Conservative Party majority in the legislature, [2] he was succeeded in 1997 by a Reformist candidate, Mohammed Khatami, who built upon President Rafsanjani’s foreign policy efforts. The new “Dialogue Among Civilizations” movement was meant to increase Iran’s likeability abroad, even with western nations including the United States. Secretary of State Madeline Albright reciprocated President Khatami’s overtures by publically apologizing for the 1953 CIA-backed coup against former Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh – the first admission of its kind since the Revolution.[3] Indeed, in the years leading up to the Bush Administration and September 11th, US-Iranian relations were at their warmest since becoming enemies in 1979.

Important to note is the role of the Supreme Leader. Head of both religion and state in Iran, the Supreme Leader has constitutional authority to call virtually all of the shots. And so, when considering the foregoing changes in the Iranian political landscape, as well as when contrasting the following two American administrations, remember that all the while, Ali Khamenei has been Iran’s Supreme Leader. Precisely when he has chosen to take a more active role in issues that matter to the US (e.g., nuclear developments, fomenting terrorism, moves towards regional hegemony, etc.) is hard if not impossible to tell. But keep in mind that for all that has changed in the past 23 years, Khamenei has been a constant presence throughout.

Bush Administration

President George W. Bush’s first term began with little to no change in foreign policy vis-à-vis Iran. His first act was to continue the National Emergency with respect to Iran; every president since Jimmy Carter has cited similar reasons for signing and re-signing this type of executive order – Iran’s support for terrorism, efforts to undermine the Middle East Peace Process, and the desire to acquire weapons of mass destruction.[4] And although he also extended President Clinton’s Iran Libya Sanctions Act, President Bush expressed optimism for the Reformists in Iran in his accompanying statement:

I hope that the Iranian people’s recently expressed desire for a freer, more open, and more prosperous society will give our two countries an opportunity to identify areas where our interests converge, and where we can work together constructively for our mutual benefit.”[5]

One month later, America and the world were left reeling from the attacks of September 11th. While some in Arab countries celebrated by burning American flags, many Iranians held candlelight vigils for the victims; even Supreme Leader Khamenei publically condemned the attacks.[6] President Bush, for his part, sympathized for the Iranians who lost their lives alongside Americans and other peoples on those fateful flights.[7]

American retribution came swiftly for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Khamenei, like most other regional leaders, was by no means comforted by the strong presence of American military might in the region; he even cautioned against an invasion of Afghanistan in the same speech that he expressed solidarity with the 9/11 victims. But this all notwithstanding, Iran supported the Northern Alliance and cooperated with the United Nations to repatriate nearly one million Afghan refugees.[8] And President Bush, days before his State of the Union Address, acknowledged the role Iran was playing: “[We’ve] had some positive signals…early in this war from the Iranians. We would hope that they would continue to be a positive force in helping us bring people to justice.”[9]

Thus, in the months leading up to and immediately following 9/11, the Bush Administration’s Iran rhetoric was warming up and its Iran policy was to collaborate in the fight against a common threat posed by Al-Qaida. However, in his first State of the Union following the attacks, President Bush assigned Iran to the Axis of Evil, alongside Iraq and North Korea. The speech and its headlining metaphor quickly became a rallying point for American foreign policy making, in many ways framing a new world order. But before continuing to chronicle the Bush Administration’s Iran rhetoric and policies, let us examine Axis of Evil speech itself. After all, when discussing the relationship between rhetoric and policy, this metaphor is the perfect example, because this time, rhetoric was policy.


The Axis of Evil Address

The reasons cited for Iran’s inclusion in the Axis of Evil had existed for years: state sponsorship of terror, active destabilization of the region, desire for nuclear weapons, etc.[10] The Axis of Evil metaphor thus served to highlight the pre-existing threat posed by the Iranian regime, as opposed to reacting to any new Iranian aggression.

That being said, the speech and metaphor represented a fundamental shift in not only US foreign policy but in the world order generally. On a rhetorical level, Axis of Evil was intended to build off of the momentum following the attack on the World Trade Center and “restructure” the War on Terror’s ethos to target groups and regimes beyond Al-Qaida that posed a threat to the United States.[11] The principle strategy was to emphasize the “indivisibility of evil.”[12] To make the public react to states that sponsor terror the same way they react to terrorists themselves. Even the metaphor itself reflects this attempt to paint multiple enemies with the same brush: we defeated the Axis Powers, we battled the Evil Empire, and now we must continue our defense of freedom and liberty against the Axis of Evil.

