Iranian regime change: "Faster, please!"

Neocon Michael Ledeen, long a proponent of "democratic revolution" in Iran, weighs the odds of military action by the U.S.

Published January 15, 2007 1:03PM (EST)

Even among his fellow neoconservatives, Michael Ledeen stands out as a politically divisive figure. He's loved -- and consulted at the highest levels -- by his fellow travelers for his hard-line positions on the Middle East. His catchphrase, "Faster, please!" refers to the speed with which he'd like the United States to compel regime change in Iran. He's hated with equal passion by liberals for those same stances, as well as for his connection, real or imagined, to two scandals. During Iran-Contra, Ledeen acted as an intermediary between the Reagan White House and Israel. It's even been suggested by more than one blogger that he may have played a role in either creating or couriering the infamous forged documents that said Saddam Hussein was attempting to obtain uranium in Niger. (Ledeen denies any role.)

On Friday, as rumors swirled about a possible secret executive order against Iran and Syria, and the shock waves from the president's speech and the raid on an Iranian consulate continued to reverberate, Ledeen spoke with Salon about what military action he thinks the administration might be contemplating and what he'd like to see happen in the region. He also discussed some of the more recent controversies in which he's been involved: his apparently mistaken report that the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, has died, and his denial, late last year, that he had ever supported the war in Iraq.

The president's speech Wednesday night certainly made it sound as if U.S. military operations might soon be expanded into Iran and Syria. How do you feel about that?

Well, what [Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice said [Thursday] is that they're going to try and do it all inside Iraq. And I'm not sure that's possible.

Why is that?

Among other things, there's consular agreements and stuff like that. I mean, I think they're going to have a lot of trouble maintaining that it's kosher to go in to embassies [within Iraq], consulates, things like that, and arrest people. So I mean, I'm not sure that'll stand up legally.

What do you think the U.S. should do?

I want to support revolution in Iran.


Listen, can I ask you a question? Have you read anything I've written?


I mean, I've answered this so many thousand times, and I'm really bored by this question. And I've laid it all out in writing, so -- can we pass on that, since you know the answer to that question?

The answer to that question is basically that you'd like to fund student movements, give them communications tools...

Not just student movements. I want to declare regime change to be policy. I want to support the pro-democracy groups in Iranian society, which includes like 80 percent of the population. I want to support them politically and financially if they want it. I want to broadcast at them, exactly as we did into the Soviet empire during the Cold War. I want to replicate Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which we're really not doing. I mean, they pretend to do it, but they really don't. Farsi service on [the Voice of America] is sort of a replica of CBS News or something like that. They want to be balanced; they give both sides. And we're not giving them what they need, more than anything else, which is the experiences of people who have participated in successful nonviolent revolutions.

Why will this work?

Well, I'm not sure it will work. But it ought to work. I mean, Iran fulfills every condition of a revolutionary society. It's a wildly unpopular government, it's a very young population, they've shown their unhappiness with it in every way that you can imagine, from street demonstrations to celebrating banned holidays and everything like that. The polls that the regime itself takes show upwards of 70 percent of the people wanting regime change. So why not? I mean, it ought to work. And most revolutions require some kind of external base of support in order to succeed.

What happens if democratic revolution doesn't work?

Then we're left in the same bind that we're in now, which is that Iran -- the Iranian regime -- has been waging war against us for 27 years, 28 years. And we haven't yet responded to it. I gather this administration is trying to grope their way through some way to do it now in Iraq.

But what would you want to see happen if democratic revolution doesn't work?

I don't really have an answer to that, because I expect that revolution will work. I certainly -- the only military things that I support are what I consider legitimate measures of self-defense, that is, going after terrorist training camps in Iran and Syria, where they train people who come in and kill coalition forces, and going after the facilities where they're putting together these explosive devices [IEDs].

Do you speak Farsi, the language of Iran?

No. That's why God invented translators.

Do you think that's at all a drawback for you in trying to understand what's going on there?

I don't know, I've been working on Iran since 1979. I think I've done pretty well. I mean, the book I did with Bill Lewis, also not a Farsi speaker, on the fall of the shah, has been universally acclaimed as one of the best scholarly works on the subject, and I've been at it ever since. I feel pretty comfortable about the quality of my work. I would be happy if I spoke Farsi, but I'm too old [65] to learn another language, I think.

Do you think Israel's going to attack the Iranian nuclear plants, as was suggested in the British media recently?

I don't know. I really don't have that impression, but I don't know.

