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A Conservative Perspective on U.S.-Iran Relations

Conservative thinker Michael Ledeen holds the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute, but prefers the term "democratic revolutionary" to "neoconservative." He discusses the current and future U.S. policy toward Iran, arguing that the United States should encourage change from within the country, rather than launching an all-out attack.


Other segments from the episode on August 30, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 30, 2006: Interview with Michael Ledeen; Interview with Joseph Cirincione.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute
discusses how to bring about regime change in Iran

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Tomorrow is the deadline set by the UN Security Council for Iran to suspend
uranium enrichment, a process that can be used for nuclear power production or
to build a nuclear weapon. Some hard-liners and neoconservatives are calling
for air strikes and/or regime change before Iran is able to develop a nuclear
bomb. My guest Michael Ledeen has been calling for regime change in Iran for
years, warning that Iran has been at war with us since 1979. He says the time
for diplomacy is at an end. Ledeen is a contributing editor for the National
Review online and a resident scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American
Enterprise Institute. He's a former consultant for the National Security
Council and the State and Defense Departments. Ledeen's latest book is "The
War Against the Terror Masters." In an earlier book, "Perilous Statecraft," he
wrote about his involvement in the Iran/Contra affair during the Reagan


Michael Ledeen, welcome to FRESH AIR. If Iran continues its nuclear program
and doesn't comply with the UN Security Council, what do you think the United
States should do?

Mr. MICHAEL LEDEEN (American Enterprise Institute): Well, paradoxically, I
don't--I think the nuclear question is a bit of a diversion. That is the
problem from Iran is that they are at war with us and have been at war with us
for 27 years. And mainly what they do to us is kill us and our friends and
allies all over the world. And that is the central issue that should drive
American policy toward Iran, not whether they do or don't have nuclear
weapons. And I think that the nuclear question should not drive this strategy
we devise for Iran. And I think that since we're fighting war against
terrorism, that sooner or later we're going to have to bring down that regime
in Tehran. And that's the central question. And I think it also resolves at
least some of the main problems associated with nuclear weapons. That is we
don't worry much about pro-Western, democratic countries that have nuclear
weapons, countries like India or France or Great Britain. And I would not
lose much sleep over a democratically elected government in Iran because the
Iranian people are overwhelmingly democratic and pro-Western and pro-American.
What we worry about is nuclear weapons in the hands of these fanatics, these
Islamic fascists.

GROSS: OK, so you made it clear you'd like to see regime change in Iran, and
you've been making that clear in your articles for a while now. How do you
think the United States should go about that?

Mr. LEDEEN: Same way we did with the Soviet Empire during the Cold War.
That is support the people who want to be free and who want to remove the
regime. And we know how to do that. We've done it all over the world. It's
a bit mysterious why we have never tried it in Iran, which is a country that
famously has a very pro-American and anti-regime population. So basically you
do all the obvious things. First of all, you say, which the American
government has never said, you say that you would like regime change in Iran.
You would like a free government. And then you broadcast to them and you tell
them every day that you want that. And you give them the information they
need to be able to organize it effectively themselves. So we need to do for
them what Radio Free Europe did for the people in the Soviet empire during the
Cold War, that is bring them up to date on what is going on elsewhere. So the

people in Tehran need to know what's going on in Israel
and...(unintelligible)...etc. So then they need to hear from people who have
participated in successful, nonviolent revolutions around the world, so that
they learn what works and what doesn't work, and they can learn from the
experience of other people.

GROSS: So you're making the argument that what the United States should do is
help the Iranian people rise up and overthrow the current Iranian government.

Mr. LEDEEN: Right.

GROSS: And create a democracy there. This sound very similar to the
arguments that were made about Iraq before we invaded it, and, you know,
helping people overthrow the government didn't work there. We ended up
invading Iraq. And although we were told that people would really love a
democracy there and they'd welcome us, what we have now is chaos in Iraq.
There's still an insurgency. There's a civil war or something near civil war,
depending on who's doing the describing. And the war in Iraq appears to have
turned a lot of people through the region against the United States. So I'm
wondering what lessons you've taken away from Iraq.

Mr. LEDEEN: Well, we disagree on almost every element of your analysis, I
guess. We never did try to support revolution in Iraq, and I'm not aware of
anybody--I think that you are the first person to have suggested that we did,
that I've heard anyway. In fact, great chunks of the American government,
particularly the State Department and the CIA, fought hammer and tongs against
the very idea that one could have a revolution in Iraq. I disagreed with the
military invasion of Iraq at the time. I thought it was a mistake. I thought
it was the wrong way to do it.