war_18 stop-communism

After the speech, policy-makers kicked into gear. In April 2002, the House Subcommittee on National Security held a hearing titled “Combating Terrorism: Axis of Evil, Multi-lateral Containment or Unilateral Confrontation?” The hearing included testimony from former officials of the Clinton and Reagan administrations concerning how those governments fought terrorism, with the hopes of applying lessons learned to the fight against Iran, North Korea, and Iraq.[13] By Fall 2003, the military journal Parameters published a piece analyzing the four ways that President Bush could constitutionally authorize assassinations inside those countries.[14] And in August of 2003, once the Hussein regime had been toppled, Republican Party chairman Jon Kyl issued a directive to his party members to refocus their sights on Iran and North Korea, urging that, “There is no time for delay in addressing these threats.” [15]

And while the speech’s impact on domestic actors is clear, President Bush also hoped to inspire dissidents inside Iran:

And the fact that the president of the United States would stand up and say Iran is just like Iraq and North Korea — in other words you’ve got a problem — and the president is willing to call it, is part of how you deal with Iran. And that will inspire those who love freedom inside the country.[16]

In other words, President Bush hoped that his words would bolster the confidence of frustrated Iranians, and that they would go on to destabilize the regime. Thus, the Axis of Evil metaphor is an illustrative example of targeted, purposeful rhetoric, aimed at influencing actors to craft and implement subsequent policies.


Bush Administration, Continued

In 2003, and in the wake of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Bush administration refused to take the military option off the table in dealing with Iran. This threat was bolstered by toppling the regime in Iraq, an event which spurred the Iranian government to offer an olive branch. [17] In a letter from the Swiss Embassy, Iran put it all on the table: the nuclear program, support for proxy groups, and potential recognition of Israel’s right to exist, all in exchange for Iran’s sovereignty and ending the pre-existing sanctions.[18] But at the time, the authenticity and credibility of the document was questioned by some, so the Bush Administration didn’t act on it.[19] Instead, President Bush continued to publically criticize Iran’s government for aiding Al-Qaida,[20] for not complying with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,[21] and for abusing human rights,[22] while also praising the Iranian people’s desire for freedom, democracy, and human rights.[23], [24]

In December, after the devastating earthquake in Bam, Iran, which killed approximately 50,000 people, President Bush extended his sympathies to the victims and offered to help.[25] US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Iran’s UN envoy, Mohammad Javad Zarif, conversed on the phone in a rare instance of direct contact.[26] Still, to the press, President Bush affirmed that this conversation and subsequent humanitarian aid did not indicate any thaw in US-Iran relations.[27] So here, the Administration’s rhetoric was tough, and its policies for the most part mirrored that.

Starting in 2004, controversy around Iran’s nuclear program grew to become the defining issue of US-Iran relations. President Bush’s State of the Union that year anticipated this in its only reference to Iran:

America and the international community are demanding that Iran meet its commitments and not develop nuclear weapons. America is committed to keeping the world’s most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the most dangerous regimes[28]

The UN condemned Iran for keeping some of its nuclear activities secret, Iran kicked out the inspectors, and in response European leaders put together a trade package with the hopes of enticing Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment. But for the most part, President Bush’s rhetoric had little to do with the nuclear issue. Rather, he returned to the Axis of Evil refrain; it was, after all, an election year. Immediately after a sentence about Iraq, President Bush’s stump speech criticized Iran and North Korea for “challenging the peace.”[29] On nearly thirty separate occasions, President Bush delivered these lines, further cementing his Axis of Evil metaphor by mentioning the three countries in succession. It is perhaps unsurprising then, that this rhetoric/policy dissonance – in which the speeches harped on the vague Axis of Evil metaphor while the specific policy goal was to dissuade Iran from developing nuclear weapons – resulted in no substantial changes on the Iranian front for US foreign policy. In other words, by repeating the same Axis of Evil refrain over and over again, no attention was called to the nuclear issue, all but ruling out the possibility of crafting any new and substantive policies.

By 2005, the Bush administration’s rhetoric had gravitated back to the nuclear issue, and a major policy shift resulted. In March of that year, the US agreed to support France, Germany, and Great Britain (the EU-3) in their negotiations with Iran by contributing to the trade packages being offered in return for Iran halting its nuclear program.[30] As the Iranian Government considered the package, President Bush reaffirmed his desire for diplomacy to work.[31] He even applauded Russia’s potential compromise to provide Iran with enriched materials in exchange for Iran’s agreement that it would not to build reactors and acquire the technology themselves.[32]


But unfortunately for the United States, the Conservative candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected President of Iran in June. From the Iranian perspective, the Reformist Party had had its chance. That Khatami’s “Dialogue Among Civilizations” initiative was met with the “Axis of Evil” metaphor represented a stinging failure for those advocating better relations with America and simultaneously was a boon for the conservatives and ultraconservatives.[33] And even though President Bush didn’t know at the time just how much Ahmadinejad’s presidency would cool US-Iran relations and policy, he still spoke out strongly against the unfair and oppressive manner of the 2005 election.[34]

