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Michael Ledeen (@michaelledeen) is a historian, longtime think-tanker currently serving as the Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, former Special Advisor to the Secretary of State and consultant to the National Security Council during the Reagan administration and author of 38 books.
Perhaps most pertinent to today, Ledeen is an expert on Iran, with deep ties to dissidents and countless individuals in the diaspora cultivated over many decades, dating back to the fall of the Shah and the Revolution of 1979.
I had Ledeen on the Big Ideas with Ben Weingarten podcast to discuss a variety of topics including his views on how long the current Khomeinist regime will survive, what America might do to help topple it, the phony Sunni-Shia split, the nature of Iran’s dissidents, what happens the day after the regime falls and more. Tangentially related, Ledeen and I also discussed the targeting of those who challenge the national security and foreign policy establishment, including regarding both Iran and Israel, and the sackings of Larry Franklin and Gen. Michael Flynn — the latter of whom with which Micheal co-authored a book, The Field of Fight. Ledeen shares his take on Gen. Flynn’s guilty plea — which he believes was given falsely — and explains why he believes Gen. Flynn was targeted in the first place.
What We Discussed
- The false narrative about alternatives for Iran being either appeasement or war
- The impending collapse of the Khomeinist regime and what the U.S. can do to accelerate it
- The history of U.S. intelligence failures in Iran
- How secular and liberal Iran’s dissidents actually are
- Whether there is a wedge that can be exploited between Iran and Russia
- What will become of Hezbollah if the Iranian regime collapses
- The allegedly political witch hunt against Iran hawk and Israel supporter Larry Franklin as an illustration of historic anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in the foreign policy and national security establishment
- Ledeen’s theory that Gen. Michael Flynn falsely pled guilty, and the real reason why Gen. Flynn was targeted in the first place
Thanks for Listening!
Check out other episodes at benweingarten.com/bigideas.
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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ben Weingarten: Michael, what got you interested in Iran in the first place?
Michael Ledeen: Oh it was something that happened to me. I was editing The Washington Quarterly. The Shah fell. And it was obvious that we had to do some big story in The Washington Quarterly called “Carter and the Fall of the Shah.” So I rummaged around Washington, and I came up with a terrific guy, named Bill Lewis, who had just returned from State and knew a lot about Iran. And I said to him, “Write an article called ‘Carter and the Fall of the Shah.’ And he said “How long?” And I said. “As long as you want. You want the whole magazine I’ll give you the whole magazine. Just do it.” And he came back in a few months and said “Okay I’ve got all of this stuff, and here’s this other stuff that I haven’t been able to find out.” And I looked at it, and it seemed to me like things that I could probably find out. Some had to do with French intelligence. Some had to do with the Israeli government and so on, and these were…I had just come back from Rome, and so, I said to him, “Well, suppose I try to track down the stuff and if it works out we’ll do it together.” He said “Fine.” We did an article called “Carter and the Fall of the Shah,” and it was a big hit. And Knopf came and offered us a book contract, and we took that. We did a book [Debacle: The American Failure in Iran]. So that’s how I became interested in Iran.
It happened to me, and while doing it — the book — I met more and more Iranians. And over the years, I’ve met a seemingly endless array of Iranians, and I just kept up with it. There was no way to escape it. Not a day goes by where I don’t get a call from some part of the Iranian diaspora, or some person claiming to be in Iran, and so I do what I’ve been doing.
Ben Weingarten: What is the real history of CIA involvement in Iranian regimes?
Michael Ledeen: The main history of CIA in Iran is the CIA has always been wrong. They’ve never once gotten it right so far as I know. I mean, every prediction they made has been wrong, and they’ve been wrong on people and they’ve been wrong on sources and all of that. They’re not very good.
Ben Weingarten: There are those who argue, especially in the last administration — they put out a straw man argument where the alternatives in Iran are either war or give billions of dollars to a regime, appease them, protect their nuclear infrastructure, et cetera. And there is a question that you have to ask before you even get to what is the right policy, which is, what is it that fundamentally drives the mullocracy? Is it materialism? Is it expanding the Islamic Revolution? So, spiritual, material, or is it their own self-interest, ultimately, that drives them?
Michael Ledeen: Well, the first thing to say is that you have these two starkly different options: Kiss up to them, appease them, support them, or war with them. That war is on. We’re at war with them, or rather they are at war with us. And they’ve been at war with us since 1979, the Revolution, and they’ve been killing us ever since, and they’re killing us today and that continues. So it’s a false option. It’s typical of the wrong-headed thinking that goes on and on on Iran.