What I proposed was that since the Iraqi people could not possibly trust us
because another American president named George Bush had betrayed them barely
10 years before to Saddam by first calling for a Shiite and Kurdish uprising,
and then when it occurred, doing nothing to protect them or defend them or
support them, that they would have to see evidence that this time around we
were serious. And so I suggested that we take those two no-fly zones, one in
the north, one in the south, and turn them into free Iraq zones. And let the
Iraqis set up self-governments in both of those areas and then to call upon
the rest of the Iraqi people in--let's call it--Saddam's Iraq and say to them,
`Look. You don't have to die for this person, and we don't want attack you.
Get out. Go north. Go south. Live like free people and you will see that we
are here to liberate you and to create a free Iraq. So that was one point
that I made. Just invading the country I thought was wrong.

Secondly, I thought it was a mistake because it was no really narrow vision of
the war we were engaged in, which is a regional war in the Middle East. And
anybody who was knowledgeable about the region, I thought, should recognize
that if we invaded Iraq and brought down Saddam and occupied the country, that
the Iranians and the Syrians were going to have to come after us. And in fact
they said so publicly before we ever went into Iraq. In fact, Bashar Assad
gave an interview, open, public interview, about two months before the start
of Operation Iraqi Freedom, in which he said, `When the Americans get there,
that will only be the start. And then we will repeat in Iraq what we did to
them earlier in Lebanon, which was in the 1980s when they in fact drove us out
of Lebanon.' And that's exactly what has happened.

GROSS: So that is why you are arguing in your articles now that we not only
need regime change in Iran but in Syria, too. In fact, you call it Syran.
Because when you talk about regime change in Iran, you also talk about Syria.
So you've conflated the two and just call it Syran now. So we've got a lot of
work to do if we follow your game plan of changing regimes in Iran and Syria
while continuing to have our troops in Iraq.

Mr. LEDEEN: Well, nobody knows how much work there is to do. I wouldn't
pretend to know that. It could happen very quickly. Life is full of
surprises. And certainly one of the consequences of the downfall of Saddam
and our occupation of Iraq has been to inspire people all over the region to
want to do the same thing to their own leaders. Now I remember about a week
after Saddam fell, Le Monde sent some journalists into the streets of Tehran,
interviewing people, they said at random, and asking them, `Well, how do you
feel about all these Marines running around Baghdad?' And everybody gave the
same answer, which was `Why are they only in Baghdad? Why don't they come to
Tehran? We love Marines here.'

GROSS: But that was a long time ago, at the beginning of the invasion. My
impression now from watching the news and reading the newspapers is that the
war in Iraq has helped turn people throughout the Middle East against the
United States. And doesn't this challenge in some way your feeling that Iran
and Syria would be happy for a pro-American regime change? I get the
impression we're not real popular in there right now.

Mr. LEDEEN: Well, I don't know why you have that impression because even
things like the Pew Poll show that American popularity is rising and that the
people of the region really do want to be free. It's a stereotype of a
certain kind of reportage, that people in that part of the world really don't
want freedom and they're not really set up for self-governments and so forth.
But I don't believe that.

GROSS: Now you're making it clear that you don't support military regime
change in Iran and Syria.

Mr. LEDEEN: Right.

GROSS: On the other hand, you write, "Our failure to support revolution makes
military action more and more likely." How likely do you think a military
action in Iran or Syria is right now?

Mr. LEDEEN: I don't know. I'm not smart enough to answer that question.
All I know is that the longer we avoid what seems to be moderate, sensible,
traditional kinds of solutions to the problems we face in that region, the
more likely it is that an American president will arrive one day and having to
decide between appeasing a nuclear Iran and bombing it. And under those
circumstances, bombing it is the real option.

GROSS: As we've said, with the way you'd like to support regime change in
Iran is to help Iranian dissidents rise up and overthrow their own government.
And before the invasion of Iraq, Ahmed Chalabi was considered to be one of the
Iraqi exiles and dissidents who was informed about the Iraqi people and how
they could, you know, rise up and who gave a lot of information that was
published in the press, and that I think the Defense Department used to plan
their strategy in Iraq. Now Chalabi is accused of having leaked American
intelligence information to the Iranians.

Mr. LEDEEN: Right.

GROSS: Do you feel like--how betrayed do you feel by that?