What about the appointment of a Navy man, Admiral Fallon, as head of Central Command, which is responsible for all U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan? What do you think that signals?

I don't understand it. I don't know why you'd put an admiral in charge of a ground war.

So do you think that shows any signs that the U.S. might be contemplating some kind of military action that doesn't include a ground war - like, say, a carrier-based attack on Iran?


Why is that?

Because any commanding officer can order bombing. I mean, the people who designed the bombing know how to design bombing runs. That's an inter-agency, inter-service, highly legalistic procedure, and it doesn't much matter whether the head of CentCom is from the Navy or the Army or the Marines or the Air Force. He's not going to design it.

Have you learned any lessons from what's happened in Iraq since 2003?

I'm sure I've learned a million lessons from what's gone on in Iraq. Yes, lots. I mean, I remain convinced that my basic contention from the beginning was right, which was that there was no way we could go into Iraq and expect that we could provide decent security and stability without dealing with Iran and Syria and most likely Saudi Arabia. That proved to be correct.

And I think it's becoming clearer with the passage of time that the Iranians are going all out to drive us out of Iraq, as I expected they would. As they said they would, even before Operation Iraqi Freedom. I did not think that the possibility of sectarian conflict was as great as it has turned out to be; I did see, and I wrote early on, that the Iranians were going all out to provoke civil wars, all kinds of civil wars: Sunni-Shiite, Arab-non-Arab, tribe vs. tribe and so forth. For quite a long time it didn't work. But it shows you what persistence will accomplish. I mean, they have accomplished many of their objectives.

You once wrote that "if we come to Baghdad, Damascus and Tehran as liberators, we can expect overwhelming popular support." Do you regret having written that?

No, I think we had it. We certainly had it in Baghdad at the beginning. And I think that if we were successful in supporting democratic revolution in Tehran, we'd have unbelievable popular support, and I should think in Damascus as well, although I should confess I don't know Syria as well as I know Iran.

An article in the January 2007 issue of Vanity Fair featured some prominent Iraq war supporters reconsidering their stance, and after an excerpt was released pre-publication, you said that you had always opposed war in Iraq. But there are numerous prewar examples of you saying the opposite. How do you reconcile that?

It's because people generally take it out of context. If you read what I said about the war, I said two things. I said, first of all, that it was much too military and much too little political, and that we should spend much more time supporting democratic forces in Iraq, the same thing I said about Iran, the same thing I said about the Soviet Union, et cetera. And the second thing that I said about the war before we went in was that Iran was the primary target and that we should not invade Iraq before we dealt with Iran, and that we could deal entirely politically with Iran and not militarily at all.

And yes, so once the national policy was that we were going to go militarily into Iraq, I supported it. But I kept on saying that we were going to have all these problems, and that it would have been better to do it the other way, and that dealing with Iran was inevitable, and so it has proven to be.

And all those people who think that my only position was that we should invade Iraq and send armies to invade Iraq just haven't read what I wrote, or they haven't read enough of it. And I will plead guilty to not having put those lines into everything I wrote, but you really can't. You can't put everything into 700-word articles, as you know.

I know that, but in responding to the excerpt, you said flat out, "I opposed the military invasion of Iraq before it took place."

I did. I said it was the wrong way to do it and it was the wrong war. That the war we should have been fighting was Iran, and it should be political, and even in the case of Iraq it was much too military. That's absolutely correct.

You also outlined, a couple weeks after 9/11, a four-point program for fighting terror. Point two was taking restrictions off the activities of the Iraqi National Congress, the exile group led by the controversial Ahmad Chalabi. Do you regret that now?

No ... the war against the Iraqi National Congress inside the American administration was every bit as intense as the war against Saddam. And we never did let the Iraqi National Congress operate, and we never did support them, and in fact the money that Congress appropriated for the INC was blocked in the State Department for years. They would not disperse it. There was money for INC broadcasting, a television station and so forth, that was not given to them. And there are many more examples of that.

But we did try to install Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the INC, in a prominent position in Iraq's government.

Not that I know of. Who's the 'we?'

[Former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy] Douglas Feith.

Yeah, but that wasn't -- I mean, the Pentagon didn't get to make policy in Iraq. [Ed. note: In fact, the Coalition Provisional Authority, the transitional government in Iraq, came under the authority of the Department of Defense.] It was mostly State Department, and CIA blocked the INC at every turn. I mean, there's cases during the war where INC people went in and liberated towns, and CIA went in and ordered them out. Said they'd shoot them if they didn't leave. So they were not partners at all. The hatred for Chalabi inside the American government is something you can't imagine, and the number of things that were done to make sure that Chalabi did not succeed is impressive.

