March 22, 2007 | FrontPage Magazine

Symposium: Iran: The Countdown

With Iran's Mullahs refusing to stop their nuclear program, a collision with the U.S. appears inevitable — and approaching sooner rather than later. To discuss the Iranian threat and the options the U.S. has to deal with it, Frontpage Symposium has assembled a distinguished panel.

FP: Patrick Clawson, Kenneth Timmerman, Andy McCarthy, Steve Schippert and Michael Ledeen, welcome to Frontpage Symposium.


Michael Ledeen, let’s begin with you.


Where are we at right now with the Iranian nuclear threat? What must we do and how much time do we have to do it?


Ledeen: I don't know, and I doubt any Western government knows, including Israel.  The Iranians may be some years away from having a functional nuclear device, or they may already have one.

As for “what must we do?” the best thing is to support regime change in Iran, but I do not think this administration has the slightest intention of doing that.  If I am right, then the debate among the policy makers deals with two terrible options:  a military attack on Iran, presumably limited to nuclear-related sites;  or doing nothing but lamenting the Iranians' success.

FP: Let me follow-up for a moment.

What is the best way to support regime change in Iran? Why do you think the administration is not interested in that course of action?

Ledeen: The overwhelming majority of Iranians hate the regime, maybe as many as ninety percent.  If we could bring down the Soviet Empire with a fraction of that, it should be far easier in Iran.  We would need serious broadcasting–at the moment both Farda and VOA are toothless, each trying to emulate CBS News by being “balanced” etc.– some money, especially for strike funds, and some communications gear, from servers and laptops to cell phones and satellite phones.

I do not know why the US Government — not just this administration — has been so phobic to this policy.  It seems like the most sensible path, it has worked all over the world, but no president has seen fit to try it.

FP: Dr. Ledeen, why do you think a military attack on Iran is a terrible option? Is it not really our only realistic option?

Ledeen: I think it's terrible because it would inevitably kill some number of innocent people, and would not necessarily lead to regime change, which should be our basic mission.  Why is this “realistic”?  It might even be counterproductive, there are many smart people who think it would produce a “nationalistic backlash.”  I don't believe that myself, but I don't think anyone knows enough to be confident.  I also do not believe we have enough good information about the Iranian nuclear program to give us confidence that a military strike would effectively derail the project for a meaningful period of time.

FP: I think what might be the greatest tragedy is that the perceived failure in Iraq may have killed the will that the U.S. administration needs to do something militarily, no?

Ledeen: It apparently hasn't killed the will to do more militarily in Iraq, has it?  And I rather suspect that if the president decided it was urgent to attack Iran–without sending troops across the border–he'd get plenty of support.  Just as I think he'd get plenty of support if he decided to assist democratic revolution in Iran.  The mullahs don't have a big constituency in this country.

FP: Ok, thank you sir.

Steve Schippert, what do you make of Dr. Ledeen’s outlook?

Schippert: I agree.  But perhaps too great a share of the focus is put on Iran’s nuclear program and the unending international debate that drags on with all the alacrity of Puxatawny Phil on a cold February morning. By that I mean, long before Iran achieves their own weapons-grade fissile material, we are likely to see the fall of Musharraf and the evaporation of a nuclear-armed Pakistan as an ally in the global conflict against Islamist terrorists.  There is an insurgency afoot in Pakistan that gets scant attention, and it grows stronger by the day.  Before you raise your eyebrows, this has everything to do with Iran, the global epicenter of terrorism.

Waiting in the wings to replace Musharraf is former ISI chief, Islamist Hamid Gul, at least as the public face of a new murky ruling cabal consisting of an alliance among al-Qaeda, the Taliban, ISI (Pak Intel) Islamists and the increasing number of generals splitting away from Musharraf. Sharing some degree of power with him will surely be Aslam Beg, another Islamist who openly called for an alliance with Iran while he was the Army Chief of Staff. Gul is quoted as saying in 2004, “I turned against America because they betrayed the Afghan nation.”

And with the assassination or overthrow of Musharraf comes the birth of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the first nuclear terrorist power and an instant nuclear ally for the Iranian mullahs. The number of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters amassed in North and South Waziristan and the North West Frontier Province & FATA is estimated now at over 200,000. It is not an unreasonable assessment that the fall of the Musharraf government could well happen within this calendar year. The face of the conflict we think we know would then change in horrific fashion overnight. Buckle up.

So is it possible that by focusing almost solely on Iran's own program we can miss similar ends by different means?  It is foolish to dismiss and unwise to ignore.