Mr. LEDEEN: Well, I don't think it's true. I can't imagine that it's true.
I mean, this information comes from leaks from that same wonderful CIA who
knew nothing about Iraq before we went in and who has never really had a very
good appreciation of what's going on inside Iran. I don't see why I should
take that seriously. And he has offered to come and testify before Congress
and answer all questions and so forth, and that offer has never been picked
up. I think it's just a smear. He's been smeared a lot. And his theory that
it was possible to do a lot more through revolutionary activity in Iraq has
never been tested. So we can't evaluate it. And certainly he was opposed to
this kind of invasion.

GROSS: Let me read something that you wrote recently. You wrote, "Our
failure to design and conduct a serious Iran policy for so long has narrowed
our options and we may be faced with a choice among various unattractive
actions. If we and our allies decide that Iranian nuclear facilities must be
taken out, we should first make clear to the Iranian people that we have come
slowly and reluctantly to this position. And that the regime could have
avoided this terrible situation by negotiating in good faith, and that we
would never dream of doing such a thing if Iran were governed by reasonable
people." It sounds there like you're thinking even though you don't support
military action, that maybe it's going to happen, and when it does, we should
explain it to the Iranian people.

Mr. LEDEEN: I believe that if we are faced with those alternatives, that it
will mean that we failed to design a rational, sensible strategy toward
dealing with Iran. I find it incredible that after six years in office, the
Bush administration still has no Iran policy. Don't you? I mean, I think
it's just amazing. Iran is arguably the central issue facing us in the Middle
East. And we still have no--there's no document defining what our strategy
is. There's no mission statement for what it is that we're supposed to be
accomplishing there. We're just dithering around, bouncing from today's news
to tomorrow's news. And that's--to me, that's unacceptable. That's not the
way a serious government is supposed to behave.

GROSS: But it sounds from that quote that I just read that you're kind of
expecting some kind of military action.

Mr. LEDEEN: Well, I haven't seen any sign of anybody drafting a sensible
policy, and I think that if you have no sensible policy, you are ultimately
faced with terrible alternatives. And we may well end up there. Look. I am
not a prophet. And prophecy's a very dangerous business. I'm an historian.
And looking at the history of policy making on this kind of question, when you
come to dreadful alternatives, if you just look back a bit, you can see that
if you had acted earlier and more moderately, you didn't have to deal with
that sort of alternative. That's what I'm worried about.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Michael Ledeen, a scholar at the American Enterprise
Institute. We're talking about why he's pushing for regime change in Iran.

You've been supporting regime change in Iran for a long time. What do you
think the consequences to the United States will be if there is not regime

Mr. LEDEEN: We'll continue to be faced with this extremely hostile regime
which I think I was the first person to call a clerical fascist regime, which
I wrote back in 1979. And they will continue to wage war against us in their
way, and they will continue until they have either won or lost. It's not a
very pleasant scenario. But I think it's as close to a sure thing as I can

GROSS: So you see Iran in the context of a larger battle between the West and
extreme Islam, and--I mean, do you see this as a fight to the death?

Mr. LEDEEN: I didn't say that. And I'm not sure I believe that. I don't
see this as a war between Islam and the West, and I disagree with people who
take that position.

GROSS: I'm sorry for misinterpreting you. That's how it

Mr. LEDEEN: No. I was talking about Iran, and I was calling the Iranian
regime a clerical fascist regime. Khamenei is a classical clerical fascist.
And I wrote my doctoral dissertations and several books about fascists and in
the scholarly literature, there is a category of fascism which is called
clerical fascism, which was originally applied, by the way, to Christian
clerical fascists in Romania at the same time as the Third Reich and Mussolini
and so forth. But the--and Khamenei fits that model of fascism perfectly and
this regime is exactly that. So I think Senator Santorum, for example, is
well within his rights to talk about Islamic fascism. I think that's
technically correct. But I'm just talking--you asked me a question about
Iran, and I was answering a question about Iran. I wasn't talking about Islam
in general. I don't think that Islam is predestined to wage jihad against the
West forever. I think there is at the moment a strain of Islam which is
jihadist and which is waging war against us. But I don't think it was
inevitable, and I don't think there's any reason why it has to continue.

GROSS: But just, again, getting back to the consequences that you think we
will face if we don't have regime change in Iran. Do you see Iran's extremist
Islamic leadership spreading? Do you think it's already spread? I mean, what
do you think will be the larger impact if the current regime remains in power?