Ben Weingarten: And those who are critical of your writing cast you as a “neocon warmonger,” et cetera. What would you say to those people if you could speak directly to them about that view?
Michael Ledeen: I don’t know what a neocon is. I don’t know what neo-conservatism is. If you ask me if I believe in revolution, and support it in Iran, the answer is yes, I believe in it. It happens sometimes. Rarely, it succeeds. And we, as a nation, are the only revolutionary country in the world. And we should support democratic revolution, in places like Iran.
Ben Weingarten: You’ve supported among other things — and this is sort of a parallel to during the Cold War — information warfare, that is, propaganda in the best sense of the term being pushed into Iran as a means of challenging the regime in the ideological space because ultimately ideological warfare is paramount. What would your comprehensive policy be for fomenting revolution and taking this regime down?
Michael Ledeen: Well, let’s do the Cold War ’cause what happened is that, the Reagan administration sent out people like me to go talk to anti-Soviet dissidents in the Soviet Union, and in places like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, et cetera. And we did. I talked to the Lech Wałęsa people in Poland, and I talked to the Havel people in Czechoslovakia, and as we talked, I would say to them, “What do you need? We would love to see you people succeed in overthrowing the Soviet Empire. What can we do to help?” And they told us various [things]… They made suggestions, some of which had not occurred to us: Fax machines. Fax machine was a revolutionary instrument. Well we didn’t think of it that way, but it was because it enabled them to communicate with one another and transmit information.
So I have no doubt that if we sat down and talked to Iranian dissidents today and said, “Okay we would love to see you succeed. What do you need? What can we do?” — they would similarly propose things to us that we have not figured out.
One of the great discoveries in the years of the end of Cold War, the 80s, early 90s, was that what they lacked — they had all kinds of information about the outside world — what they did not know was what was going on all over their own country. So people in Moscow did not know what was happening in what we now call Petersburg, Leningrad and ditto all over the place. It’s the same with the Iranians. Iranians in Tabriz do not know what’s going on in Tehran. Iranians in Tehran are not aware that the revolutions going on also in Mashhad, and demonstrations and so on, so forth. They need to know that.
I think that’s what [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo’s talking about in his speech a couple of days ago at the Reagan Library, I’m not sure, ’cause he didn’t quite spell it out, but he seemed to be talking about something like that — we were gonna increase our broadcasting to them and talk to them, which is important.
Ben Weingarten: How perilous is the situation for the regime today? There are a few indicators obviously, as you mentioned, there are protests going on throughout the country — including in Tehran, there’s massive inflation — usually the way that the currency goes gives you an indication for the direction of the government.
Michael Ledeen: Well, there’s no water. Above all there’s no water and it’s hot.
Ben Weingarten: So given that, how close is the regime in your view to toppling, or what would the signs be that it really is buckling and in serious trouble?
Michael Ledeen: The regime can fall any minute, literally. It would not surprise me if it fell in the next day or two, as it would not surprise me if it went out for several months. Timing is very hard to forecast, but it’s in its last gasp.
Ben Weingarten: When this regime — it will not fall without a fight, it will clearly be very bloody and you’ve already seen it be bloody in terms of how the secret police have dealt with protesters and also of course shutting down communications and the like, in the country — what does it look like and what is the aftermath of the regime’s collapse?
Michael Ledeen: Well, they all look different. So who knows? But I agree with you, I think… It will be quite bloody. They’ve killed an awful lot of people, this so-called “moderate” Rouhani regime has increased the execution rate inside Iran by 50 percent, which is spectacular. And people have a lot of vengeance to wreak on this regime and an awful lot of revenge to take, and they will.
Ben Weingarten: What happens to the Hezbollah infrastructure that exists — including in our Southern Hemisphere, and of course, I’m sure there are cells in the US today — what happens to that apparatus when the regime itself falls?
Michael Ledeen: Well, one of the corollaries of the regime falling in Tehran is that Hezbollah will also fall in Syria. And the whole world changes, it’s quite amazing when you think of the consequences of the fall of the Islamic Republic of Iran…The whole world.
Ben Weingarten: How big or how intense is the genuinely secular liberal resistance in Iran? Obviously you see the pictures of what Iran was like under the Shah where you had middle class Westerners, largely secular, largely liberal, but we’re now 40 years on from that. So how big is that genuine resistance that is actually pro-Western today?
