Many thanks to Richard Fernandez, for that rarest of acts: an intellectually honest critique. Obviously I’m happy that he likes “The Iranian Time Bomb,” but I’m particularly stimulated by his doubts about some of my analysis and most of my policy recommendations.
My belief that Iran is the root of a lot of the trouble in Iraq and Afghanistan seems to me to have been abundantly confirmed by the torrent of information coming from Coalition officers over the past several months. As I have long insisted, Iran has been supporting both Sunni and Shi’ite terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, an idea held to be anathema by the “intelligence community” for years and years. And yet, the linkage between Iran and (Sunni) al Qaeda is no longer fanciful; it’s proven by recent interrogations of both al Qaeda and Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers captured in Iraq, it’s proven by material found on captured terrorist and RG computers in Iraq, and it’s proven by the long history of close working relations, going all the way back to Sudan in the mid-nineties. We know that al Qaeda terrorists were trained by Hezbollah (think “Iran”) in Lebanon, that Abu Musav al Zarqawi created a European-wide terror network while he was living and working in Tehran, that al Qaeda’s current military commander, Saif al Adel, is living and working in Iran, and that-as the 9/11 Commission discovered to its astonishment-several of the “muscle terrorists” traveled from Saudi Arabia to Beirut on a plane along with Imad Mughniyah, the operational head of Hezbollah.
On Afghanistan, one of the top terrorist figures, Gulbadin Hekhmatyar, is paid by Iran, and I personally attended the debriefing of informed Iranians who gave American officials detailed information about Iranian killers in Afghanistan, with orders to kill Americans.
So I don’t think my claim that Iran is at the heart of the terror war in the Middle East should be dismissed.
On the prospects for democratic revolution in Iran, Richard generously says that “not everyone” will accept my conclusion that the country is in a pre-revolutionary state. Indeed, hardly anyone in Washington does. On the other hand, Amir Taheri agrees with me, and he’s very good. Richard’s objections remind me a lot of the debates in the latter years of the Soviet Empire. Some of us-very few-believed that the Soviet Empire was hollow, and would fall if given a good shove. Reagan shoved, and the Empire collapsed. But we were constantly told that we were nuts, that the Soviet Empire would last a long time (Professor Kennedy, very much in vogue in those years, forecast that the Soviets would outlast us), and that we should not be so confrontational.
And yet…it fell. It fell in large part because we supported the dissidents, and a great democratic revolution swept the commissars into history’s garbage pail. I think the same can be accomplished in Iran, where we have far greater popular support on our side than we did in the Soviet Empire. Millions of Iranians have demonstrated against the regime, and thousands or tens of thousands do so just about every week, despite all the repression.
The most interesting criticism is that “the viability of Ledeen’s recommendations are contingent on at least partial success in Iraq.” Yes, the two are linked; they are both part of the real war, the larger regional war, and I argue at some length in “The Iranian Time Bomb” that we cannot expect satisfactory security in Iraq so long as the mullahs rule in Tehran, and their puppet Assad remains in power in Damascus.
Richard argues that a defeat of the Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq-who is opposed to the Iranian doctrine that requires a cleric at the head of the Islamic Republic-would spell doom for the Iranian clerical opposition to the regime. I don’t see that, frankly. The battle between the two schools of Shi’ism is far greater than a single person, no matter how important. Iraqi Shi’ites by and large detest their Iranian coreligionaries, Sistani or no Sistani, and that will surely survive the Ayatollah in Najaf.
I totally agree with Richard when he says that “a humiliating US defeat in Iraq will probably spell the end of any regime-change project in Iran for at least a decade,” and he is right to point to our weaknesses in confronting the mullahs, including the catastrophe in our intelligence ranks, but our intelligence was also very weak vis-a-vis the Soviets, and the strategy of bringing down tyranny from within was nonetheless successful.
Finally, Richard warns that Iran will be at least as tough to topple as was Saddam. I wonder. Saddam’s grip on his society seemed to me to be more secure than the mullahs’ grasp. Certainly there was nothing in Iraq that remotely resembled the mass demonstrations against the Iranian regime, and Iraq did not have the long history of self-government that Iran has. I think Richard is unduly pessimistic, and I remind him that Machiavelli-who’s right about almost everything-teaches that tyranny is the least stable form of government. We’re living in a period of global revolution, and I’m optimistic that revolution can succeed in Iran if only we would support it.
One thing is as certain as anything can be in a world inhabited by human beings: if we do not attempt to bring them down from within, the mullahs will one day soon demonstrate they have nukes. And on that day we will be faced with two terrible choices: either accept that fact, with all its frightening geopolitical consequences, or bomb them. Sarkozy recently put it in those words, in fact. In my opinion, that would constitute a massive policy failure, and I am trying hard to convince people that there is a better way.