Mr. LEDEEN: I can't answer that. I don't know what will happen. Nobody
knows what will happen. All we can say with certainty, I think this is as

close to certainty as you can have, is that they have been attacking us for 27
years and they will continue to attack us. Everything they say leads to that
conclusion. Everything they do leads to that conclusion. Why would you think
that anything other than that will happen? You know, if you find...

GROSS: But when you say they've been attacking us for 27 years, I mean, do
you hold Iran responsible for al-Qaeda, which is the group that actually
attacked us on American soil?

Mr. LEDEEN: How shall I answer this? All I said was that Iran has been
attacking us for 27 years. I didn't say that Iran is responsible for every
attack against us. I only said that they...

GROSS: No, but the attack that happened on American soil was the one by

Mr. LEDEEN: Well, I'm not sure. Maybe there was a relationship between Iran
and al-Qaeda. But I'm not making that accusation. I'm simply saying--you're
asking me what other...

GROSS: But when you said they've attacked us for 27 years, what are the
attacks that you're referring to?

Mr. LEDEEN: Well, how many would you like? There was the seizure of the
hostages in Tehran. There was the bombing of the American Embassy in Beirut.
There was the bombing of the American Marine barrack in Beirut. There was the
attack against Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia.

GROSS: So you've named like four or five attacks over 27 years.

Mr. LEDEEN: Well, I can name more, but we don't have all day. But there's
an awful lot. There are the attacks against American forces in Iraq today,
which are heavily supported by Iran. The IEDs that are blowing up American
troops along highways in Iraq are manufactured in Iran and come in from Iran,
as well as from Syria. There were Iranian revolutionary guard intelligence
officers all over Iran. Israel found that when they went into Lebanon, they
found Iranian military intelligence officers standing alongside Hezbollah.

GROSS: Are there any final thoughts you'd like to leave us with?

Mr. LEDEEN: You bet. The thing that most perplexes me about the policy to
date in the United States these days, and it's been true for several years, is
how it is that people who hold the views that I hold, which are to support
democratic revolution all over the world, not just in Iran, but all over the
world, have come somehow to be called conservatives, when revolution is by
definition a radical event. It's the opposite of conservatism. It calls for
fundamental change. And I can compare it to a question that Leo Strauss once
asked about the word virtue. He said, `How'd it happen that a word, virtue,
that used to stand for the manliness of men came to mean the virginity of
women or the chastity of women?' Which is a very dramatic change. And so it
is that you're having a lot of people today who are advocating revolution and
support for democratic revolution against tyranny have come to be misdefined,
I would argue, as conservatives. And it's perplexing. And I think it shows
the degree to which people really have trouble understanding what is going on
and the implications of various kinds of policy prescriptions. And that's

GROSS: Do you think of yourself as a revolutionary?

Mr. LEDEEN: Well, sure. I'm advocating revolution. I've advocated
revolution all my life.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. LEDEEN: It's my pleasure.

GROSS: Michael Ledeen is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a
contributing editor for the National Review online. We'll hear the case for
diplomacy with Iran in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Joseph Cirincione of the Center for American Progress
discusses how diplomacy might work in Iran

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In the first part of our show, Michael Ledeen made the case for regime change
in Iran. My guest Joseph Cirincione thinks diplomacy is essential in dealing
with Iran and its uranium enrichment program. Tomorrow is the deadline the UN
Security Council has set for Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program.
That program could be used for nuclear power or a nuclear weapon. Cirincione
thinks there's no chance that Iran will comply with the Security Council's
deadline, and its refusal will likely result in sanctions against Iran.
Cirincione is senior vice president for national security and international
policy at the Center for American Progress. He spent eight years as the
director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International

So what do you think the odds are the sanctions will be effective and Iran
will back down and stop, you know, its nuclear program and talk?

Mr. JOSEPH CIRINCIONE (Center for American Progress): I don't think there's
any chance that Iran is going to stop its uranium enrichment activities. If I
had to guess, I would say that we're going to find a compromise that would
allow negotiations to begin while Iran engages in some level of uranium
enrichment activity. But that's just a guess, and a lot will depend on what
the real agenda of the United States is in this matter. Is it really
interested in shutting down Iran's enrichment program, or is the game really
about regime change in Iran and the nuclear program is just the vehicle for
achieving that regime change?

GROSS: What leads you to think that the sanctions might just be a vehicle for
ultimately pursuing regime change?