Their terrorism should dictate policy, not their reactors, per se.

FP: Perhaps we should have had a symposium on Pakistan instead.

Okay, I’m buckling up now.

Patrick Clawson, the first nuclear terrorist power and an instant nuclear ally of Iran is on the horizon.

Tell me there is some room for hope and optimism please.

Clawson: Absolutely.

Iran's nuclear program is motivated by its desire for prestige and influence, not by a desperate need to defend the country against what it sees as the threat of potential annihilation — which makes the Iranian situation entirely different from Pakistan, North Korea, or Israel.  Our job is to persuade Iran's leaders that the nuclear program is too expensive a means for achieving those objectives.

And what makes our work easier is that this is true.  If Iran pursues its nuclear weapons ambitions, it will start an arms race that it will lose because the neighbors it will upset are richer and better connected than Iran.  Consider how already less than two years after Iran unfroze its nuclear program, nine of its neighbors have declared they are reconsidering their nuclear options: Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, and the six Gulf monarchies.  By contrast, Israel has had nuclear weapons for 35 years, and for all their loud words, no Arab countries has actually done very much in reaction — which speaks volumes about how they view the threat from Iran compared to the threat from Israel.

In the last month, there has been a vigorous debate in Iran about the nuclear program, with many important political leaders warning that the current stance is too risky and provocative.  The business elite is actively lobbying for a change in stance, saying that the UN sanctions and the U.S. pressure are scaring off business. The simple fact is that Iran suffers from fundamental weaknesses, despite the temporarily favorable strategic situation Tehran enjoyed in 2006 (with high oil prices, the U.S. bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Iran's allies doing well in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories.


The longer we can delay Iran's nuclear program with dual-use restrictions such as those in UN Security Council Resolution 1737, the more likely it is that Iran's leaders will realize how weak Iran is.

By contrast, the West has abiding strengths, despite the temporary 2006 setbacks to U.S. influence. For one thing, we have been more united on the Iran issue than many thought would be possible.  Europe has not budged an inch on its insistence that Iran give up all enrichment.  Nor have Europeans complained about the heavy pressure that Washington has put on European banks to get out of Iran — that is not as good as the European governments joining in with the American effort, but at least they have not obstructed it the way they blocked the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act.

So if we hang tough, our strengths and Iran's weaknesses will become more apparent, and there is a good chance that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — who is the real power holder in Iran — will intervene to order more cautious stance.  Khamenei shares all of Ahmadinezhad's objectives, but he is prepared to wait decades — or generations, if need be — to attain them.  That is a start.


Timmerman: For 28 years, successive U.S. governments have mistakenly believed that we can influence the behavior of the Iranian regime. With very rare exceptions, facts have shown this to be a vain proposition. As Ayatollah Khomeini said very early on, “the Islamic revolution is not about the price of watermelons.” They could care less about economic pressure, so long as the pressure is not severe enough to actually threaten the regime.

For us to get the attention of Iran’s leaders, that is what we must threaten. We must craft policies that put the regime at risk. Anything short of that, they will ignore.

Now, I think Patrick Clawson is correct in his analysis of the economic vulnerabilities of the regime, and our relative strengths compared to them. But economic, political, and diplomatic pressure will not be enough to “convince” the leaders of the Islamic Republic to abandon the very behavior that constitutes their raison d’etre.

We need to understand that point. This regime can compromise on all kinds of things. They will attempt to hide the traces of their involvement in Iraq, if we start to squeeze them on the ground. They will scale back their aggressive anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli rhetoric, as Ahmadinejad has already begun to do, at the insistence of the Supreme Leader. But they will not actually stop doing the things to which we object. They will not stop funding and supporting international terrorist groups, attacking Israel, subverting the government in Iraq, developing nuclear weapons, and preventing political pluralism in Iran. Because to do these things would mean the end of the regime.

Since we are, in effect, asking them to commit suicide, why not help them along? Why not do the one thing that meets U.S. national security requirements, and is morally right – which is to empower the Iranian people to undermine and overthrow this regime?

Frankly, that is the only policy option we have today short of war to achieve the goals the president and the international community have set out.

McCarthy: I couldn’t agree more with my colleagues who’ve argued that the regime is the problem, not the nukes.  Moreover, I’m with Ken in the belief that it would be folly to premise policy on the assumption that the regime is a rational actor such that we could expect to influence its actions in the same predictable ways rational actors would be influenced.  The mullahs are not merely power-hungry.  They are substantive revolutionaries.  They are committed to exporting a movement, and seized with the conviction that they are ordered by Allah to do so and that they will inevitably win … however long it takes.

