Politics & Policy

No More Illusions

Michael Ledeen's tour de force shows the war with Iran is already on, whether we choose fight it or not.

For three decades, Iran has made war on the United States and unabashedly told the world that it seeks the destruction of the United States, all the while — directly and by proxy — murdering and imprisoning Americans. For three decades, Iran has brayed that “Death to America” is the alpha and the omega of its revolutionary designs.

And for three decades, the United States — under Democratic and Republican administrations — has pretended it just isn’t so.

Any day now, diplomats from Cyrus Vance to Robert MacFarlane to Madeleine Albright to Richard Armitage to Condoleezza Rice have wishfully maintained, we will strike the Grand Bargain. Any day now, the rapprochement will take hold. If we just overlook this atrocity or apologize for that indignity, the Iranian mullahcracy, a regime myopically dedicated to expanding and exporting its messianic hatred, will transmogrify into a normal government. It will renounce the terrorism that has been the spectacularly successful instrument of both its foreign policy and its iron-fisted domestic control. It will see the purported wisdom of abandoning its nuclear ambitions and the terror-mongering that has brought it to the brink of dominance on the world stage.

Well, we can continue living the dream, the suicidal illusion that it will all work out if we just negotiate … while they kill. But we will have no excuses. Henceforth, our blithe hallucination will have to abide the brutal truth’s withering stare. Michael Ledeen has seen to that.

His latest book, The Iranian Time Bomb: The Mullah Zealots’ Quest for Destruction, is released today. It is required reading for anyone — which ought to mean everyone — desirous of understanding the existential threat we face and why its beating heart is Tehran. Ledeen — incumbent of the American Enterprise Institute’s Freedom Chair, Reagan administration adviser on national-security matters, long-time National Review Online contributing editor, peerlessly insightful thinker on the ongoing war, and (in the interest of full disclosure) my good friend — has painstakingly laid out an indictment in two irrefutable counts: the Iranian regime’s unremitting determination to supplant the United States and establish a global Islamic hegemony; and the U.S.’s unremitting determination to deny (indeed, consciously to avoid knowledge of) reality, notwithstanding the mounting evidence … and body count.

Ledeen’s theme is as simple as it is incontestable: the theocratic regime ushered in by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s ascendancy in 1979 is not a conventional government motivated by and ruled in accordance with familiar interests and protocols. It is, instead, a revolutionary movement, driven by Islamic fundamentalism of a severe yet supple Shiite stripe, aspiring first to regional and ultimately to global dominance.

Like all such movements, it is tyrannical in nature. It tames its increasingly unhappy subjects with a sophisticated brand of barbarity — unlike Nazi and Soviet torturers, the mullahs tend to furlough their victims back into the general population so all can bare witness to the wages of resistance. And, as tyrants must, it has its bogeymen — the United States, the West generally, and, of course, Israel — to fuel its revolutionary ardor despite a cratering economy and the oppression that hangs ever more heavily on its citizens, in particular, its women, who, in the model of Khomeini, a misogynist of the first order, are reduced to chadored chattel: subjected to official second-class status, child-marriages, polygamy, and systematic ignorance.

Echoing Natan Sharansky, Ledeen observes that a terror regime’s international practices are reflections of such core rottenness. Of this proposition, the mullahs have been case in point from Day One, with a shrewdness equal to that on display in their domestic cruelties.

Iran has attacked the United States directly, as in the 444-day hostage crisis that humiliated the Carter administration; the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia, orchestrated by the Iran Republican Guard Corps (IRGC), the official arm of the regime’s ruling cleric (or “Supreme Leader”); and, most recently, the attacks on American forces in Iraq (including the murder of five American soldiers in Karbala earlier this year), in tandem with the detention of American citizens in Iran. More frequently, it has attacked the United States by its proxies: Hezbollah, which it furbished into a militia, which announced its arrival with a series of attacks against American military, diplomatic and intelligence targets (including, infamously, the 1983 Lebanon barracks bombing which killed 241 Marines), and which continues to take its direction from Tehran; al Qaeda, with which it has cultivated a working relationship for well over a decade, with whom it was palpably complicit in the 9/11 attacks, and which, Ledeen forcefully argues, is now dependent on the IRGC for its operations; the Taliban, whose anti-American operations it supports even as it feigns cooperation in the new Afghanistan; Hamas, with which — in tandem with the mullahs’ factotum, Syria — it is now trying to replicate in the Palestinian territories the Hezbollah model which has so destabilized Lebanon; and others.

