Fathom advisory editor Ben Cohen spoke with the historian and analyst Michael Ledeen about US foreign policy towards the Iranian regime. An opponent of the Mullahs since the Iranian revolution in 1979, Ledeen argued passionately that the Obama Administration has failed to understand that that the regime remains driven by a theocratic fascist ideology and is not interested in a genuine rapprochement with the US.
‘It’s conventional wisdom that Iran came to the negotiating table because of sanctions. The economy was in trouble, and the country was desperate, so they had to,’ said Michael Ledeen, once he and I were deep into our conversation about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. ‘I’m not sure that’s correct. It may well be that Iran came to the negotiating table because President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif convinced the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, that if they went to the table, they would get everything they wanted from President Obama. Because, they said, America’s will has been broken, and the Americans are prepared to make endless concessions just to keep talking.’
For Ledeen, Iran has been a consuming concern during a five decade career as an academic historian and with the US government, in which he served as an advisor to President Reagan’s Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, and as a consultant on counterterrorism to subsequent Republican administrations. In his view, Iran lies at the epicentre of the Middle East’s troubles – hence his long held position that regime change is a necessary condition for a broader democratic transformation of the region. Hence, too, his scathing critique of Obama’s outreach to Iran, which quickly established itself as a wedge issue when the new, Republican-dominated US Congress returned to its deliberations in January.
‘I’m not convinced that there’s going to be a deal,’ Ledeen claimed. ‘Khamenei doesn’t want to deal with United States, he wants to destroy us. He says that every week – sometimes every day in a good week. So why should he make a deal when he’s getting everything from us now without a deal?’
Ledeen, who these days serves as the Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), is less policy wonk, more raconteur, never fearful of going off at a tangent – during a conversation which lasted over an hour, he informed me that pizza is more properly understood as a Neapolitan (not Italian) creation, he recalled witnessing the May 1968 evenements in Paris, and he even dropped a reference to ‘Eurocommunism,’ marking the first time I’ve ever heard an American use a term coined to describe the ideological shifts in the Italian Communist Party, Western Europe’s largest, during the 1970s and 1980s.
Italy features a great deal in Ledeen’s conversation, in part because he genuinely loves the country, having spent several years living and working in Rome as an academic. But on a deeper level, Italy’s historical experience over the last century informs his approach to international affairs. Much of his academic output focused on Mussolini and the distinctive character of Italian fascism, and Ledeen brought the insights he gleaned there to Iran.
Ledeen’s invocation of fascism as the thread binding the Rome of almost a century ago to the Tehran of the present is one of the main reasons why his views clash so violently with those of the Obama Administration. He believes they just don’t get it – they don’t grasp the nature of the ideas which propel Tehran’s ruling clerics.
‘If you look at fascism as it started in Italy, it’s a war ideology, just as radical Islam is,’ Ledeen observed. ‘It says explicitly that a new class of heroes and leaders has emerged from war – from jihad, as we might say today, or from World War One in the European case. The reason why Mussolini broke with the Italian Socialist Party was because he advocated Italian entry into World War One, and the Socialists were opposed to it. Very similar things have been going on within Islam for a while.’
Ledeen has argued consistently that the Islamic Republic was a fascist regime from its very inception in 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah amidst the revolutionary turmoil in Iran.
‘I wrote a piece in The Wall Street Journal, just before Khomeini came to power, in which I said the best way to understand Khomeini is as a theocratic fascist.’ He explained, ‘This was a school of fascism – theocratic fascism. It’s a well-established, academically legitimate category. And that’s what Khomeini was all about; it’s what the Iranian Revolution is about.’
But, whereas the nation was the prime category of European fascism, in the Iranian case, ultimate fealty was pledged to Islam. ‘When Khomeini was on the plane from Paris to Tehran, someone asked him, “well, aren’t you excited about going to back to Iran?” And he said, “It’s not about Iran. People who care about Iran are pagans. This is about Islam.”’