Just three months after Ahmadinejad’s election, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found that Iran was in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). If the nuclear issue was central to US-Iran relations before, it was even more important now. The Bush administration applied a series of tactics to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The policies included economic sanctions, UN resolutions of condemnation, and occasional leaks of a possible targeted military strike on nuclear facilities.[35] Rhetorically, these efforts were buttressed by support for the EU-3’s efforts and insistence on seeing diplomacy through,[36] calls for the world to work together with “one voice” against Iran’s nuclear program,[37] and praise for the freedom-seeking groups in Iran. This last piece of rhetoric was in fact featured in the President Bush’s 2006 State of the Union:

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[38]

The intentions behind this overture were twofold.[39] The first was to delegitimize the Iranian Government and its self-purported right to nuclear power – in other words, since the Iranian regime is not a representative one, America will speak to and respect the people of Iran instead of the regime that rules over them. The second intention represented more long-term thinking, in that, America predicts that Iran’s leaders will one day fall to a popular revolution led by today’s disenchanted youth; America must not alienate the latter at this time. Rather, America’s rhetoric should convey in the clearest possible terms that aggressive policies aren’t targeted at Iran’s youth, but rather at the regime currently oppressing them, their freedoms, and their future.[40] Put another way, this second strategy aimed to make an ally out of the Iranian people by emphasizing that they and America share a common enemy: the regime.

The nuclear issue remained at the forefront of US-Iranian relations through the end of the Bush Presidency. And of course the friction points that pre-date the Bush years still existed, such as Iran’s support for terrorist groups, what that meant for Israel, and retaliatory economic sanctions. But in late 2007, the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), a joint communiqué from various intelligence agencies, cast serious doubts on Iran’s nuclear intentions. Not only did the NIE claim that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 (which makes some sense, considering that Iran saw in that same year what happens to anti-American regimes that are accused of having weapons of mass destructions), but it further questioned how much nuclear technology the Iranians even possessed:

We judge with moderate confidence that the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough [highly enriched uranium] for a weapon is late 2009, but that this is very unlikely. We judge with moderate confidence Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough [highly enriched uranium] for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame…All agencies recognize the possibility that this capability may not be attained until after 2015.[41]

The NIE stirred up considerable policy debate in the US. And while at the time many close to the Bush Administration questioned the NIE’s findings, the evidence compiled is generally accepted today. Still, the end of President Bush’s term was in sight, so the Administration didn’t make any rhetoric or policy changes towards Iran. Instead, Barack Obama inherited America’s Iran policy that focuses intently on the nuclear program.

Obama Administration

Throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, and as President Barack Obama entered the White House, analysts and journalists alike heralded a near 180 degree departure from President Bush, his rhetoric, and his policies. President Obama criticized the Bush Administration heavily for refusing to meet face to face with the Iranian government.[42] And President Obama publically signaled a desire for this shift:

We should take an approach with Iran that employs all of the resources at the United States disposal, and that includes diplomacy. And so my national security team is currently reviewing our existing Iran policy, looking at areas where we can have constructive dialog, where we can directly engage with them. And my expectation is in the coming months we will be looking for openings that can be created where we can start sitting across the table, face to face, diplomatic overtures that will allow us to move our policy in a new direction[43]


Interesting to note is the phrase, “and that includes diplomacy.” Even a cursory glance at the statements relating to Iran from President Bush – be they in interviews, press conferences, or speeches – demonstrates the rhetorical emphasis placed on and faith in the diplomatic process, albeit one led by the EU-3. President Obama therefore implied that President Bush’s policies didn’t match up with that bit of rhetoric; and that the new administration would work harder to implement diplomacy in more tangible forms of policy. During his first Nowruz Address,[44] President Obama did indeed convey substantial differences from his predecessor’s addresses.[45] Most striking was the following portion:

I would like to speak clearly to Iran’s leaders: We have serious differences that have grown over time. My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran, and the international community. This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.[46]

Keeping in mind President Bush’s rhetorical dismissal of the Iranian regime in favor of speaking “directly to the Iranian people,” this piece of rhetoric from the Obama Administration was a fundamental departure. Not only is the tone friendlier and focused more on future solutions than on past problems, but the speech respects the leaders of Iran by speaking plainly to them (later in the address, President Obama also used Iran’s official title as an Islamic Republic). And the new rhetoric was for a time met with new policies. President Obama reportedly sent a secret letter to Supreme Leader Khamenei, he re-acknowledged the US’s role in the Mossadegh coup, he affirmed Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear program, and he announced that the US would attend future diplomatic meetings between Iran and the UN (such as the P5+1 talks).[47]


But in June of 2009, this show of warmth met its first roadblock: the Iranian presidential election. President Ahmadinejad was announced as the winner, but the lack of free and fair elections, the speed with which the results were announced (suggesting that many votes weren’t actually counted), and the results themselves (the Reformist challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, was far more popular than the final results indicated) pushed Iranian citizens to take to the streets and protest electoral fraud. Faced with the first large-scale and public protests since its inception in 1979, the Islamic Republic flexed its authoritarian muscles. Several factions within its military structure, from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to its Basij youth militia, were unleashed upon the peaceful “Green Movement.” The movement then evolved from protesting the election result specifically to questioning the very legitimacy of the Islamic Republic generally. Tear gas, gunfire, imprisonment, kidnapping, rape, and torture soon silenced the movement, however..

