Obama Administration Officials Take The 'Malign' Line On Iran

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'Malign' is the buzzword of the moment among administration officials to describe Iran's activities in the region. NPR takes a look at the use of the word.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

At today's hearing, and more than a hundred other times since the nuclear deal was signed two weeks ago, American officials have used an unusual word to describe Iran's activities or influence. That word is malign. NPR's David Welna has been following Washington's latest buzzword.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: In his opening statement today, Defense Secretary Ash Carter argued the nuclear deal with Iran was good because it served...

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ASH CARTER: To check Iran's malign influence.

WELNA: What's more, Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey said the deal was good...

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MARTIN DEMPSEY: To counter the Iranian regime's malign activities.

WELNA: These officials clearly align on malign. As he flew to Israel last week, Secretary Carter spoke to reporters about...

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CARTER: The potential for Iranian malign activity.

WELNA: In Tel Aviv, he called the nuclear deal necessary to...

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CARTER: Check Iranian malign influence.

WELNA: And at an air base in Jordan, Carter again spoke of...

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CARTER: Countering Iranian malign influence.

WELNA: And in Baghdad, he pointed to...

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CARTER: Iranian malign activity in the region.

WELNA: So why this repeated use of malign? Karim Sadjadpour is an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Malign, he says, is decidedly more benign than some other terms.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: If you're the administration, malign is a safer word than, you know, radical, terrorist, extremist because you are making the argument for a deal more difficult if you refer to Iran in those terms.

WELNA: Which is why, Sadjadpour says, administration officials are taking the malign line.

SADJADPOUR: They go on these word binges. They discover a word and they'll say it for many, many months on end. And then next month, they may discover another word, which is, you know, could be slightly stronger than malign. It could be slightly weaker than malign, and they will use it.

WELNA: But at least for now, malign's the word. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.