Ledeen acknowledged that ‘there are different schools of jihad.’ But, he said, ‘all of radical Islam is about a war against a corrupt, decadent, meaningless and failed Western civilisation.’ I pressed him to explain the fissures between Sunni and Shia Islamism. ‘I always compare the Sunni-Shia divide with The Godfather,’ Ledeen answered. ‘You know, in Godfather I, when circumstances are normal, the mobsters fight with one another, they fight over business, they fight for control of territory, they even kill each other. But when the Feds come after them, the heads of the Five Families sit down around the table and they make a war plan. And that’s Sunni and Shia. They have worked together on all kinds of things, fighting us, fighting our allies, fighting Israel. So they are united in their common vision, and they figure that if they win, there will be time enough to sit down and figure out their theological differences.’
Indeed, Ledeen said, the Islamic State (IS) terrorist organisation which has seized large swathes of Iraq and Syria is, in part, ‘a creation of Iran. And a creation of Syria. Who is it that the Syrian regime – which, really, is to say the Iranian regime – who do they bomb? When I analyse those attacks, I see that about 85 per cent of them are against ordinary Syrians and Kurds. Only a very small amount of their activity is aimed at IS.’
The Iran-Syria axis has no motive to launch an all-out attack on IS because, said Ledeen, ‘they’ve got us to do it for them, so they don’t have to.’ As a result of the US-led airstrikes on IS positions, the Iranians are free to focus on those concerns which impact them more directly: keeping a lid on Kurdish national aspirations and manipulating the Iraqi central government, which in Ledeen’s judgement is ‘more and more a colony of Iran and Syria.’
I put it to Ledeen that Lebanon and Yemen should also be included on that list, because of the existential challenge that Hezbollah has posed to Lebanese national sovereignty, along with the key role in the military onslaughts waged by Iran on behalf of the Assad regime in Damascus, and its backing of the recent Houthi takeover of Yemen.
‘Hezbollah is Iran,’ he began. ‘I don’t make any distinctions all between Hezbollah and Iran. Hezbollah is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Islamic Republic.’
The Israeli bombing of a Hezbollah convoy in the Golan Heights in January, during which a leading Iranian general, Mohammed Allahdadi of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, was killed, was a ‘direct shot at Tehran,’ Ledeen said. But Hezbollah backed down almost immediately, with its normally venomous Secretary General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah rather humbly admitting that his organisation was not ready for a major conflict with Israel.
‘Iran is not prepared to go to war with Israel, because Iran would expect to lose that war,’ Ledeen said, analysing why the accumulating tensions on Israel’s northern border haven’t yet resulted in a repetition of the 2006 war with Hezbollah. ‘Iran is happy for Arabs to die in the cause of fighting Israel. And so they want to continue to use non-Iranians primarily to pick away at Israel supporting terrorist organisations and armed groups across the region, from Sinai to Sudan to Yemen.’
At this point, I turned to the role – or, more accurately, lack of one – of the United Nations, a body which frequently figured in the criticisms of the Bush Administration’s unilateralism. And yet, I asked Ledeen, surely one could make the case that Obama has been equally neglectful of the world organisation, given that the present negotiating themes with Iran bear little resemblance to the successive UN Security Council resolutions demanding a halt to Tehran’s uranium enrichment programme, and that Resolution 1701 of 2006 – which demands the complete disarmament of Hezbollah – has been all but forgotten.
‘The United Nations was of much more relevance to George W. Bush,’ Ledeen retorted. ‘Bush went to the UN to get resolutions for all kinds of actions. Obama doesn’t. I do think Obama believes very firmly he’s on the side of the angels, on whatever decision he makes. And so whatever he does is justified and proper and so forth, and everybody should agree with him.’
Ironically, some might say, the eclipse of the UN’s influence in the Middle East has also coincided with the decline of the Pax Americana which has prevailed in the region since the Second World War, founded on the common security interests shared by both Israel and the conservative Sunni Arab regimes from Egypt to the Gulf.
‘You have the moderate Arab countries who are, all of a sudden, talking to Israel, working out joint plans and contingencies with Israel,’ Ledeen said. ‘That’s new and different. Sometimes they did similar things in the past, but they were always very secret. Now, they’re more and more open.’
Why is that the case? ‘Well, what can they do?’ Ledeen laughed. ‘If Iran is going nuclear – and there’s not a leader in the Middle East who doesn’t believe that Iran is going nuclear – then they have to defend themselves. And if America isn’t available, who is?’