The Obama Administration spoke out strongly against Iran’s human rights abuses:

We call on the Iranian Government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people. The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights… If the Iranian Government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion.[48]

Still, President Obama tried to tow the rhetorical line between criticizing the show of tyrannical force and interfering in Iran’s domestic politics by siding with the protesters:

The United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran and is not interfering with Iran’s affairs. But we must also bear witness to the courage and the dignity of the Iranian people and to a remarkable opening within Iranian society. And we deplore the violence against innocent civilians anywhere that it takes place. The Iranian people are trying to have a debate about their future. Some in Iran–some in the Iranian Government, in particular, are trying to avoid that debate by accusing the United States and others in the West of instigating protests over the election. These accusations are patently false…This tired strategy of using old tensions to scapegoat other countries won’t work anymore in Iran. This is not about the United States or the West; this is about the people of Iran, and the future that they–and only they–will choose.

And President Obama’s policy towards the Green Movement reflected this delicate balance. Despite his solidarity with the victims of the violence, President Obama did not aid the protestors. However, instead of punishing the Iranian government, he acknowledged President Ahmadinejad as the winner of the election. His rhetoric/policy choices mirrored America’s attitude towards China’s human rights abuses: condemn without action.

In September, and as if to refocus America’s attention as the protests died down, the chief of the IAEA announced that Iran couldn’t produce a nuclear weapon in the near future and that the threat posed had been exaggerated.[49] A few weeks later, Iran revealed a previously undisclosed nuclear enrichment facility in Qom. President Obama signaled America’s return to old priorities in his remarks to the United Nations later that month, in which he mentioned the threat of Iran’s nuclear program, without making reference to the Green Movement.[50], [51] Great Britain, France, America, China, Russia, and Germany met in October, and Iran subsequently agreed to swap the lion’s share of its enriched uranium in exchange for fuel to produce medical isotopes.[52] But in the months that followed, Iran delayed responding to the proposal and ultimately rejected it despite the initial positive indications. This was the second and final roadblock to President Obama’s engagement policy. The day after Iran announced its rejection of the deal, President Obama very clearly announced the end of his attempts to engage:

At the beginning of my administration, we put in place a policy that we have executed as drawn up over the last several months. What we said was that we would take a new approach and say to Iran that we are willing to engage them directly…we indicated that our offer would be on the table for a certain period of time, and that when that time ran out, we would look at other approaches that would increase pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program.

And so as a consequence, we have begun discussions with our international partners about the importance of having consequences…we will be developing a package of potential steps that we could take that will indicate our seriousness to Iran.[53]


These were not empty threats. The international community rallied with President Obama and sought to punish Iran. It took little over a month for the IAEA to pass a resolution, censuring Iran for its secret plant at Qom. And President Obama’s rhetoric became more aggressive as well. Whereas at the Green Movement’s height he was careful to defend human rights without patently siding with the protesters, his remarks in December weren’t nearly so neutral:

The United States joins with the international community in strongly condemning the violent and unjust suppression of innocent Iranian citizens, which has apparently resulted in detentions, injuries, and even death.

It’s about the Iranian people and their aspirations for justice and a better life for themselves. And the decision of Iran’s leaders to govern through fear and tyranny will not succeed in making those aspirations go away…I’m confident that history will be on the side of those who seek justice.[54]

These phrases are reminiscent of President Bush’s attempts to drive a wedge between Iran’s frustrated citizens and their government. And considering that when the crackdown was at its height President Obama’s rhetoric was relatively weaker, it seems as though here, he was applying indirect pressure on Iran over the nuclear program with the tried-and-true tactic of emphasizing the people/regime disconnect. The State of the Union Address a month later made reference first to Iran’s nuclear obligations and second to America’s support for the “human rights of the women marching through the streets of Iran,”[55] further indicating this mixed approach.

Tensions over the nuclear issue escalated throughout 2010. Although Ahmadinejad at times indicated a softening of Iran’s position, these promises were always either not fulfilled or followed closely by aggressive acts (e.g., rocket launches, naval maneuvers, further enrichment, etc.). In February, the IAEA concluded that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapon. In March, Russia announced plans to build a reactor in Iran over the summer. Two days later, President Obama’s Nowruz Address also escalated, again calling attention to the dissonance between the Iranian people and the regime, but this time with special attention to the nuclear issue. He argued,

Iran’s leaders…have refused good faith proposals from the international community. They have turned their backs on a pathway that would bring more opportunity to all Iranians and allow a great civilization to take its rightful place in the community of nations.”[56]

So whereas before, the Iranian government’s disrespect for its own people was cited indirectly in response to the nuclear issue, here President Obama was blending the two ideas even more closely together: Iran’s insistence on a nuclear program is yet another way in which the government is making life harder for its citizens.