Michael Ledeen: I don’t know how to measure it, but it’s plenty big. And mosques are empty, so radical Shiism which inspired the ’79 Revolution, and the makeup of this regime is pretty much a dead letter. It’s not popular. It’s a young population — young populations are typically secular, not religious.
And so I think for the moment — there was a story yesterday was it or the day before which caught my attention, which was about a Zoroastrian who was elected to I think a town council, or something like that. And he’d been blocked because “We can’t have the Zoroastrians running the country.” And then the regime relented and backed off, and he joined the council. And I gave it a “Wow” on my Twitter feed. Things like that strike me as very significant. And if there were freedom in Iran today, you would see the biggest Zoroastrian revival in history.
So it’s not exactly, secular, but it’s certainly not radical Islam.
Ben Weingarten: Of the opposition maybe the one that gets the most billing in Western media is a group that was designated as a terrorist organization up until a few years ago, that being the MEK. What are we supposed to make of MEK? Are they a reliable ally?
Michael Ledeen: The main thing about MEK is that it matters very little inside Iran. They have very small following, and that’s easy to understand because they killed Iranians. They were agents of [former Iraqi President] Saddam [Hussein]. And so they’re very unpopular in Iran overall.
And what we should worry about is the 70-plus million Iranians who are opposed to this regime entering the streets, and not a few thousand followers of Miss [Maryam] Rajavi who is not a democrat, not particularly pro-American and is not gonna be the leader of their coming Iranian revolution, although they do produce useful intelligence every now and then.
Ben Weingarten: And then one of the enduring myths that I’ve seen when it comes to Iran and more broadly is the sort of Sunni-Shia split that is spoken of — is the idea that among the jihadist groups, they don’t actually coordinate, when it’s very clear based on upon the historical record that they do. I wonder if you’d speak a little bit to the coordination of activities between supposed enemies that hate each other, and will fight to the death, which of course they do.
Michael Ledeen: Well who are we talking about? Give me an example.
Ben Weingarten: So one example would be Iran harboring al-Qaeda agents pre-9/11, and obviously backing Hamas as well, Hamas being a Sunni —
Michael Ledeen: Well and ever since. I mean Iran has the son of Osama bin Laden. And al-Qaeda’s been in Iran all along, and operating out of Iran all along. We know this now. I think even CIA knows this. And the Iranian government has announced it, al-Qaeda has announced it in public documents. So the Sunni-Shia thing is grossly overrated. It’s like Mafia: Normally, if you go to see the Godfather you find that Mafia families are fighting each other all the time for territory, and business and so forth. But when the Feds appear on the scene and come after them, the “Five Families” sit down around the table and make a war plan. So it’s the same with the Sunnis and the Shia. They’ve sat down around their table, and they’ve made a war plan. They cooperate.
Ben Weingarten: Iran and Russia historically have not gotten along particularly well. Should we be doing things — we being the US government — to foment strife between them, and split them off from each other?
Michael Ledeen: Well, it’s worth a try and Trump is trying that. It’s false to say that Iran and Russia haven’t gotten along. They have and they haven’t. Russia has been involved in running in Iranian affairs — or to use our common language, Russia has been “meddling” in Iran all along, hundreds of years, as we have by the way. And that’s traditional. That’s normal. So nothing new there.
Does [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wanna make a deal over Iran? Can he control Iran? I don’t know. Who knows? What we do know is that the Russians are in Syria because…or following an Iranian request. The Iranians were losing in Syria. They went to Putin and said, “Help. We’re losing. Do something. Help us.” And Putin said, “Charmed. Love to.” And so, yes, so he’s in. Is he willing to leave? Does he want to stay forever? How does he feel about alliance with a radical, Shiite revolutionary country like Iran? I don’t know. I mean he must have at least some second thoughts about it, a nuclear Iran. The whole Iranian nuclear program is Russian. It’s all Russian. It’s Russian technology, it’s Russian scientists, it’s Russian military experts. Bushehr, which is their main reactor, that’s all Russian, built by the Russians, operated by Russians and so on. So they have a lot to say.
Ben Weingarten: If you are just a civilian and you wanna get up to speed on the actual truth of what is going on on the ground in Iran, what are the publications or who are the people that you would follow, besides yourself, obviously?
Michael Ledeen: Well, the Foundation for Defense of Democracy is a good organizing center because they talk to all the top scientists and report on those developments. So that’s the easiest, quickest place.
Ben Weingarten: At your wife’s request, who is a bold patriot, she asked that I ask you about the Larry Franklin story. So I wonder if you’d speak a bit to that.