There are, in fact, two additional options besides the US here, Ledeen noted, neither of them remotely attractive. Firstly, there is the very real threat of nuclear proliferation in the Arab world, in order to counterbalance Iran. Secondly, there is Russian President Vladimir Putin.
‘Putin wants Russia to be a Mediterranean power again,’ Ledeen said. ‘At the moment, all he’s got is Syria. He’s desperate to protect Assad, and that’s the basis for his strategic cooperation with Iran, about which he is undoubtedly ambivalent. The point is, he will make deals. He will make deals with the Egyptians and the Saudis and the Jordanians and with whoever. And what does that leave us with? Turmoil. Conflict. No guidance. When America leaves the world, the world degenerates into chaos, and that is what we’re in. Obama did not want to lead, except in a negative sense. You hear people talking about “leadership from behind.” Actually, this was leadership to behind.’
This political malaise in the West, Ledeen believes, is reflected in its cultural sphere too. ‘What is called “multiculturalism” is really an effort to censor critiques of other cultures and other religions – and that’s an end to progress,’ he said emphatically.
Most of Europe’s leaders have encouraged this trend, but Obama has spearheaded it. When Ledeen mentioned the National Prayer Breakfast held by the president in Washington in February, an undertone of anger coursing through his voice, I anticipated that he was going to slam Obama’s reaching for the 10th century Crusades as an example of how religious violence isn’t solely restricted to Islam. But what really raised his ire was the presence there of Dr. Ibrahim Ghandur, the deputy chairman of Sudan’s ruling party, and the representative of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.
‘It is spectacular to me that Obama was fine with a Sudanese leader, the leader of a genocide, attending the National Prayer Breakfast,’ Ledeen declared. ‘To my mind, that is a huge scandal. And then you look at the administration’s conniptions about Netanyahu coming to Congress to speak about the Iranian threat. Yet Bibi comes to Washington all the time, and he is welcomed in Washington by Americans.’
As far as Ledeen is concerned, the Obama Administration, now in its lame duck phase, is beyond redemption. He does not recommend policy alternatives, because he is convinced that Obama is impervious to advice that jars with his worldview – a conclusion, he added, which has been reached by many senior officials in the US military and even in the State Department.
Still, I prodded him. Surely that could change? Wasn’t it possible, after all, that the death in suspicious circumstances of Alberto Nisman, the Argentine Special Prosecutor investigating the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish Centre in Buenos Aires, just one day before he was due to formally accuse President Cristina Kirchner and Foreign Minister Hector Timerman of covering up Iranian culpability in that atrocity, could become a complicating factor in the negotiations with Tehran?
‘The White House has no intention of introducing this element,’ Ledeen scoffed, adding that ‘there can be no doubt that Nisman was assassinated.’
Anyone who believes the official Argentine version of events – namely, that Nisman committed suicide – ‘didn’t understand him, didn’t know him,’ Ledeen said. Ledeen did know Nisman well, as the Special Prosecutor often visited Washington and spent time at FDD, Ledeen’s think-tank. He is adamant that once the Argentine government discovered that Nisman had drafted an arrest warrant for Kirchner and other senior leaders, ‘they told the Iranians about it. So there is a degree of plausibility to the contention that this murder was a joint action. I am afraid, though, that we will have to wait at least 10 years, or more, before we find out exactly what happened.’
As Ledeen tells it, Iran now wields greater power in the world than the United States does – not in terms of wealth, or military power, but in its aggressive projection of a set of ideas and beliefs that amount to a full-throated assault on the Western tradition of governance.
‘All major religions are undergoing a revival at this moment – Judaism, Christianity and Islam,’ Ledeen said, as we wound to a close. ‘It’s not unique to Islam. People are looking for the meaning of life, and religion is the basic source of that. Generally, it’s the fundamentalist forms of religion, the old time religion, that attracts people, because it gives firm answers and clear instructions and codes of behaviour.’
And then came the kicker: ‘That reminds me an awful lot of Europe in the latter part of the 19th century, when a similar quest for the meaning of life was underway. And of course, that ended in fascism.’