Mr. CIRINCIONE: I think right now there are two factions in the
administration with different agendas, both playing out at the United Nations.
So on the surface, the United States is being very calm, very measured, not
engaging in a lot of inflammatory rhetoric on Iran, talking very softly about
this, trying to keep together the coalition that has passed the resolution so
far, hoping that a slow, steady escalation of pressure will force Iran to back
down. I think some in the State Department, that is what you might call the
pragmatists in the administration, are hoping that this will in fact work,
that there will be some way of beginning negotiations with Iran and we can
conclude, if not a grand bargain, a new relationship with Iran, at least an
end to the objectionable parts of its nuclear programs, specifically those
enrichment technologies that could be used for fuel rods but also for nuclear
bombs. But there's another faction in the administration, primarily led by
Vice President Cheney and those in his office, but also some of the National
Security Council, some around Secretary Rumsfeld, who believe that there's no
negotiating with these people, that Iran is already determined to go build a
nuclear weapon, and that it's racing to do so, and that we have a choice
between military action to stop that program or acquiescing to the Iranian
nuclear bomb. They say the latter is completely unacceptable and the only
reason they're engaging in these talks is to basically dance the dance that
they did with Iraq in 2002, to make it appear as if the US is going the last
mile, the US is the reasonable partner, trying diplomacy. Diplomacy fails.
We try sanctions. Sanctions fail. They'll be left, they say, with only the
military option. I think that honestly is the agenda of a good faction in the
administration, and we don't know yet whether that faction will win out or

GROSS: So is that faction pushing for a military strike against the nuclear
program? In other words, nuclear targets? Or is it pushing for the larger
thing which is regime change in Iran?

Mr. CIRINCIONE: It's regime change, and you can tell this by just reading
the neoconservative press. The same folks who got us into the war in Iraq are
now beating the drum for war with Iran. I'm talking about William Kristol
with The Weekly Standard or Richard Perle who wrote an Op-Ed along these lines
in The Washington Post back in July, Michael Rubin from the American
Enterprise Institute. Folks like this. The National Review online has a
long, extended essay this week talking about the need for overthrow of the
Iranian regime and for using military means for that purpose. This has always
been the view of at least some in the administration that the great historic
struggle facing us now was the struggle against this radical Islam, that this
was a true clash of civilizations, and that we, the United States, were the
forces of enlightenment, the forces of freedom and democracy, and it was up to
us to use our military power to resist and to crush this, what Secretary of
Defense Donald Rumsfeld calls, the new fascism, and that we're exactly the
same situation today as the US, the West was in facing the Nazi threat in the
1930s and that we have to be prepared for war. And in fact they say we're
already at war. Now the question is completing that war, not retreating from
this threat. So for them, Iran is Nazi Germany. Ahmadinejad is Hitler. They
are Churchill. And they intend to take down that new threat.

GROSS: And what do you think of that analysis?

Mr. CIRINCIONE: I think that is grandiose paranoia. I think they're
inflating both the threat and their own role in history, that the Iranian
regime is a despicable regime, despised by many Iranians themselves. But it
is not an expansionist, aggressive power in any way comparable to that of Nazi
Germany, or for that matter, Soviet communism. It is a regional problem, you
might even say a national problem within Iran. But it is not posed as
existential or crushing threat. Basically, I think that those in the
administration that think this way, those in the neoconservative movement who
think this way, are struggling with the historic problem that has plagued
Americans for decades, that is the failure to understand the nature of
nationalism, to understand that many of the fights that we engage in are not
against communism or against now Islamic fundamentalism. It's against
nationalism. We're seeing nationalists uprising in the Middle East. And
we're mistaking that and mislabeling it as this great ism, this ideological
thought, this ideological current that we have to defeat. And in so doing,
we're misunderstanding the nature of the struggle we're engaged in. We're
making a big strategic error and therefore employing the wrong tactics, the
wrong tools, the entire wrong orientation for how to defeat this challenge.

GROSS: But a lot of people look at the Middle East now and say that Arabism,
you know, an identification as Arabs as being replaced by Islamism, by an
extremist form of Islam. And that the popularity of Hezbollah is a good
example of that.

