Michael Ledeen is a Freedom Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. The following are edited excerpts and concepts from his forthcoming book, The Iranian Time Bomb, which will be published in September by St Martin’s Press.
Iran’s Radical Shi’ite Doctrine
Iran is a formidable enemy. Its war against the West is not based on a desire for territory, or on real or imagined grievances. Rather, it is rooted in the radical nature of the Islamic Republic. For the Iranians to negotiate a modus vivendi with us would be tantamount to abandoning the messianic vision of Khomeini and his successors.
Visit the official web site of the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamene’i, and you will find him described as “the leader of the Muslims,” endowed with the authority of the ancient Caliphs to lead all Muslims, not just the Shi’ites. This is a testament to the fact that Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 revolution toppled not only the Shah, but traditional Shi’ite doctrine, according to which civil society must not be governed by clerics until the return of the “Vanished Imam,” a messianic figure whose reappearance would usher in a new era.
In contrast with Sunni doctrine, the Shi’ites have long insisted that the mosque was the rightful place for religious leaders, leaving government to secular leaders. When Khomeini assumed power in Iran, however, he imposed a stern, oppressive system that drove women from public life, enforced puritanical regulations on the population, and carried out mass executions of those who challenged him. It was, and remains, a classic example of clerical fascism.
Like the leaders of other fascist states, the mullahs who have ruled the Islamic Republic have claimed universal authority in the name of their doctrine, not of their country. They say they are prepared to die “along with their followers” to accomplish their mission. As Khomeini put it shortly after the occupation of the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979, “We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah… patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.”
Iran and the Sunni World
Shortly after the revolution, in November 1979, Iranian-supported “pilgrims” on the Hajj in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, occupied the Grand Mosque, took several hundred hostages, and called for the overthrow of the ruling Saudi family. The Grand Mosque became a battleground. After two weeks of tough fighting – resulting in some 250 dead, including scores of Saudi National Guardsmen, and hundreds wounded – order was restored in Islam’s holiest site.
Though Iran terrorized the epicenter of the Sunni sect, it has also worked closely with Sunni terrorists. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), created by Khomeini as his own personal praetorian guard, were subsequently used for crucial tasks of domestic repression and foreign terrorism. Interestingly, they were trained and organized in the early 1970s by Yasser Arafat’s (Sunni) Fatah.
In February 1996, British NATO found a manual for training Sunni terrorists in Bosnia that a British expert called “the mother of all training manuals.” It was uncovered during an operation against the “Pogorelica” training camp, during which Bosnian police arrested four Iranian “diplomats” and eight Bosnian Muslims. The manual was produced by Iranian Intelligence, and had been used to train al-Qaeda militants in Sudan. It was a thoroughly professional job, and included sections ranging from clandestine communications and the creation of terrorist cells to staging simultaneous attacks, kidnapping, and evading surveillance.
A dramatic example of Sunni-Shi’ite cooperation is Iran’s close relationship with al-Qaeda. The 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, for which al-Qaeda took full credit, were a product of Iranian assistance. Al-Qaeda’s leader, Usama bin Laden, had asked Hizbollah’s operations chief, Imad Mughniyah, for help in making al-Qaeda a more potent force. The original concept for the simultaneous bombings in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi reportedly came directly from Mughniyah. After the attacks, one of the leaders of the al-Qaeda operation, Saif al Adel, took refuge in Iran, where he reportedly remains active.
The late Sunni leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, created his international terror network while based in Iran, as demonstrated by court documents in Germany and Italy. Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish al-Qaeda affiliate group, operated on the Iraq-Iran border until the U.S. invasion in 2003. This Sunni group reportedly received logistical assistance and supplies from Iran.
Iran in Iraq
In 2006 and 2007, American military officers in Iraq have brought forward evidence that Iran is supporting both Sunni and Shi’ite militias throughout Iraq. Iraq is also one more battlefield on which the Iranians have targeted the West. Indeed, Iran’s strategy in Iraq is little more than a replay of the successful methods used against us in Lebanon in the eighties: suicide terrorism, hostage taking, mass demonstrations, and manipulation of the media. Nonetheless, Iran’s sponsorship of violence, in tandem with their Syrian allies, surprised many Western strategists.
