Capitol Ideas

Michael Ledeen on Iran and Democracy

An interview.

By From the November 2009 issue

I hadn't seen Michael Ledeen in years when I bumped into him at a party for George Gilder's new book, The Israel Test. An admirer of Machiavelli, Ledeen has for years focused on Iran. His new book, Accomplice to Evil: Iran and the War Against the West, is just out from St. Martin's Press. He held a chair at AEI for 20 years and today is a Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.

Born in Los Angeles in 1941, Ledeen has a daughter in Afghanistan and a son in Marine Corps basic training. In October 2007 Ledeen said, "Those who believe that I am part of some ‘hawkish gang' just haven't noticed that I am opposed to invasion or bombing the nuclear facilities [in Iran]. My fear is that by failing to promote a nonviolent democratization of Iran we make large-scale vio-lence much more likely."

For years he has believed that Iran "fulfills all the condition of a revolutionary situation," and that the U.S. should promote it. The events in Iran this June confirmed this view. I congratulated him for being right. Nothing irritates the experts more than this, he said, and he had become un-popular as a result. He agreed to sit down for an interview.

TB: You are with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy. But is democracy always a good idea? Aren't "the people" en masse more likely to support fanaticism than the educated? Democracy can give you what you don't want, such as the tyranny of Hamas. Meanwhile in Egypt we have a strongman bought and paid for by the U.S. who has kept the lid on fanaticism.
ML: It's true that the least of evils is a legitimate policy. If you're convinced that you face bad op-tions, then by all means take the least bad. If the lid came off in Egypt most people think that the Muslim Brotherhood would govern Egypt, and that's a terrible outcome, every bit as bad as Hamas.

TB: How would the Arab world look if it became more democratic?
ML: It depends. I don't do the Arab world that much. I'm worrying more about Iran, which is anti-Arab. Iranians hate Arabs. They're a fairly well-educated population and they have centuries of ex-perience with self-government. The fanatics who have been governing the country for the last 30 years are not uneducated. The Revolutionary Guards, which is now the most powerful force in Iran, have their own university. The overwhelming majority of the Iranian people want to be rid of this regime, which they hate, and they have every good reason to do so. They want to be a normal country enjoying good relations with the rest of the world.

TB: Since I saw you last week, there has been one more uprising in Iran.
ML: September 18th. I live-blogged it. I tried to follow along the events of the day. Then I posted them.

TB: It was apparently much bigger than anyone has conceded.
ML: It was bigger than most American media have reported, and I think bigger even than the op-position leaders expected. I don't think anybody could have expected millions of people in the streets of Tehran, a million and a quarter in the streets of Isfahan. And the crowds were disci-plined.

TB: There was a parallel development here a few days earlier. A crowd, much larger than media estimates, turned out on the Mall to protest Obama's policies. The press said only "tens of thousands," but there were estimates of a million.
ML: It's becoming a national sport for the dying media not to report things that they don't like. If they can get away with it they don't report it at all. In Iran these events were even more powerful because the security people went out intending to put it down. But there were so many people that they were unable to.

TB: I can understand the media wanting to ignore anti-Obama rallies, but why would they down-play revolt in Iran?
ML: Because Obama wants to make a deal with the regime. The Obama people are quite visibly annoyed that the Iranian people have refused to go quietly. They get in the way of this wonderful deal that they think we're going to make.

TB: What are the prospects for these negotiations?
ML: I'll be very surprised if Obama gets an agreement that's enforceable. No one else has. Every American president in the last 30 years has tried to make a deal with Iran. Every one.

TB: Including Bush?
ML: Yes. Here's another story they will not report. In 2006 Bush approved direct negotiations be-tween the U.S. and Iran. By the end of the summer the Americans believed they had an agreement. Iran would announce the end of uranium enrichment and Condi Rice would announce that we were ending sanctions. She and undersecretary Nicholas Burns went to New York and they were all sitting around waiting for the Iranians to come. And they never came. The story was closely held. It's featured in a series on the BBC, and it's all in my new book.

TB: In your September 22 blog you called the leaders of the Islamic Republic "dead men walking." How long might that take?
ML: You never know with these things. Take the Soviet Union. Even those of us who were con-vinced that it was finished were surprised when it happened. And I'm sure it will be the same with Iran. I can't tell you whether it will happen quietly and peacefully, or by some kind of huge conflagration. But it will happen.

TB: Let's assume these negotiations fail. With Iran on the verge of legitimate rebellion, would that not be the worst time for the U.S. to launch a military attack?
ML: Without some dramatic new facts, there's no chance that the U.S will attack Iran. We have been busy releasing Iranian prisoners in Iraq -- Revolutionary Guards officers and the like. Lots of them. So we're not going to do anything.

