Exclusive Interview: Ledeen: Push Democratic Revolt in Iran

Michael Ledeen, the Freedom Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says pushing a democratic revolution within Iran is the wisest policy the United States can pursue to avert the threat posed by that country’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

In fact, Ledeen believes Iran has already developed a nuclear weapon, which, in his view, they will not test until it is deployable on an intermediate-range missile.

Ledeen, who holds a doctorate in history and philosophy from the University of Wisconsin, was a consultant to the National Security Council and the State and Defense Departments during the Reagan Administration. He is also the author of The War Against the Terror Masters (St. Martin’s Press). He was interviewed by Human Events Editors Terence P. Jeffrey and Allan H. Ryskind.

Why do you think Iran wants nuclear weapons?

Because they want to dominate the world and without nuclear weapons they can’t dominate the world. There is a more specific and recent catalyst for this decision and that was the 1991 Gulf War where they analyzed what had happened to Saddam and they said, "Ah ha. You see, if Saddam had had nuclear weapons the American people wouldn’t have dared do that. We don’t want the Americans to push us around so we need nuclear weapons." It’s at that point that they elevated that program to a sort of crash status.

Do you think they actually have global hegemonic ambitions?

Well, of course I do. They say that. They say it explicitly. They say: We must prepare to rule the world. Those are their actual words.

Does Ayatollah Khamenei, the head of the Iranian Guardian Council, talk this way?

Yes, Khamenei talks this way. Ahmadinejad talks this way. Rafsanjani talks this way on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, he talks like Sen. [Joe] Biden [D.-Del.].

They want to establish a global Shiite regime?

Yes. I mean that’s what they’re all about. It’s a messianic religion, and they believe that they are the right ones. That the Sunnis are wrong, that they are right, and that at some point the 12th Imam will emerge from obscurity and lead them to victory.

You say the 1991 Gulf War accelerated their drive to develop nuclear weapons. Part of the time since then we had what at least in the West was reported to be a moderate Iranian President, namely Mohammed Khatami. Is this desire to have a global Shiite regime and to develop nuclear weapons one that’s shared by both the moderates and the extremists in Iran?

Yes. Just think about it this way: There is a committee of what anyone would call hardliners in Iran, which purges the list of candidates for the presidency of any person who does not have the confidence of the regime. Khatami was, originally, in terms of people who wanted candidates, something like number 232. The 231 ahead of him were all thrown off the list.

How do we know he was 232?

Because it was reported in the Iranian press.

They had polls?

They have these surprising things. It’s an odd sort of dictatorship. Every now and then things filter out that you wouldn’t expect to filter out. For example, they conducted their own opinion poll two or three years ago. It was carried out by someone in the information ministry. So, imagine, you’re an Iranian and you’re walking down the street of, say, Isfahan, and some guy comes up to you with a clipboard and says: "Hi, I’m from your information ministry and I would like to ask you a few questions about how you feel about us." So you know it’s a loyalty check. Under those circumstances, 73% of Iranians said they did not like the regime and wanted it changed. So the real number, a friend of mine said, must be 99%. If you get 73% with that method, it’s obvious that the real number is higher. So, they know that their people hate them. There’s never been any doubt about that.

If the U.S. war to evict Saddam from Kuwait provided an incentive for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon more quickly, why wouldn’t the sentiment that a nuclear weapon would defend it against a foreign invasion be something shared by all Iranians, not just the religious right?

Well it may be. A lot of people assert that. But nobody knows that. There is no empirical evidence to support that. The empirical evidence is not clear cut. There are some people who have taken some polls that show most Iranians want it and there are others who have taken polls that show most Iranians don’t want it. I suppose it probably depends on how you ask the question.

If 73% of Iranians don’t like the regime, how long can the regime keep all those people down? Even when Hitler was in power the majority supported him, at least for awhile.