Michael Ledeen: Well, what can I say? Larry Franklin’s another victim of the intelligence community’s hatred of Israel, and Jews and people who support Israel and all of that. Larry Franklin did a lot of work on Iran back in the day, ’80s, and was unhappy with our government’s policy towards Iran, thought we should be more aggressive and so forth, and thought Israel should be too. And he went to AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee], and talked to a couple of guys at AIPAC about going after the mullahs, going after Iran and so forth. And the FBI became aware of these conversations, and started recording them. And then after a while, they charged Franklin and the AIPAC people with things which came to Larry’s having to do community service for some number of years, a lot of false stories written about him claiming that he had been indicted, or convicted or something of espionage, which never happened. He was never charged with it. He was charged with taking home classified documents to work on them because he had a sick wife, and if he stayed in the Pentagon he would get home very late, and couldn’t properly take care of his wife.
So Larry Franklin is one of the many people who has been targeted by mostly FBI, who should get presidential pardons. And if I were in charge of pardons, he’d be one of the first persons [pardoned].
Ben Weingarten: Since you sort of alluded to it indirectly, General Flynn…You wrote a book with General Flynn [The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies]. I’ve written articles, so, for our listeners, supportive of the fact that it very much appears to have been that General Flynn was effectively ambushed in his office and taken out of office on the shoddiest of possible grounds. And if you read the charging statement, it’s very clear that the grounds were based upon legitimate conversations that he had, and supposedly FBI agents who said they didn’t feel there was any wrongdoing, in his statements. You were close to General Flynn. You’ve witnessed the entire saga, as the country has witnessed it. What do you make of everything that’s happened? What do you feel about it? And do you think he will ultimately be vindicated?
Michael Ledeen: Well, I’ve written it…Obviously, he cannot discuss it with me. So I don’t know anything more than anybody else does. But it seems to me pretty obvious that that he did not lie to investigators. That so-called conversation is always misreported. He was routinely talking to FBI people about setting up the National Security Council, about how the relationship would work, and all of that. So these FBI guys including [Peter] Strzok were in and out of his office all the time, constantly. And during one of these meetings, they asked him questions about his conversations with the Russian Ambassador [Sergey Kislyak]. He did not have any reason to think that this was any different from any other past conversation, and so he didn’t ask for an attorney to come in and say, “Yeah, don’t you dare answer those questions.” And so he said things to them which later on has somehow enabled them to claim that he lied, or he made false statements or something in their conversations. After having told the Director of FBI [James Comey] that they did not think he was lying, or had lied, I believe that General Flynn has falsely pleaded guilty, and he pleaded guilty in order to turn off the pain machine for his wife, his children, his family in general, and so on.
It’s a terrible thing to live through. No one who hasn’t actually been through it can imagine what it’s like. But start by thinking about every morning when you get up and walk out your front door, there’s screaming, journalists asking you: “Well, are you guilty? Are you a Russian spy? Are you this? Are you that?” and so on. And that follows you all day long, until you get back in the house and close the door and all of that. And ditto for other members of your family and so forth. And it’s really very unpleasant, and I can well imagine the Flynn family reaching a point where General Flynn would go to the attorney and say, “Look, this is all nonsense. I can’t get out of this, no matter what I do. What do I have to do to turn it off? I’ve gotta turn it off, ’cause otherwise, my wife is gonna go crazy. My kids are gonna go crazy.” And the attorney will have said “Well, you can plead guilty.” So, he pleaded guilty.
I’ve seen that a lot. That’s happened a lot over the years, and I’ve written about it in connection with Iran-Contra where I was the target of a special prosecutor and lived through the same sort of thing that General Flynn has been living through.
He is, however, a national hero. He’s one of the great men in the history of American intelligence. And he’s part of a very important story about our intelligence community and how politicized they’ve become, and how badly they’ve been doing their job.
Ben Weingarten: And that’s a deeper question. At the end of the day, why was he perceived as such a threat that he had to go through this ordeal and be effectively taken out?
Michael Ledeen: He was a threat. He changed intelligence. He reformed the way we do intelligence on the battlefield, and that cut out an awful lot of people with stars on their shoulders back in the Pentagon in Washington. And he was starting to do the same thing at DIA. And they did not like that. They didn’t want that. And they went after him, and first they got rid of him at DIA, and then they were terrified when he became so close to Trump. And when he was named pending National Security Advisor, then became National Security Adviser, they went all out after him.
Backed Vibes (clean) Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
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