While they are shrewd, the mullahs are the polar opposite of subtle. Thus the most enraging part of the book is Ledeen’s unflinching account of bipartisan American fecklessness through three decades of Iranian provocation. Carter’s haplessness was followed by Reagan’s dual blunders: the disastrous pull-out from Lebanon, with no retaliation, after the Marine barracks attack (to say nothing of the torture murders of other U.S. officials), and the naïve decision to negotiate with, and sell arms to, the regime in a mostly failed effort to secure the release of U.S. hostages — driven, according to Ledeen (a Reagan national-security administration official at the time), by the president’s concern for the hostages, and over the more prudent objections of Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger and Secretary of State George Schultz.

Clinton’s stewardship was an abomination. He allowed the Iranians a toe-hold in Eastern Europe (and thereby helped shape al Qaeda’s modern iteration) by giving the green-light for the mullahs to arm the Bosnian Muslims. He and his national-security team then willfully shunned the evidence of Iran’s orchestration of the Khobar Towers attack (in which nineteen American airmen were killed), adopting an inane courtroom proof standard to establish guilt, ensuring that the standard could not be met by declining to press the Saudis for available evidence, and, when the evidence finally did emerge (through the assiduous efforts of FBI Director Louis Freeh, aided by former President George H. W. Bush), suppressing and ignoring it in the misguided hope of a rapprochement through the 1997 election of a purported moderate reformer, President Mohammed Khatami.

As Ledeen argues, Khatami’s reformer reputation was grossly exaggerated. But more to the point, being duped by it bespeaks a mulish American refusal to understand the regime. Had Khatami actually been a threat to shake up the Iranian way of doing things, the mullahs would never have let him stand for election. But more to the point, the Iranian president is essentially a figurehead. The more assertive, brazenly apocalyptic Ahmadinejad better reflects the thinking of the mullahs, but power, in any event, lies in the hands of the Supreme Leader and the ruling clerics, not the president.

This stubborn ignorance is by no means the monopoly of policy-makers, which in Clinton days included Vice President Al Gore, who cut deals allowing Russia to aid Tehran’s nuclear program in violation of congressional statutes (including one he’d co-authored as a senator) — notwithstanding that he is one of the nation’s loudest critics of the Bush administration’s end-around of the FISA law. Ignorance, further, is a staple of the intelligence community which, when not totally in the blind about Iranian activities (thanks to drastic spending cuts), opines that Iran’s Shiite extremists would never collude with Sunni militants — notwithstanding the IRGC’s organic ties to Yassir Arafat’s Sunni/secular Fatah, and Iran’s equally deep relations with al Qaeda, Hamas and, more recently, its former sworn enemies, Iraq and the Taliban.

Which leads us to the current Bush administration. As Ledeen notes, it is simply astounding that, nearly seven years in, the president has developed no Iran policy … other than to continue the Clinton quest for the fools’ gold of rapprochement. Even as Bush rhetorically labeled the mullahs part of the “axis of evil,” Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage undercut him by inanely casting Iran as a “democracy.” Ledeen himself bore witness to the State Department and CIA’s refusal to deal with informants who provided evidence of Iran’s murderous operations against U.S. troops in Afghanistan. And, notwithstanding the mullahs’ war-making in Iraq, Secretary of State Rice clings to the failed multilateral negotiations which, having first emboldened the regime by conveying our transparent lack of will, have now brought Iran to the brink of nuclear power.

To be sure, plenty here should provoke controversy. Ledeen is convinced — based mostly (and necessarily) on anecdotal evidence — that, with minimal, nonviolent facilitation, the mullahcracy could be overthrown from within by the purported 70 percent of Iranians who are ready to revolt. Surely, he is right about the shameful ineffectiveness of Voice of America and Radio Farda, which should be performing a vital role in unifying Iranian dissenters. Nevertheless, I am convinced neither that the regime can be toppled without U.S. force, nor that the American military choices, as Ledeen suggests, are limited to either targeting Iran’s nuclear program or a more general bombing campaign aimed at bringing down the regime. Moreover, Ledeen contends that our signal weapon is “exporting the American democratic revolution” (I am, to say the least, dubious), and that Shia Islam is a potentially strong ally, rather than, as I believe, a hindrance to our cause.

Nevertheless, a problem must be recognized before it can be solved. Ledeen shines the spotlight our policymakers have been resisting for 28 years. If the United States is to win the war on terror, regime change in Iran is a must. How it is to be done can be debated. That it must be done cannot be doubted. Michael Ledeen performs an invaluable service by making that crystal clear.

Andrew C. McCarthy directs the Center for Law & Counterterrorism at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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