Mr. CIRINCIONE: I think that Arab nationalism has been frustrated for years.
Arabs have been struggling for decades, first against the Ottomans, then
against the British and the French who came in with their imperialist rule
after that. Then the US in some senses has inherited that 19th century, early
20th century imperialist baggage. And for the neoconservatives, they're
embracing it. They say, `Yes, you know, we're going to do it better than the
British and the French. We will determine the future of this region in a way
that the British the French never could.' And the Arabs have tried--have
expressed their nationalism in various forms. There was the Nasserism, the
pan-Arabism of the '50s and '60s. There was communism that came in, various
kinds of socialism. All of them have failed to really deliver what the Arabs
were looking for, which is self-determination, democracy of a kind, and
prosperity and advancement. The kind of things that all peoples want. And
now this religious ideology is promising to be the path out, and I believe
it's sort of the form that this nationalism is taking. They're clutching on
to this Islamic ideology and the belief that, `Well, maybe this is the way

GROSS: So you're saying that when you hear the neocons' argument comparing
Iran to Germany during World War II, to Germany's expansionist vision in World
War II, you don't think that that comparision holds. But what about the fact
that Iran is funding Hezbollah and Lebanon. Iran seems to be funding some of
the Shiites in the insurgency and in the civil war in Iraq. Correct me if I'm
wrong on that in Iraq, but isn't that signs of Iran's expansionist views?

Mr. CIRINCIONE: Iran is the largest, most powerful country in the region.
Of course, it's going to try to exert its influence and extend its influence
throughout the region. It always has and it always will. That's part of what
it means to be dealing with Iran. Hezbollah has been defined by Israel, and
we've now accepted this as a terrorist organization. But that doesn't mean
they're al-Qaeda. They are not al-Qaeda. Hezbollah at least in the last 15
years has not attacked the United States. Part of the danger here is to get
this all mixed up in this Islamic fundamentalist, Islamic fascist mush and see
them all, that they're all together, that al-Qaeda is Hamas is Iran is
al-Qaeda is Syria. They're all our enemy. We have to fight them all.
Nonsense. Nonsense. We should keep our eye on our real enemy. It's
al-Qaeda. Those are the people who attacked us on September 11th. Not Iraq.
Not Iran. Not Hamas. Not Hezbollah. If we had kept our eye on bin Laden, we
would have defeated him by now, and we wouldn't have created this mess, this
chaos in the Middle East that is providing opportunities for the trouble
makers like Ahmadinejad and Hassan Nasrallah.

GROSS: My guest is Joseph Cirincione of the Center for American Progress.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Joseph Cirincione of the Center for American Progress.
He's written extensively about nuclear politics and nonproliferation. We're
talking about how to deal with Iran.

Now let's get back to the push for regime change. You said that you've been
reading a lot of neoconservatives in the press beating the drum for regime
change. Let me quote William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard.
From the July 24th edition, he wrote, "Why wait? Does anything think a

nuclear Iran can be contained? That the current regime will negotiate in good
faith? It would be easier to act sooner rather than later." You basically
disagree with Kristol. Do you think that there's an element of truth to that,
that if Iran's going to get a nuclear bomb, it's going to be easier to act
sooner than later?

Mr. CIRINCIONE: There's nothing inevitable about Iran getting a nuclear
bomb. For one thing, they are years away from it, and this is the lesson we
have to learn from Iraq. There's nothing wrong with making a worst-case
scenario for the purposes of planning, to try to imagine what could happen in
the future. The mistake is acting on that worst-case assumption. This is
what Ron Suskind calls the 1 percent doctrine. If there's a 1 percent chance
that Iran could get the bomb and give it to a terrorist and deliver it to New
York, shouldn't we overthrow the regime? That is the guiding principle that
guides William Kristol and the neoconservatives. And they still seem to have
such a strong influence in this administration despite the abject failure of
their military adventure in Iraq. They believe that if Iran could get the
bomb eventually, that's positive there's a certainty, therefore we must

Iran is a good 10 years away from the ability to make a nuclear weapon. That
is the judgment of many experts, and it in fact is currently the judgment of
the intelligence agency, the national intelligence estimate that was done just
last year and reported a year ago in The Washington Post. It concludes that
Iran is five to 10 years away, most likely 10 years, from the ability to make
a bomb. That tells you that we've got time to work out a diplomatic solution.
Time to put some conditions, some constraints on this program and to develop a
more effective policy that could actually empower the Iranian people
themselves to make the regime change that in the end only they can make.

This is not a popular regime in Iran. This is an imposed regime that has
failed over the last 30 years to satisfy the basic needs of the Iranian people
for good jobs, for security, for openings to the rest of the world, the kinds
of things the Iranians want. Anybody who's been to Iran, and I was there just
last year, knows that, at least in the urban areas, this is an intensely
pro-Western population who listen to American rock songs and can buy
bootlegged American movies on DVD and have satellite dishes brought in for
their roofs. They want to be part of the rest of the world, and they resent
the regime for keeping them in a sense prisoners.