This rhetorical escalation was matched by policy. In June, after lobbying extensively and spending a great amount of political capital in Russia and China, America’s policy efforts came to fruition, and for the fourth time the United Nations Security Council passed another set of broad sanctions on Iran.

These are the most comprehensive sanctions that the Iranian Government has faced. They will impose restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities, its ballistic missile program, and, for the first time, its conventional military. They will put a new framework in place to stop Iranian smuggling and crack down on Iranian banks and financial transactions. They target individuals, entities, and institutions, including those associated with the Revolutionary Guard, that have supported Iran’s nuclear program and prospered from illicit activities at the expense of the Iranian people. And we will ensure that these sanctions are vigorously enforced.[57]


President Obama at the same time took the opportunity to rhetorically reinforce the people/regime wedge, including an explicit reference to the Green Movement:

These sanctions are not directed at the Iranian people…[when] faced with the opportunity to find a new way forward, one that would benefit its own people, the Iranian Government has chosen instead to remain a prisoner of the past.

Saturday will mark one year from the day that an election captivated the attention of the world, an event that should have been remembered for how the Iranian people participated with remarkable enthusiasm, but will instead be remembered for how the Iranian Government brutally suppressed dissent and murdered the innocent.[58]

And the following month, President Obama supplemented the UN’s newest policy with another round of unilateral sanctions from America. By this time, not only did Iran face the world’s strongest condemnation to date, with America piling on more than anyone else, but it was also at the receiving end of President Obama’s harshest rhetoric since taking office. There is even a case to be made that President Obama’s rhetoric outmatched that of President Bush.[59] For while the latter did proscribe Iran to the Axis of Evil, his rhetorical tactics were kept distinct from one another most of the time. President Obama, on the other hand, was by this point combining various arguments (e.g., nuclear aggressions, people/regime dichotomy, human rights abuses, etc.) and hurling them at Iran in a rhetorical whirlwind.

And so, since the end of President Obama’s active attempts to engage due to Iran’s behavior, relations between the two countries have worsened. Meanwhile, both President Obama’s rhetoric and his policies have kept pace. He publically sided with Iran’s dissidents[60] and continued to leverage human rights abuses against the nuclear program.[61] Iran was caught plotting to assassinate the Saudi Arabian Ambassador in Washington.[62], [63] President Obama authorized the use of Stuxnet, a sophisticated cyber-attack, against Iran’s nuclear facilities.[64] And Israel, not to be left out, feels increasingly threatened by the possibility of a nuclear Iran. This puts even more pressure on President Obama to keep the military option on the table (just like his predecessor). But until that day of military conflict comes (if it ever does), the economic warfare continues. As recently as July 30, 2012, President Obama enacted additional economic sanctions on Iran, targeting financial institutions that deal with the heart of Iran’s economy: oil revenues.[65] A month later, the IAEA revealed that Iran had doubled the number of centrifuges in the subterranean power plant in Qom.[66]


Is President Obama’s Iran record, both of word and of deed, really different from that of George W. Bush?

The answer is undoubtedly complicated, and much of the evidence is circumstantial. Until the attacks of 9/11, President Bush was on par with his predecessors in his treatment of Iran. And up to that point, relations were warming, due at least in part to Rafsanjani and his Pragmatist platform. But after 9/11, President Bush and the country were eager to crack down on terrorism worldwide, so relations soured throughout the Bush Presidency.

President Obama took over claiming to want to halt the skid, and his initial policy of engagement did yield different rhetoric and policies. But this time it was Iran that either failed to capitalize on this shift or was not interested due to the figures in power (i.e., Ahmadinejad). America then returned to its old ways of dealing with this member of the Axis of Evil. In fact, in this year’s Nowruz Address, President Obama accused the Iranian government of lowering, “an electronic curtain…around Iran… cutting the Iranian people off from the world.”[67] By playing on the Iron Curtain metaphor from WWII, President Obama continued the pattern of borrowing metaphors used against past enemies, just like President Bush did in 2003.


Because the Axis of Evil metaphor in many ways epitomizes President Bush’s foreign policy, those who saw President Obama as a stark change to the Bush Doctrine must have been shocked to see this president not only using his predecessor’s exact same rhetorical tactics, but also implementing even harsher policies.