That’s very important. That is one of the reasons why I think our chances of winning by supporting democratic revolution in Iran are so good, and I like to say: Look, if we could bring down the Soviet Empire by sponsoring democratic revolution there with the active support of maybe 5% to 10% of the people, which is the most we ever had, I think if we could succeed there, how much easier it must be in Iran were we’ve got 70%, 80%, 90% of the people on our side. What they’re waiting to see is active support from us, and they have not had that, or from anybody else. I sometimes joke and say Portugal could do this. Greece could do it. Anybody can do it. There’s not a country in the whole Western world that’s had the honesty and the integrity and the principled will to do this. And it’s really appalling.

So you think the wisest strategy for averting the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran is for the U.S. to promote a democratic revolution from within the country?

Yes. Absolutely. Thomas Friedman rightly calls Iran the one Red State in the Middle East. The Iranian people are very pro-American. They demonstrate every 9-11. They go through the streets with lighted candles mourning the death of Americans. They want to go to Disneyland. They want to be part of the Western world. They have a long history of self-government and democracy, unlike a lot of other Muslim countries in the Middle East, and I believe that when we get there we will find that Islam really is out of business in Iran for at least this generation.

I get on my Ouija Board with Bill Casey, and I say, okay, how do we do it? Casey would say to Bush, look, we actually did it more or less openly. There’s very little of our support that was covert. It went through a lot of American public institutions and some private ones.

But the Soviet Union and its empire were different from Iran. We didn’t really undermine the Soviet Union from within, it seems to me. What we did was build up our weapons, challenge them economically, send stuff to Afghanistan and Africa and elsewhere.

Yes, all of that was important. But we also broadcast Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. We supported all the various Helsinki Groups. We supported all kinds of dissidents by name. Every time an American went to the Soviet Union, we demanded the release of various political prisoners. An astonishing number of them came out. The AFL-CIO funneled support to democratic trade union movements, from Solidarity in Poland to similar movements in Czechoslovakia and even in the Soviet Union. That’s what we have to do in Iran.

But I want to get this analogy straight. In the Soviet Union itself, they didn’t have a coup.

No, they had an insurrection.

You’re saying at the very end, they had an insurrection—with Yeltsin?

Yes. If you ask Gorbachev what happened, I’m sure he will tell you by now that he was overthrown. And Yeltsin was able to do it because he had the support of the overwhelming majority of Soviet citizens because they wanted a free system.

The real comparison you’re making is to something like Poland and Solidarity and Lech Walesa?

And the Philippines and Ukraine and Georgia and Yugoslavia. How did we get rid of Milosovic?

At the same time we were helping Solidarity undermine the Communists in Poland we were also helping the Mujahideen undermine the Communists in Afghanistan. The result in Poland was a Western-style democracy that helps us in Iraq and the result in Afghanistan was the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. Isn’t there an underlying cultural difference that will make it more difficult for us to do this sort of thing in an Islamic country in the Middle East than it was to do in a county in Europe?

Well, a lot of people believe Arabs aren’t ready for a democracy. I don’t think anyone believes that Iranians are not ready for democracy. Iran already had a constitution in 1906 that would serve as a model for the whole region. It’s really first class. But there are a lot of people who believe there’s a democracy chromosome missing in Arab DNA or some such thing. I don’t believe that. I think they need some education. They need some information. I think there is a lot about the way free societies function that they don’t understand. But I also think there are a lot that understand it quite well. I think our chances are excellent. Look, it took a long time in Western Europe — presumably over-equipped with democratic chromosomes — to figure out the rules of democratic society.

So on one level we would have the President using the bully pulpit, and diplomacy, to pressure the Iranians at every turn — to draw attention to their human rights abuses and so forth.


And an another level we should aid Iranian dissidents? What about the $85 million that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked Congress for last week to support reformers in Iran? Is that a step in the right direction? Is that enough?