We must be unambiguous that regime change in Iran is the policy of the United States.  Period.  We don’t need to invade, but we badly need to stop legitimizing, empowering and emboldening the current regime by foolish stances – like trying to buy the mullahs’ accommodation on the nuclear program, turning a blind eye to the provocations of their forward militias like Hezbollah and the Qods Force, and signalling that any response to their war-making in Iraq will be contained in-theater (i.e., that Iran’s own territory is insulated from whatever responsive actions we may take).

These policies are not only counter-productive in the short-term; they have to be demoralizing for Iranian dissidents.  How robust is the popular opposition to the regime?  I don’t know.  I wish I could be confident that it is near-unanimous.  And I am sceptical about how democratic a coup would be.  Our intelligence in this part of the world is abysmal and has been famously wrong about key facts.  But there can be no question that whatever came after the mullahs would be better – for both us and the region.  Thus I think we need to infuse every aspect of our foreign policy with the conceit that the Iranian regime must be overthrown; this shouldn’t be a sub rosa aspiration – it should be done without apology and we should squeeze and isolate Iran in every way it is feasible to do so.

Ledeen: Amen to most of what everyone is saying, especially to Ken and Andy’s call for supporting revolution in Iran.  It always astonishes me to hear so many people say that chances for revolution are poor, and that it would inevitably take too long.  Actually, no country I have studied has been more “ready” for revolution than contemporary Iran.  And we have never been any good at forecasting timing; we’ve always been surprised.  Indeed, even those few of us who worked for the end of the Soviet Empire were surprised when it actually happened so suddenly.

I have one quibble with Patrick Clawson, which goes to Andy’s remark that it’s nuts to assume the mullahs are rational actors.  Patrick says “Iran's nuclear program is motivated by its desire for prestige and influence”, but I rather think it’s driven by a chiliastic vision that they seek to fulfill.  I do hope I’m wrong.

FP: I hope I am wrong too, but from everything I have gathered, Ahmadinejad is a lunatic and psychopath who actually really believes that by using nuclear weapons to annihilate Israel he will be able to hasten the return of the Hidden Imam, who, in the belief system of Shi`i Muslims, is the Awaited Mahdi.

I also have a serious concern about this revolution brewing in Iran. Yes it can happen overnight suddenly, like it did within the Soviet Empire. That would be wonderful. But what if it doesn’t? What if the totalitarian terror state keeps a revolt suffocated and remains in power for a long time? Can we really take this risk on only hoping for a revolution? And it’s a revolution that, mind you, we must be supporting, yes.

In any case.

Mr. Schippert?

Schippert: We can engage in heady and important discussion and debate about the threat Iran's nuclear weapons program poses until the cows come home. But even if the Iranian nuclear threat is removed – bargained or bombed – and after Ahmadinejad, we are still left with the world's foremost state sponsor of terrorism, which pre-dates both.  To measure 'success' in dealing with the Iranian regime by the benchmark of their nuclear weapons program is to say that this 'status quo' is acceptable.  Quite frankly, no it most certainly is not.

You asked for hope and optimism earlier.  I would contend that it is hope and optimism that the Iranian people seek, particularly its rising youth whose formative years occurred well after the Islamic revolution that still inspires the aging ruling class.  They look to us for it.  That we have failed them for 28 years should be a source of national shame, for Iran's penchant for terrorism is not exclusively beyond its borders exporting Islamic revolution, but also internally against its own people in order to preserve the ruling regime.

Andy's skepticism about “how democratic a coup would be” should leap from these pages at policymakers past and present.  We have been woefully disengaged from the Iranian people.  That the most organized opposition to the Iranian regime after 28 years is a Marxist group (MEK) currently on the State Department's Foreign Terrorist Organizations list and more in line politically with Vladimir Putin's Russian state than America is disgraceful.  Period.

We seem obsessed with debate and discussion and hearings and panels, convincing ourselves that we are hard at work and brilliantly intellectual.  I am quite certain that those we claim to be in solidarity with are summarily unimpressed and the terror-sponsoring regime that keeps its boots on their throats remains amused, insulated and unobstructed.  We support them with two radio stations – Radio Farda and VOA. One arms them with all the information that can be found in the lyrics of pop music and the other often sounds more like the voice of the BBC.  And that's about the impressive lot of our support.