If we can take this nuclear issue away from the regime and stop Ahmadinejad
from riding this issue as a nationalist cause, which is exactly the way he's
manipulated it in the last year, then the regime has to stand only on its
ability to deliver the goods, and it can't deliver the goods.

GROSS: What about the track record that we have in Iran? I mean, we helped
overthrow the Mossadegh government, the democratically elected Mossadegh
government in 1953 and to install the shah. So what is our history of regime
change like in Iran?

Mr. CIRINCIONE: I would say very few people in America remember that the
United States and the British cooperated to overthrow the democratically
elected government in Iran in 1953. And that almost everyone in Iran
remembers that. They remember the shah. People lived through the brutal
regime of the shah. He was our guy in Iran. We were going to make Iran into
the policeman of the Gulf. That was our idea. So even--so when the shah
proposed in a very extensive civilian nuclear power program, we approved it.
The shah wanted to build 20 nuclear reactors. That's what the government says
they want to build now. We OK'd it. In fact, we wanted to sell him those
reactors. Even when the CIA discovered in the '70s that the shah was secretly
working on a nuclear weapons program, we still OK'd Iran's plans then to open
up a uranium enrichment facility and plutonium reprocessing facility. We went
ahead with that because we said, `That was OK. He's our guy.'

When the shah was overthrown in 1979, the Islamic republic that came in, they
shut down those programs. They wanted no part of Western technology. They
considered this to be a weakness, and they wanted Iran to be self-reliant.
When Iraq invaded Iran in 1981, the Islamic republic reconsidered that, and
that's when we believe the program restarted. The Iranians know this. They
understand this history. And they constantly accuse the US of a double
standard of wanting to dictate to Iran what they can and can't do. And that's
why this issue is so powerful within Iran. That's why the majority of the
Iranian people support Iran's right to this technology, not to nuclear
weapons. That's not what they're saying in Iran. But the right to this
technology. They see nuclear power as the power of the future, in part
because we keep telling them it is, and that they have a right to do it and
they're going to resist Western efforts to restrict Iran's rights. We have to
take this issue away from the nationalist cause, disconnect it and find a
compromise that can allow Iran to go ahead with the construction of nuclear
power facilities and impose restraints and monitoring on any programs that
might someday lead it to nuclear weapons technology. Fortunately, we have
time to do this, if we can just get our own strategy straight.

GROSS: My guest is Joseph Cirincione of the Center for American Progress.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Joseph Cirincione of the Center for American Progress.
He's written extensively about nuclear politics and nonproliferation. We're
talking about how to deal with Iran.

So there are people who you have described as the neoconservatives calling for
a military approach to regime change. Other people are calling for regime
change through helping people in Iran overthrow the government, and I guess
you'd put yourself in that camp. What does it do, do you think, to be the
government in Iran, to hear all these calls from the United States about
regime change. Like, what position do you think that puts them in? And how
does that affect, do you think, like Iran's stance toward the UN Security
Council now?

Mr. CIRINCIONE: I'll tell you exactly what they think. I talked to Iranians
and they tell me this. They believe that the Bush administration wants to
overthrow their government and that the nuclear issue is just the excuse for
doing it. Therefore, they say, `There's nothing we can do to appease the
United States. If we stop enriching uranium, that's not going to satisfy the
United States. They're going to come after us anyway.' And they recognize
that that would make them look weak, and they would lose points both with
their own people and they would appear weak to other rivals in the region.
`So why should we do that,' they argue. `And in fact if we just stick to our
guns, the US itself will back down. That's the only way they're going to
guarantee the security of our country. And if the US comes ahead with an
attack, we can withstand the attack. We can take the attack just like
Hezbollah took the attack. Because in the end, air power isn't enough to
defeat Iran. And the US doesn't have the ground troops to go in.'

So they calculate this all out, and they think they come out the winner.
That's why they're acting the way they are. That's why they're not giving up.
So the only way to crack that is for the United States to explicitly reject a
policy of regime change in Iran, to explicitly hold out the possibility of
diplomatic recognition of Iran of being willing to come to some kind of
limited detente with this regime. Unfortunately, that's exactly what the
neoconservatives don't want to happen.

GROSS: Do you want to see the United States completely reject the policy of
regime change, having just said what you did, that you'd like to see the
United States help Iranians change the regime?