Perhaps this confirms George Friedman’s recent hypothesis that when conducting American foreign policy, the particular person in the White House doesn’t matter so much as the constraints of the current geopolitical world order.[68] And since President Obama inherited a post 9/11 world, one framed by the War on Terror against the Axis of Evil, his engagement policy with Iran was doomed to fail. To put Friedman’s point another way, Iran escalated its aggression and forced President Obama to respond in kind.

Or maybe the timing just hasn’t been right. Khatami’s “Dialogue Among Civilizations” was tried in the post-9/11 world, and President Obama’s attempts to engage were directed at an increasingly conservative Iranian political culture. If the leaders of both countries are willing to improve relations at the same time, and if the world order is conducive to East-West cooperation, then Iran and the US might just have a chance of finally ending this decades-long state of mutual enmity.

Note from the Author

Nearly all direct quotes from Presidents Bush and Obama were retrieved online from the American Presidency Project, sponsored by the University of California at Santa Barbara and run by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley at:

Due to the incredibly large database of speeches, footnotes in this document making reference to a presidential quote are intended to serve as supporting examples, not citations of pre-existing analysis. Anyone interested in determining the extent to which a piece of rhetoric really was used as the author argues it was (e.g., the “nearly thirty times” that President Bush discussed Iran in his 2004 stump speech) is free to visit the site themselves.

Works Cited

BBC. Timeline: US-Iran Ties: A Chronology of Key Events. January 16, 2009. (accessed 2012).

Bush, George W. “Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union.” Washington, DC, January 29, 2002.

—. “Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union.” January 20, 2004.

—. “Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union.” January 31, 2006.

—. “Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the United States Respose to the Terrorist Attacks of September 11.” Washington, DC, September 20, 2001.

—. “Exchange with Reporters in Kennebunkport, Maine.” June 15, 2003.

—. “Interview with Al-Arabiyya of the United Arab Emirates.” May 29, 2003.

—. “Message to Congress on Continuation of the National Emergency with Respect to Iran.” Washington, DC, March 13, 2001.

—. “Remarks at a Bush-Cheney Luncheon in Louisville.” February 26, 2004.

—. “Remarks Following a Meeting with the Economic Team and an Exchange with Reporters.” January 10, 2002.

—. “Remarks on New Year’s Day and an Exchange with Reporters.” January 1, 2004.

—. “Remarks on the 20th Anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy.” November 6, 2003.

—. “Remarks on the war on Terror and a Question-and-Answer Session in Manhattan, Kansas.” January 23, 2006.

—. “Statement on Signing the ILSA Extension Act of 2001.” Washington, DC, August 3, 2001.

—. “Statement on the Earthquake in Iran.” December 26, 2003.

—. “Statement on the Presidential Elections in Iran.” June 16, 2005.

—. “Statement on the United Nations International Day in Suport of Victims of Torture.” June 26, 2003.

—. “The President’s News Conference.” March 16, 2005.

—. “The President’s News Conference.” April 28, 2005.

—. “The President’s News Conference in Crawford Texas.” August 9, 2005.

—. “The President’s News Conference with President Vladimir Putin of Russia in St. Petersburg, Russia.” June 1, 2003.

Ceaser, James W. “The Rise of the Rhetorical Presidency.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, 1981.

Clinton, Hilary. “Remarks on Iran Assassination Plot.” October 12, 2011.

Council on Foreign Relations. U.S.-Iran Relations Since World War II: An Interactive Timeline. n.d. (accessed 2012).

Country Profile: Iran. A monograph and primer, Washington, DC: Federal Research Division, 2008.

Erdbrink, Thomas, and Glenn Kessler. “Obama’s Tone in Iran Message Differs Sharply from Bush’s.” The Washington Post, March 21, 2009.

Friedman, George. “The Election, the Presidency and Foreign Policy.” Stratfor, 2012.

Heradstveit, Daniel, and G. Matthew Bonham. “What the Axis of Evil Metaphor Did to Iran.” Middle East Journal, 2007.

“Iran Memo Expurgated.” The New York Times. April 29, 2001.

Katzman, Kenneth. Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service Report, 2011.

Kyl, Jon. Iran and North Korea: U.S. Policy Toward the “Axle of Evil”. Republican Policy Committee, 2003.

Muir, Jim. “Iran Condemns Attacks on US.” BBC News, September 17, 2001.

National Intelligence Council. “Iran: Nuclear Capabilities and Intentions.” National Intelligence Estimate, 2007.

Obama, Barack. “Address before a Joint Session of Congress on the State of the Union.” January 27, 2010.

—. “Camp David Declaration.” May 19, 2012.

—. “Executive Order 13622 – Authorizing Additional Sanctions with Respect to Iran.” July 30, 2012.

Obama, Barack, interview by Bahman Kalbasi. Interview of the President by Bahman Kalbasi, BBC Persian (September 24, 2010).