It’s a small step, years late, but it’s certainly a very good step. I hope all that money doesn’t end up inside the State Department. It seems that $50 million is going to VOA, which hasn’t been particularly vigorous in promoting democracy in Iran, obviously, because the American government — for which VOA speaks after all — has been so feckless. It would be better to support a wide range of broadcasters, and to concentrate on radio rather than T.V. I’m told that VOA and "Farda" (which is the Persian language equivalent of the old Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) is going to do less radio and more T.V., which I think is a mistake. Anyone can get radio, most anywhere they are, but you need a dish for satellite T.V., and lots of Iranians don’t have access to that sort of technology.

And on another level we ought to be funneling cash to groups inside Iran that are resisting the regime we’re speaking up against?

Yes, we should be doing it. But we’re not doing it. Rice said in her testimony that we were helping to train Iranian trade union leaders. That would be great, that’s exactly the sort of thing we should do.

Can we do it?

Of course we can do it.

If they are a terrorist regime and they are acting the way Adolph Hitler did, and we know the Guardian Council vetoes any kind of reform, how easy will it be for us to do it, especially when we have Shi’ites in Iraq, Moqtada Sadr, saying he’ll come to the aid of Iran if they’re under any pressure.

Oh dear. Oh dear. Moqtada and his five guys, right? He didn’t do as well as most expected in the Iraqi elections, and most Iraqi Shi’ites hate Iran. Look, I understand all that. But the world — even in the Middle Eastern tyrannies — is much more open than people imagine. You can transfer money to anybody anywhere in the world now through this underground money-changer, money-transfer system that operates all over the Islamic world. You can move money. There’s nothing to prevent that from happening. I am in contact and friends of mine are in contact with plenty of dissident Iranians ranging from Ayatollahs to students. Communication is possible. It is sometimes tricky. It is sometimes difficult. It is sometimes interrupted. But it works.

The NSA may be intercepting your e-mails, Michael.

[Laughter.] Well, I’m sure they intercept all my e-mails and I hope they enjoy them.

Dear Ayatollah—

That’s fine with me. Although, I don’t send him e-mails.

How patient should we be in allowing this kind of strategy to unfold?

It’s unpredictable, so it wouldn’t be something to put a timeline on. I thought it would take longer in the Soviet Union. I was surprised it happened as quickly as it did in the Soviet Union. I think most of the time we are surprised when democratic revolutions break out.

There have been some reports that the Iranians could develop a nuclear weapon in five years. The Washington Post cited one U.S. intelligence report that said it would be more like 10. How soon do you think they might develop a nuclear weapon and would that be an absolute deadline for getting this done?

Well, I think they already have nuclear weapons, and what I’ve said for years is that the nuclear question is a colossal strategic mistake by the Iranians. Because all it really does is increase the urgency of going after the regime and our primary weapons against the regime are not military, they are political.

You think the Iranian regime right now has the nuclear device that they could detonate?


You just think they haven’t tested one?

I think they haven’t tested it, and I think they haven’t tested it because they haven’t developed a nuclear warhead on an intermediate range missile and when they have that they will test it. They will show it.

So they don’t have a delivery system?

They have some delivery systems, but they don’t have the delivery system they want.

That could specifically threaten Israel, for example?

Right, or us if they manage to move such things to places like Cuba or Venezuela.

But if they have a nuclear warhead right now, wouldn’t there be the threat that if we invaded they would detonate it amidst our troops?

I’m not in favor of invasion.

I know. I didn’t ask you that, but isn’t that a real threat?

Yeah, I guess. It depends on what kind of military operation you are talking about. There are an awful lot of different kinds of military operations.

Or they might detonate it near some of our ships in the Gulf?

Well, they might. They might do almost anything because they are crazy.

So, if they do have a nuclear weapon, we would seriously have to consider the possibility of a nuclear attack against us if in fact we invaded.

I think that, invasion or no invasion, if they show us that they have these missiles with nuclear warheads, then we would have to worry about being attacked by them, period, whatever the rest of our policy might be.

They have been at war with us for 26 years. We are only recently beginning to think about responding.


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