Mr. CIRINCIONE: We have to give up the idea that it's up to us to determine
what governments other countries have, that it's up to us to somehow overthrow
or empower these other regimes. We have to be helping the people of those
countries determine their governments for themselves. That's the only method
that has ever worked. That's the only one that can work now.

GROSS: Do you think that your reading of President Ahmadinejad's reaction
which is why should he give in because the United States is going to do regime
change anyways. So why not just, like, hang in there? Do you think that
that's a pretty accurate reading? That the United States will eventually try
regime change?

Mr. CIRINCIONE: That's tough to answer, because even though we have a
democracy doesn't mean our government's transparent. We don't really

understand the decision making that's going on inside the White House. And I
hear two things, frankly in the Washington rumor mill. One I hear that the US
has its hands full with Iraq, which is a failed war, and Afghanistan which is
a failing war. And there's no stomach for further military adventures. And
the other one I hear, and there's some compressed reports like Sy Hersh's
article in The New Yorker about things like this that the administration has
already decided to take a military strike on Iran. And that the military is
trying to convince it out of taking such a strike.

I don't know which of these is true. But I believe that this dynamic exists,
that there are at least some in the administration who have already decided,
and this is the way somebody put it to me, that we've already lost the
American people, so we might as well do the right thing. That no matter what
happens in the November elections, win or lose, they believe that in 2007, the
time is right for a strike against Iran to try and roll the dice, and to, you
know, shatter the status quo, toss the pieces up in the air and hope that good
things happen. What gives that kind of story, those rumors credibility to me
is that that's what they've done in the past. That this is the way I know
many of these people think, that the status quos, the stability of their
enemy, that we're the engine for change, the US military is the instrument
that will bring change and democracy to the region. And they're willing to
use it even in what many of us would consider utterly reckless ways.

GROSS: There was a recent article in Rolling Stone magazine by James Bamford,
who has written extensively about the National Security Agency, and this is
about regime change in Iran. And in that article, he writes that in November,
2003, Donald Rumsfeld approved a plan which for the first time established a
pre-emptive strike capability against Iran, and in 2004 that was followed by a
top secret interim global strike alert order that put the military on a state
of readiness to launch an airborne and missile attack against Iran should Bush
issue the command. Do you know anything about this?

Mr. CIRINCIONE: I've heard that story from several people that I trust and
it makes you believe that it's true. And in addition to that, there have been
reports that I first reported on earlier this year about US special operations
forces actually being inside Iran. And just this week, I spoke to a
consultant for the Pentagon who confirmed that to me personally, that we've
had covert forces operating inside Iran for almost two years now, in part to
aid groups operating in the north and south Iran and in part to conduct
reconnaissance on nuclear facility and possible strike targets.

So the US has more going on both on the planning level and on covert
operations with Iran than most people realize and maybe more than Congress
realizes. All of this underscores the necessity for Congress to re-establish
its oversight authority and hold some hearings not just on the war in Iraq and
in Afghanistan, but on the possible war with Iran.

GROSS: What do you think the consequences would be if we had a military
strike on Iran or if we through the military tried to impose regime change?

Mr. CIRINCIONE: Bang! That is the billion-dollar question. We have to
learn from Iraq. We have to understand that there's more to it than just
doing the strike. What happens after the strike? And then what happens after
that? And there are a dozen things that Iran could do that would make life
very, very uncomfortable for us. For example, strikes at shipping going
through the Strait of Hormuz. That would immediately shut down the major oil
supply line in the world. Oil would scream past $100 a barrel. Some experts
talk about $200 a barrel. That means gasoline goes to 4, maybe 5, maybe $6 a
gallon. Almost certainly that plunges most of the Western world, and in fact
most of the world because China's so dependent, into some kind of recession.
There's also the possibility that our military strikes throughout the region,
that the Shia militia in southern Iraq, for example, which has so far not
attacked US forces, now rise up against US forces. You could see Hezbollah
engage in activities perhaps against Israel, perhaps against US targets in the
region. There are other similar, sort of asymmetrical responses that could
happen that have to be calculated out. When you think about the consequences
of a strike, the risks of a strike, what kind of world we would be producing
with military strikes on Iran.

GROSS: Joseph Cirincione, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. CIRINCIONE: My pleasure. It's always a treat to be on your show. Thank
you for having me.

GROSS: Joseph Cirincione is senior vice president for national security and
international policy at the Center for American Progress.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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