Is it too late to begin earnest support for truly democratic movements within Iran in order to unseat the regime and starve terrorists of the assets of this state?  Well, the 'intelligence community' in America and internationally cannot agree upon how close Iran is to achieving nuclear weapons – which is a false benchmark, but beside the point.  Ceding this benchmark purely for sake of argument, how then can anyone credibly argue that there is not enough time to begin earnest support when few can even agree on how much time there is?

We are once again craftily avoiding the unpleasant.  Shall we leave this, too, to our children?

Clawson: During the Cold War, the United States both supported those in Eastern Europe and the USSR wanting to democratize their countries AND at the same time conducted negotiations with the communist regimes.  Whether and how to support reformers in Iran is quite a separate issue from whether and how to reach an agreement with the Islamic Republic on particular issues, such as their nuclear program.

Just as those opposed to supporting reform in Iran are wrong to say that that such efforts should be abandoned because they prevent agreement on the nuclear program, so too it is wrong to say that pursuing an agreement on the nuclear issue is incompatible with supporting democratic forces insides Iran.  Of course the Iranian regime may try to persuade the U.S. government to abandon any talk for, much less support of, human rights and democracy in Iran as a condition for a nuclear deal, but that is no reason for Washington to accept such terms.

Another lesson of the Cold War was that agreements about particular issues were worthwhile even while the fundamental disagreement between the two sides remained as acute as ever.  An accord about Iran's nuclear program will not in the least change the firm conviction among Iran's leaders that history is on their side, that the entire world will one day adopt their form of Islamic rule, that Israel will be wiped off the map — all that they would agree to is to suspend some of the steps they are taking to achieve those objectives.  Indeed, many in the Islamic Republic's leadership are quite patient: they are prepared , if necessary, wait for decades or even generations until what they see as God's plans are fully realized. Hence the willingness to suspend Iran's nuclear program in 2003-2005, when conditions impelled Iran to back off.  Our job is to persuade Iran's leaders that now is not the time to pursue their nuclear objectives.

And on a separate but simultaneous track, we need to also pursue our other concerns.  The principal ones are: forcing Iran to back off its support for the most murderous elements in Iraq, compelling Iran to reduce its interference in Lebanese and Palestinian politics in support of those who sabotage peace with Israel and democracy at home, and supporting human rights and democracy in Iran.

There is much controversy in U.S. politics about how actively to promote democracy and human rights in Iran, and it is fun – and important — to engage in those debates.  At the same time, it is worthwhile to concentrate much of our effort on actually carrying out those measures for which there is a broad consensus in U.S. politics. In particular, there is broad support for having ample, high-quality broadcasting to Iran of a variety of different sorts.  Yet the reality is quite weak.  We can get in to long debates about how much support to give to VoA versus Radio Farda, but the main problem is that both of them have poor quality news.  They simply get things wrong all the time, and they do not report on some of the most important news stories.  And do not even get me started on the State Department Persian language website, with its impressively mangled translations.  Let us get the basics right, at the same time as we debate what additional steps to take.


Timmerman: When making a revolution, it matters who you choose as allies. This is why the United States must never give into the steady Chinese water torture from the supporters of the MEK, the single most reviled group after the mullahs in Iran. Iranians will never forget that the MEK sided with Saddam during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. Americans should never forget that they sided with Khomeini during the 1979 revolution, and supported the embassy takeover, and that they still celebrate in their camps in Iraq the MEK “heroes” who assassinated U.S. military officers in Iran in the late 1970s. To support the MEK today (not the subject of this symposium) would undo much of the goodwill the United States has built up over the years with pro-democracy activists inside Iran.

The messages we send as the world’s sole superpower also matter. These are not academic debates; understanding the intentions and the MO of this regime are matters of life and death. The mistakes we have made over the past 28 years into thinking we can have a “dialogue” with the regime have gotten Americans (and many others) killed.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is fundamentally unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War for a host of reasons.

First and foremost, they do not have an arsenal of 10,000-plus nuclear weapons. Soviet dissidents and refuseniks understood that the U.S. would engage in arms control talks with the Soviet leadership as a matter of self-preservation, and that such talks in no way implied our acceptance (with the exception of Jimmy Carter) of Soviet dictatorship.

Soviet dissidents understood the weaknesses of the Soviet state, but they also understood the dangers that a nuclear exchange with the United States presented.

Iranian dissidents, however, view the Islamic Republic as weak. They see the incompetence of its leaders, the fragility of its economy, its isolation on the world stage, and its military vulnerabilities. Why should a superpower bow down before the mullahs, and dignify such a weak adversary with full-fledged negotiations?

