The Moment of Truth?
U.S. policy could determine Iran's destiny.


Michael Ledeen

After two and a half years of internal bickering and paralyzing turf battles, the national-security apparatus seems to be gearing up to define our Iran policy. The Washington Post, which is usually right about such things, has announced that a high-level meeting was scheduled for Tuesday morning, and my own more modest sources tell me of unfortunate bureaucrats canceling dinner and travel plans in order to work straight through the holiday weekend to respond to more than three dozen pages of queries from the National Security Council.

The sense of urgency conveyed by such extraordinary requests demonstrates the longstanding failure of the NSC to either forge a consensus among the various agencies involved in national security, or to take the disagreements to the president so that he could tell them what he wanted. Our Iraq mission was defined shortly after September 11, but we still do not have an Iran policy, even though Iran is a charter member of the Axis of Evil, and has topped the list of state sponsors of terrorism for years, and still does.

The urgency comes from the situation on the ground. Even the dreamers in the Department of State and the intelligence community could no longer shrug off (or blame on ourselves) the active involvement of the mullahs in the most recent terrorist attacks, their frantic and apparently increasingly successful race to develop an atomic bomb, and their commitment of thousands of men and millions of dollars to sabotage our efforts to bring an orderly and free society to Iraq. The operation in Riyadh was planned in Iran by al Qaeda leaders, notably Said bin Laden (Osama’s son) and Mohammed Shoghi, whose nom de guerre is Abu Khalid Sayef al Adel (which means “the sword of justice”). Three days before the Riyadh attacks, 17 al Qaeda members were quietly moved to the Sistan and Baluchistan areas at the Pakistan border, hoping to conceal the Iranian connection, but it was uncovered anyway.

Inside Iraq, there are thousands of Iranian agents at work: radical Iraqi mullahs who were trained in Iranian mosques since the early 1980s, top officers of the Revolutionary Guards, various thugs and killers, and even the head of the Iranian Intelligence Ministry, Ali Panahi, who was dispatched to Karbala to organize the anti-American demonstrations after the fall of Saddam, and then to Baghdad. The new American in charge of Iraq, Jerry Bremer, was so alarmed at what he saw in Iraq that he has been peppering the intelligence community for more information on Iranian operations ever since he arrived.

On the nuclear front, there are many alarming signs. Just a few months ago, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze held a press conference in which he announced that his country’s leading nuclear experts were in Iran, working on the mullahs’ bomb. And last year the American government was informed of many details of the Iranian program, including a then-secret heavy-water project in Arak. This operation had been hidden by a Tehran company called Masbah Energy, located on a side street just off the main drag — Vali Assra, formerly Pahlavi Avenue. The United States also learned that the chief engineers of the Arak project had come from the former Soviet Union: Vladimir Mirny of the Ukraine, Aleksy Volev of Russia, and a third expert with the catchy name of Andrei Kalachnikov.

Within the past two months, leaders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were informed by the country’s National Security Council that the country would soon have nuclear weapons, and there are some well-informed people who believe that the regime is hoping to be able to test a device by the end of the summer.

Despite all this, the State Department, driven by Policy Planning’s Richard Haass had eagerly sought to establish a “dialogue” with the butchers of Tehran, an effort that received full support from the NSC’s man on Afghanistan and Iran, Zalmay Khalilzad, who personally conducted many of the secret talks. The very idea of “dialogue” was a triumph of American naïveté over evidence, and the Iranians eagerly exploited the talks to forestall any American move against the Tehran regime, which is the mullahs’ constant nightmare. They know the Iranian people hate them (as many as a million people have flooded the streets of the major cities over the past year and a half in open protest, and a general strike has been called for the ninth of July). Both the tyrants and the citizens believe that American policy could determine the destiny of the country, as it has several times in the recent past. The mullahs used the fact of the talks to delay any American action, and to discourage the opposition. “You see,” they said, “the Americans deal with us, they recognize our legitimacy. They will never support you.”

If we have finally come to the moment of truth in the debate over Iran policy, the mullahs’ worst nightmare may come true. For if the United States chooses to give real support to the regime’s opponents, there could well be a replay of the mass demonstrations that led to the fall of Milosevic in Yugoslavia and the Marcoses in the Philippines. If the Bush administration instead falls back on merely repeating the president’s many words of condemnation of the regime and praise for the opposition, the mullahs may survive to kill us yet another day.

It is impossible to win in Iraq or to block the spread of weapons of mass destruction throughout the terror network without bringing down the mullahs. Iran is not only a participant on the other side; it is the heart of the jihadist structure. If we are really serious about winning the war against terrorism, we must defeat Iran. Thus far, we haven’t been serious enough.

The debate on Iran policy must produce coherence throughout the administration. The president has been exceptionally clear about Iran — a self-appointed, terrorist-supporting tyranny with an impotent group of elected officials masking the true nature of the regime — but some of his top underlings have openly contradicted him. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, for example, who never says a word without the approval of Secretary Powell, recently called Iran a “democracy,” and statements of this sort play directly into the hands of the mullahs. That sort of dangerous confusion has to stop.

Second, it is long past time for us to support the many independent Farsi-language radio and television stations that broadcast to Iran from the United States. There is an “official” American station, radio Farda, that does some good work, but it cannot speak to the Iranians with the same authenticity as the Iranian Americans.

Third, we need to use Iraqi Shiism against Tehran. The Shiite tradition long insisted on separation of mosque and state, but this tradition was abandoned by Iran’s fanatical Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the anti-shah revolution of 1979. The most important Iraqi Shiite clerics (and a surprising number of leading Iranian ayatollahs) are opposed to the Khomeneist doctrine, and we should support them, both in Iraq and in Iran itself. The Islamic Republic has been a catastrophe for the Iranian people, ruining the economy, murdering, or torturing those secular and religious leaders who call for greater freedom, shamefully enriching a handful of mullahs while prostitution, drug addiction, and beggary spread like epidemics throughout the society, and spending tens of millions of dollars to create and support the most vicious terrorist organizations, from al Qaeda to Hezbollah.

Fourth, we need to find ways to get tangible support to the brave people who have called for a general strike in early July. Once upon a time, they could have counted on receiving money, communications equipment, and moral support from Western trade unions, private philanthropies, and their own diaspora. At the moment, none of these has been willing to join the cause, to their great shame. But if the issue were clearly defined by all the administration’s leaders, miracles might be accomplished.

This is not, as so many of the administration’s critics would have it, a call for further military action. Indeed, it is a prerequisite for limiting further fighting and safeguarding the lives of our soldiers now exposed to Iranian terrorism and insurrection in Iraq. It would reinforce the president’s basic insight that the war against terrorism is fundamentally a struggle against tyranny, and that we have entered the Middle East as liberators, not conquerors.

If we fail to act decisively, we will permit the mullahs to define the near future. The war against terrorism was never limited to a single country, or to a single strategy. We have defeated Saddam, now we must spread freedom to the heartland of the terror masters in Iran.

Now, please. Time’s up.

— Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. Ledeen, Resident Scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute, can be reached through Benador Associates.