—. “Remarks on Improving Homeland Security in Kaneohe, Hawaii.” December 28, 2009.

—. “Remarks on the United Nations Security Council Resolution on Iran’s Sanctions.” June 9, 2010.

—. “Remarks to the United Nations General Assembly in New York City.” September 23, 2009.

—. “Statement on the Situation in Iran.” June 20, 2009.

—. “The President’s News Conference.” February 9, 2009.

—. “The President’s News Conference with President Lee Myng-Bak of South Korea in Soeul, South Korea.” November 19, 2009.

—. “The President’s News Conference with President Lee Myung-Bak of South Korea.” October 13, 2011.

—. “Videotaped Remarks on Observance of Nowruz.” March 20, 2010.

—. “Videotaped Remarks on the Observance of Nowruz.” March 20, 2009.

—. “Videotaped Remarks on the Observance of Nowruz.” March 20, 2012.

Pape, Matthew S. “Can We Put the Leaders of the “Axis of Evil” in the Crosshairs?” Parameters: U.S. Army War College, 2002.

Public Broadcasting Service. The “Grand Bargain” Fax: A Missed Opportunity. n.d.

Sanger, David E. “Obama Order Sped Up Save of Cyberattacks Against Iran.” The New York Times, June 1, 2012.

Sanger, David E., and William J. Broad. “Inspectors Confirm New Work by Iran at Secure Nuclear Site.” August 30, 2012.

The Arms Control Association. History of Official Proposals on the Iranian Nuclear Issue. August 2012.

U.S. Congress House Sub-Committee on National Security, Veteran Affairs, and International Relations. “Combating Terrorism: Axis of Evil, Multi-lateral Containment or Unilateral Confrontation?” Washington, DC: 107th Congress, 2nd Session, 2002.

Westall, Sylvia. “Iran Nuclear “Threat” Hyped: IAEA’s ElBaradei.” Reuters, September 23, 2009.

Woodward, Bob. Plan of Attack. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.

[1] James W. Ceaser et al., “The Rise of the Rhetorical Presidency,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 11 (Spring 1981).

[2] Country Profile: Iran. A monograph and primer prepared at the request of the Library of Congress, Federal Research Division, May 2008, pg 3. Accessed:

[3] Kenneth Katzman, “Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses,” A Congressional Research Service Report prepared for members and committees of Congress, February 14, 2011, pg 50. Accessed:

[4] George W. Bush: “Message to the Congress on Continuation of the National Emergency With Respect to Iran,” March 13, 2001.

[5] George W. Bush: “Statement on Signing the ILSA Extension Act of 2001,” August 3, 2001.

[6] Jim Muir, “Iran Condemns Attacks on US,” BBC News, September 17, 2001.

[7] George W. Bush: “Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the United States Response to the Terrorist Attacks of September 11,” September 20, 2001.

[8] Michael Moran, “U.S. – Iran Relations Since World War II: An Interactive Timeline,” Council on Foreign Relations,

[9] George W. Bush: “Remarks Following a Meeting With the Economic Team and an Exchange With Reporters,” January 10, 2002.

[10] George W. Bush, “Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union,” January 29, 2002.

[11] Daniel Heradstveit and G. Matthew Bonham, “What the Axis of Evil Metaphor Did to Iran,” Middle East Journal 61 (2007), 423.

[12] Ibid., 424.

[13] U.S. Congress. House. Sub-Committee on National Security, Veterans Affairs and International Relations. Committee on Government Reform. Combating Terrorism: Axis of Evil, Multi-lateral Containment or Unilateral Confrontation?: Hearing before the Sub-Committee on National Security, Veterans Affairs and International Relations. 107th Cong., 2nd sess., April 16, 2002.

[14] Matthew S. Pape, “Can We Put the Leaders of the “Axis of Evil” in the Crosshairs?” Parameters: U.S. Army War College 32 (Fall 2002).

[15]Jon Kyl, U.S. Senate. Republican Policy Committee, “Iran and North Korea: U.S. Policy Toward the “Axle of Evil,” August 25, 2003.

[16] Bob Woodward, Plan of Attack (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), p. 87.

[17] “The “Grand Bargain” Fax: A Missed Opportunity,” Public Broadcasting Service, Accessed:

[18] “Iran Memo Expurgated,” New York Times, April 29, 2001, Accessed:

[19] Kenneth Katzman ,“Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses,” A Congressional Research Service Report prepared for members and committees of Congress, February 14, 2011, pg 50-51, Accessed:

[20] George W. Bush, “Interview With Al Arabiyya of the United Arab Emirates,” May 29, 2003.

[21] George W. Bush, “The President’s News Conference With President Vladimir Putin of Russia in St. Petersburg, Russia,” June 1, 2003.

[22] George W. Bush, “Statement on the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture,” June 26, 2003.

[23] George W. Bush, “Exchange With Reporters in Kennebunkport, Maine,” June 15, 2003.