Opening negotiations with the United States may be THE key strategic goal today of the government in Tehran. The ruling clerics are confident that they can humiliate any American president who agrees to talk with them. They will drag out such talks endlessly, to demonstrate to the pro-freedom movement that “America can do nothing” and more importantly, that America will do nothing to help them.

Beyond this, we simply don’t need to open negotiations with the regime over its nuclear program. Through UN Security Council resolutions, we have set out the parameters of what the Iranian regime must do to avert steadily increasing international sanctions. They can accept those conditions, shut down their programs in a verifiable manner, or suffer the consequences. The U.S. should not settle for anything less than full, unconditional compliance from Tehran. There is nothing there to negotiate.

The same goes for Iran’s involvement in Iraq, its support for international terrorist groups, and its wretched disregard for the most widely accepted standards of political and human rights. Since when has such behavior become the norm for membership in the Concert of Nations? Why should we negotiate down the standards of internationally-acceptable behavior?
On the contrary, we should hold accountable Iran’s leadership for their behavior by rolling up their networks in Iraq and striking the IRGC support structures across the border. We should insist that Iran comply with its own signature on the International Covenant of Political and Human rights. We should enforce the huge number of judgments against top regime leaders in courts around the world for their terrorist attacks. And we should ban Iran Air from landing rights because of its systematic use to convey weapons to Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon. Anything less is just not serious.

McCarthy: Ken has taken the wind out of my sails, saying what I would like to have said, except better.


I would add this.  There are many people of good will who agree with us that the regime is the problem and yet insist that we should not shut the doors on negotiations.  Negotiations, they say, needn’t be a case of the U.S. going hat in hand to the mullahs; they would instead be us bluntly telling them the facts of life and giving very little wiggle room while keeping the lines of communication open.  I don’t really see the plus-side of that – it makes a difference only to internationalists who seem to believe that negotiations are a good in and of themselves, wholly apart from what the diplomats purport to be trying to achieve.  And I can easily see the harm since, even if we stayed tough, the perception the Iranian people would have of such negotiations would be colored by how the mullahs presented them – and that would be demoralizing for the very people we need to galvanize if the regime is to be supplanted from within.  


If I thought, as Pat does, that there was a useful analogy in the Cold War experience, I might nevertheless agree with the “let’s negotiate” partisans.  I don’t agree, for the reasons that Ken has so effectively marshalled.  But I’d like to get beyond that for a second and bring this back to some of the points stressed by Steve and Michael – the points about the problem being the regime, not the nukes.  If I agreed, for argument’s sake, that negotiations were the way to go, the next problem I would confront is that “negotiations” is a hopelessly promiscuous term.  Who knows what’s on the table when we’re told:  not to worry, we’ll be tough.


Let’s get down to cases.  Americans were told very little this past summer about the State Department’s gambit of negotiating directly with the Iranians (in the context for the multi-party talks) over the nuclear program.  Nonetheless, when the fine-print emerged (in the foreign press), it became clear that this was a shameful offer.  We did not stay tough and play hardball over the nukes.  We offered them everything including the kitchen sink if they would just please, please agree to look like they were suspending activity – not actually stopping, but making a verbal commitment to stop which would be “verified” by the IAEA, in whose demonstrated ineffectiveness and slavish deference to the regime lies much of the current problem.


For this nigh-useless commitment, we offered, among other things, security assurances; economic aid; high-technology; and aviation, energy, telecommunications and agriculture assistance.  When they, predictably, laughed at us, we unilaterally pressed ahead with the aviation assistance anyway.  More to the point, we were dealing with the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism – the nation that has targeted Hezbollah against us for three decades, kills Americans in Iraq, harbors al Qaeda, and gave safe passage to the 9/11 hijackers – and yet our offer in connection with nukes made no demands about facilitating jihadists.


As my friends here have noted, we would have irreconcilable differences with the mullahs even if the nuclear program went away tomorrow.  Moreover, our only promising blueprint for winning the wider war is the Bush Doctrine – meaning, punishing the regimes that abet the menace we are fighting.  Success in the overarching mission depends on that doctrine having credibility.  To the contrary, negotiations with Iran have emboldened the regime, dispirited dissidents, and discredited the resolve that appeared to be behind the Bush Doctrine from September 2001 until mid-2003.  Why should anyone have confidence in negotiations given that record?


FP: Patrick Clawson, Kenneth Timmerman, Andy McCarthy, Steve Schippert and Michael Ledeen, thank you for joining Frontpage Symposium.