And you don't think it's justified?

I liked him. I thought he was a bright, talented person with the skills to bring Iraqis together; he demonstrated that over time. And I thought he could probably do it in Iraq as well.

The recent story that you put up on your blog on the conservative Web site Pajamas Media, saying the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was dead -- what do you think about that now?

What I said on my blog, which is agnostic. There's people who think he's dead; there's people who think he's alive. I haven't seen anything to show that he's alive. On the other hand, I also don't have convincing confirmation that he's dead.

But you ran a story that said he was dead. There seems to be photographic evidence that he's alive.

I had the story from what I thought was a good source, and then I and everybody else at Pajamas followed it as closely as we could and put up every conflicting claim and every bit of conflicting evidence, tried to be as honest and forthcoming about that story as anybody possibly could.

Do you think it's a black mark on your record, on Pajamas' record?

Why? To tell the truth about what I was told and then to put up all the evidence as it came in? No. I think it's exactly the way news organizations should perform: They should say, "We've been told this," and then they should stay on top of it. Do you prefer the New York Times waiting three months to tell their readers that their story about a woman being imprisoned for life in Central America for abortion was false, even though they knew it all along? I think we did a terrific job ... In the case of the Khamenei story right now, I don't know what the truth is. I've said that. But I'm trying to follow the story as closely as I can. I'm totally unconvinced by the so-called evidence from the Iranians that he's alive. I mean, the films could have been doctored, the photographs are clearly -- some of the photographs are clearly old photographs. What I am sure of is that if he isn't dead, he's in terrible physical condition and that the power struggle for succession to Khamenei is well under way. That's for sure.

If the president's speech, the action against the consulate, all that, presages military action against Iran, would you support military action at that point?

I will deplore it. I've said that all along. I have said that if we arrive at a point where we feel compelled to take military action against Iran, it will be a confession of failed policy. I don't want military action against Iran, and I certainly don't want to invade Iran. I do want to defend our soldiers. And I do think they're entitled to better defense than they've had so far, and I've felt that for a long time. I first proposed going after terrorist training camps in the mid-1980s, after the Iranians blew up the American Embassy and the Marine barracks in Beirut. The Iran story, if you put the Iran story in context, it really is astonishing, because the Iranians have been waging war against us since 1979, and we are only now beginning to grope toward some kind of response. It's really quite incredible; it's not an ideological thing. Because we've had Democrats and Republicans, we've had hawks and doves, and none of them has developed an effective Iran policy. It's one of the greatest mysteries in the history of American foreign policy. It's a really big issue, and no administration has found a way to deal with it effectively.

They've done a lot. And we haven't really done anything. They're always No. 1 on the terrorist list, and still we do nothing, and now we're stumbling toward a situation where we're going to end up bombing them, is what it looks like. So that's what happens when you don't do the things you should have done all along. We're supposed to stand for freedom. We're supposed to stand for freedom movements against tyrants, and we do it all over the world, we do it in case after case. We do it everywhere from the Ivory Coast to Haiti to the Philippines to Georgia to Russia and so forth. Why not Iran?

Well, isn't there a risk of, you know, destabilizing the entire region?

The region is happily destabilized. And Iran is a great destabilizing force itself.

Sure, but also isn't al-Qaida salivating over the prospect of us getting involved in Iran?

Why? If there's a free Iran, they'll be kicked out.

From what I've read of their strategy, they've said, "We want to see the U.S. go into Iran, and then we want to see them go in to Syria."

[Laughs.] Well, where are they going to live, then? Where's poor old Zawahiri going to go live? Back to the caves? I don't think so. I think that's all bluster. I think that's briar patch talk.

But Iraq has worked out pretty well for them.

I would not say -- I would not want to be -- well, they've lost thousands of people.

Sure, but numerous people have said the Iraq war is the recruiting poster al-Qaida has always wanted.

Well, they've done well in recruiting for quite a long time, and I don't think that they have benefited as well from Iraq in terms of recruiting as people imagine. I think their recruiting is independent of Iraq. I mean, Iraq is a great cause for them, to be sure, no question. But they don't suffer from a lack of great causes, and the kind of indoctrination they do doesn't really revolve around a single thing. I mean, Iraq is where they go to die nowadays, but if they weren't going to Iraq, they'd go elsewhere.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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