TB: How about Israel?
ML: It's a tough question to answer. You have to know what Netanyahu thinks he knows. About Iranian nuclear technology: Where does the program stand? Do they have a bomb? A delivery system? How reliable is it? You would also have to know all the key Israelis involved, and figure out how brave they are.

TB: How brave?
ML: It seems to me if you were the prime minister of Israel, and your head of military intelligence or Mossad came to you and said, "Sir, the Iranians are a month away from having a functioning nuclear device, and they already have intermediate range missiles that can hit us anywhere they choose." At that moment it seems to me that any Israeli prime minister has to say to his military, "Stop it. Whatever it takes." But "stop it" could take different forms. It does not automatically mean the standard Hollywood bombing run. There are other ways.

TB: Such as?
ML: Sabotage. Lots of ways to do that. I think we can assume that the Israelis have plenty of people on the ground. How close can they get to the labs? I don't know. If you just bring down the electrical system in the area of the launch site, that not only stops that missile, it stops all missiles. Somebody throws the switch and there's no electricity. Maybe they have backup generators, maybe not. One of the more generally unappreciated elements of geopolitical analysis is what I call the f***-up factor. Iran has one of the highest that I have ever seen. They have wrecked everything.

TB: For example?
ML: My favorite story from the September 18th uprising was the soccer game. Big stadium. 100,000 men, wearing green, the color of the revolution. It's broadcast live on national television, in color. The producer sees the sea of green and says get rid of the color. So they broadcast in black and white. Then the men in the stadium start chanting "death to Gaza," "death to Hamas," "death to Hezbollah." So he says turn off the sound. So the country is watching this silent soccer game. But they forgot to turn off the radio. They screw up everything. So I'm not so sure they have backup generators. I just don't know.

TB: You finessed the question of whether U.S. military action would be a good idea by saying Obama isn't going to do it anyway.
ML: I think we should support the opposition; refuse to recognize Ahmadinejad as a legitimate president, demand the release of political prisoners, come out with all our human rights cannons firing. And we should be broadcasting into Iran all the time about what's going on.

TB: We're not doing that?
ML: They're not doing what they should be doing, which is get information from Isfahan and make sure people in Tehran know what's happening. That's what they need. With the social networking technologies, like Twitter and e-mail, the regime can get in the middle and makes it harder for them to communicate. Paradoxically it's easier for someone with a cell phone in Iran to call someone in New York, tell them what's going on, and then put that up on some website, than it is to communicate within Iran.

TB: Ahmadinejad's rhetoric seems to have been calculated to provoke us. Wouldn't a military at-tack unite Iran behind him?
ML: I never understood that argument. I mean, the Iranians hate this regime. They're out there risking their lives to bring it down. Anybody who showed up on the 18th wearing green and carry-ing a sign risked his life.

TB: Obviously the best thing would be for the rebellion to prevail.
ML: It will change the whole world. It would be one of the most dramatic events of recent years. It would pull the plug on no end of terrorist organizations. The files and archives of the Iranian intelligence sources will be invaluable. They would contain the history of modern terrorism. Hezbollah will disappear, because they'll have no money and no more intelligence. And I wouldn't be surprised to see Assad fall in Syria, because Syria is just an Iranian colony.

TB: If the Islamic regime is overthrown, what will replace it?
ML: I think a secular regime, and for this paradoxical reason: the leading senior clerics will insist on it.
The grand ayatollahs don't want an Islamic Republic anymore. They have seen that it is very bad for Islam. They have rediscovered Tocqueville. Religion works best when it is a free choice.

TB: Suppose a new, moderate regime takes power. Then they say Iran needs nukes anyway so they will continue on that path. What then?
ML: Mir Hossein Mousavi, the opposition candidate in the June election, said during the campaign that Iran should fulfill its international obligations and that all nuclear activity should be transparent. If he changes his mind then we will have a problem similar to the one we have today, except with a more reasonable regime, more responsive to the Iranian people. So far as I can tell, the people want a government that tends to their needs rather than international adventures. It might be rather like Indian nukes, about which we don't worry endlessly.

TB: Iraq. Was invading Iraq and taking down Saddam a good idea?
ML: It's hard not to be in favor of taking down monsters. But what I said at the time was that Iraq should not be at the top of the list. Iran should be. If this is part of the war on terror, Iran is always on top of the U.S. government's list of terrorism sponsors. Iran is much more important than Iraq in that context. And if you do Iran first you'll find that Iraq is a lot easier. In Iran you don't need any military. It's a political operation. All the people who have been saying be nice to Iran, don't criticize Iran, avoid conflict with Iran, are making a military war more likely. Because if in the end Iran has the bomb, we are left with the Sarkozy Option: Iran with the bomb, or Bomb Iran. Leaders may find that those are the two only options.

TB: Are you prepared to make any kind of prediction as to how things will come out in Iraq?
ML: No, I rarely predict things. The only thing that I think is safe to predict right now is that the regime in Iran is dead.

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).