[24] George W. Bush, “Remarks on the 20th Anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy,” November 6, 2003.

[25] George W. Bush, “Statement on the Earthquake in Iran,” December 26, 2003.

[26] Moran, “Timeline.”

[27] George W. Bush, “Remarks on New Year’s Day and an Exchange With Reporters,” January 1, 2004.

[28] George W. Bush, “Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union,” January 20, 2004.

[29] George W. Bush, “Remarks at a Bush-Cheney Luncheon in Louisville,” February 26, 2004.

[30] “Timeline: US-Iran ties: A Chronology of Key Events,” British Broadcasting Company, January 16, 2009, Accessed:

[31] George W. Bush, “The President’s News Conference,” March 16, 2005.

[32] George W. Bush, “The President’s News Conference,” April 28, 2005.

[33] Heradstveit and G Bonham, “What the Axis of Evil Metaphor Did to Iran,” pg 432.

[34] George W. Bush,  “Statement on the Presidential Elections in Iran,” June 16, 2005.

[35]Kenneth Katzman ,“Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses,” A Congressional Research Service Report prepared for members and committees of Congress, February 14, 2011, pg 50-51, Accessed:

[36] George W. Bush, “The President’s News Conference in Crawford, Texas,” August 9, 2005.

[37] George W. Bush, “Remarks on the War on Terror and a Question-and-Answer Session in Manhattan, Kansas,” January 23, 2006.

[38] George W. Bush, “Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union,” January 31, 2006.

[39] There was a third instance of appealing to Iranian reformers and youth. Somewhat less direct (but no less frequently applied), this goal was to double down on the mission in Iraq. For example, at the National Newspaper Association Government Affairs Conference in 2006, “A free Iraq will inspire reformers in Iran.”

[40] Katzman, “Iran,” pg 51.

[41] “Iran: Nuclear Capabilities and Intentions,” National Intelligence Estimate, National Intelligence Council, November 2007, Accessed:

[42] Moran, “Timeline.”

[43] Barack Obama, “The President’s News Conference,” February 9, 2009.

[44] An annual tradition dating back to President H. W. Bush in which America wishes Iranians well during one of their most prominent holidays

[45] Erdbrink, Thomas, and Glenn Kessler. “Obama’s Tone in Iran Message Differs Sharply from Bush’s.” Washington Post, March 21, 2009.

[46] Barack Obama, “Videotaped Remarks on the Observance of Nowruz,” March 20, 2009.

[47] Katzman, “Iran,” pg. 52.

[48] Barack Obama, “Statement on the Situation in Iran,” June 20, 2009.

[49] Sylvia Westall, “Iran Nuclear “threat” hyped: IAEA’s ElBaradei,” Reuters, September 2, 2009.

[50] Barack Obama, “Remarks to the United Nations General Assembly in New York City,” September 23, 2009

[51] Interestingly, President Obama mentioned North Korea in the same breath, reinforcing The Bush era’s emphasis on the remaining members of the Axis of Evil.

[52] “History of Official Proposals on the Iranian Nuclear Issue,” The Arms Control Association, August 2012, Accessed:

[53] Barack Obama, “The President’s News Conference with President Lee Myung-Bak of South Korea in Soeul, South Korea,” November 19 2009.

[54] Barack Obama, “Remarks on Improving Homeland Security in Kaneohe, Hawaii,” December 28, 2009.

[55] Barack Obama, “Address before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union,” January 27, 2010.

[56] Barack Obama, “Videotaped Remarks on Observance of Nowruz,” March 20, 2010.

[57] Barack Obama, “Remarks on the United Nations Security Council Resolution on Iran’s Sanctions,” June 9, 2010.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Consider too that the Bush administration’s fear of WMDs being held by Iran was largely confirmed after Obama took office.

[60] Barack Obama, “Interview of the President by Bahman Kalbasi,” BBC Persian, September 24, 2010.

[61] Barack Obama, “Camp David Declaration,” May 19, 2012.

[62] Hillary Clinton, “Remarks on Iran Assassination Plot,” October 12, 2011.

[63] Barack Obama, “The President’s News Conference with President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea,” October 13, 2011.

[64] David E. Sanger, “Obama Order Sped Up Save of Cyberattacks Against Iran,” The New York Times, June 1, 2012.

[65] Barack Obama, “Executive Order 13622 – Authorizing Additional Sanctions With Respect to Iran,” July 30, 2012.

[66] David E. Sanger and Broad, William J., “Inspectors Confirm New Work by Iran at Secure Nuclear Site,” The New York Times, August 30, 2012.

[67] Barack Obama, “Videotaped Remarks on the Observance of Nowruz,” March 20, 2012.

[68] George Friedman, “The Election, the Presidency and Foreign Policy,” Stratfor, July 31, 2012.