Should the U.S. military be driven out of Iraq, the power of the Islamic Republic will dramatically expand. The mullahs have already established strategic alliances in the western hemisphere, with Cuba and Venezuela, and are working closely with Russia and China in the east. A victory over the “Great Satan” in Iraq could also compel the smaller Middle Eastern countries, with traditional enmity towards Iran, to come to terms with Tehran, and make the region much more inhospitable to the United States, its friends, and its allies.
Iran and Hizbullah
Five years after the revolution in 1984, the Department of State declared the Islamic Republic a leading supporter of international terrorism. The principal instrument of Iranian terror is Hizbullah, which was created in Lebanon shortly after the revolution. In the 1980s, Hizbullah organized suicide bombing attacks against the French and American Marine barracks, and the American Embassy in Beirut. Iran was also behind the kidnappings of American missionaries and military and intelligence officers who were subsequently tortured to death. In the 1990s, Hizbullah conducted lethal attacks against Jewish targets in Argentina, for which leaders of the Iranian regime have since been indicted.
An American federal judge ruled that Iran was responsible for the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, in which 19 American Air Force personnel were killed and 372 wounded. The ruling was based in large part on sworn testimony from former FBI Director Louis Freeh. He found that two Iranian government security agencies and senior members of the Iranian government (including Khamene’i and intelligence chief Ali Fallahian) provided funding, training, explosives and logistical assistance to the terrorists. The perpetrators referred to themselves as “Saudi Hizbullah,” thereby confirming their ties to the mullahs.
The Israelis were astonished by the strength and technological savvy of Hizbullah during the war in the summer of 2006. The Israeli Defense Forces discovered that these Iran-sponsored terrorists were using highly advanced electronic surveillance devices valued at tens of millions of dollars, provided by IRGC. Hizbullah also used two new listening stations to monitor Israeli communications during the war, one on the Golan Heights and the other at Baab al-Hawa, near the Turkish border. Two others will become operational in time for the next confrontation between Iran’s Lebanese proxy and the Jewish state.
The Lebanese war against Israel was undertaken without atomic bombs – the issue that dominates the policy debate over Iran throughout the West. To be sure, an Iranian bomb would be an existential threat to Israel, but so is a non-nuclear Iran. Indeed, Iran can mount an existential threat to Israel through its funding of Hizbullah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. To focus solely on the nuclear question is a serious failure of strategic vision.
Iran in America?
There is evidence of Iranian espionage in the United States. In April 2007, an Iranian national named Mohammed Alavi was arrested for providing Iran with the floor plan of America’s largest nuclear power plant. Numerous Iranian “diplomats” at the U.N. have been thrown out of New York City when they were found taking photographs of train and subway stations.
It is hard to imagine that there are no Hizbollah terrorists operating clandestinely inside the United States. If they could blow up buildings in Buenos Aires, they can surely do the same in America. Tehran has boasted that it has studied America’s weak points carefully, and is ready to attack when circumstances are propitious.
Washington’s Iran Policy
For twenty-eight years, every American administration has permitted the Islamic Republic to build up its strength and prepare to strike us. Presidents Carter, Clinton, and Reagan either directly sold weapons to Iran, or enabled others to do it. No American president has initiated a serious challenge to post-Revolutionary Iran. Indeed, the only time Iran paid a price for attacking American targets was when the USS Samuel B. Roberts hit an Iranian mine in the Persian Gulf in 1988. When Reagan retaliated against Iranian targets, the Iranian Navy escalated the confrontation, and lost about one-third of its vessels. However, no American president has called for regime change in Tehran. No American administration has sufficiently supported Iranian dissident groups. Sadly, even America’s Farsi broadcasts to Iran are more critical of America than they are of the fascist clerics of Iran.
Washington has successfully petitioned the United Nations to enact sanctions against the worst elements of the Iranian regime. Properly enforced, they could inflict considerable discomfort, especially to the leaders of the IRGC. But much more is needed, beginning with an explicit U.S. statement in favor of regime change. Further, the U.S. must continue to provide financial and technological support to the Iranian workers, teachers, students and other organizations that have demonstrated a desire for democracy and the courage to fight for it in Iran.
This presidential administration or the next will likely face a terrible choice: appease a nuclear Iran, or bomb it before their atomic weapons are ready to go. While a sad exclamation point at the end of nearly thirty years of failed policy, confrontation may be virtually inescapable. Like other ideological wars of the twentieth century, this war will likely only end when one side has lost.