What the Axis of Evil Metaphor Did to Iran

By Heradstveit, Daniel; Bonham, G. Matthew | The Middle East Journal, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

What the Axis of Evil Metaphor Did to Iran


Heradstveit, Daniel, Bonham, G. Matthew, The Middle East Journal


This article focuses on the Axis of Evil metaphor that was used by President George W. Bush in his State of the Union Address in 2002 to represent Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. After describing "axis" as a metonym for fascism and Nazism, and "evil" as a metonym for Satanic forces that implies an alliance of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea that is collectively responsible for evil deeds, the authors analyze the impact of this metaphor on Iranian self-image and politics. The data for this analysis are drawn from in-depth interviews conducted with 18 members of the Iranian oppositional elite. The interview results suggest that the Axis of Evil metaphor had an impact on political discourse in Iran and strengthened the rhetorical position of conservatives vis-à-vis reformers by reviving militant revolutionary language with the Great Satan (the United States) as the main target of the theocratic and conservative forces. The article concludes with some observations about the implications of using cultural and historical experiences for explaining differences between the ways in which Americans (and other people in the West) and Iranians have understood the metaphor.

In this article, we focus on the Axis of Evil as a creative metaphor; mat is, a metaphor that is capable of giving us a new view of the world.1 Metaphor is the first step in the construction of such novel understandings, especially those that change the way we see our world.2 The restructuring often begins with a vague idea that has long been neglected, such as an "Axis." In this respect the Axis of Evil metaphor is a kind of cognitive breakthrough, an effort to restructure the international system as it was in the 1930s - an attempt to see the world through the eyes of that period. Recalling the Second World War, the Axis Powers are evil, and the implication is that something must be done about them. If you find the metaphor to be compelling, then you must act. In fact, metaphor sanctions actions and helps to build goals.3 Metaphor puts an end to debate once you follow it to its conclusion, and then the implications for action are obvious. A senior advisor to President Bush has acknowledged the implications of this view in an interview with a journalist. He said, "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."4

The contribution of this article is its focus on both the target of a metaphor, and its source.5 While the metaphor may re-structure the way the West views Iran, it also re-structures the way the Iranians view the world, and, more importantly, themselves. The Axis of Evil metaphor divides the world into two parts: those who believe in the metaphor and those who do not. However, whether you believe in the metaphor or not, it changes the way you view your world. For example, the targets of the Axis of Evil may not take the metaphor seriously, but they don't want to be part of "Evil." For them the source of the metaphor may also become the source of evil.

THE AXIS OF EVIL SPEECH6

In his State of the Union Address to Congress on January 29, 2002, President Bush used the expression, the Axis of Evil, to include Iraq, Iran, and North Korea: "States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an Axis of Evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger."7

The phrase itself was constructed by David Frum, a White House speechwriter, who came up with "Axis of Hatred" to describe the linkage between Iraq and terrorism. Frum's boss, Michael Gerson, changed the phrase to Axis of Evil to make it sound "more sinister, even wicked."8 Later Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's National Security Advisor, and Stephen Hadley, Deputy National Security Advisor, suggested adding North Korea and Iran as part of the Axis. …

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