With President Bush elected to a second term, and the neoconservative architects of the Iraq war firmly in the driver's seat of U.S. foreign policy, Iranian Americans are contemplating a stark choice similar to that faced by Iraqi Americans a few years ago -- whether they want to work with Washington to liberate their home country.
Although almost all Iranian Americans want to see democracy flourish in their native land, there are intense and divisive debates on how to achieve this goal and what a future Iranian government should look like. These debates are certain to grow only more intense in the coming months, as Iran's accelerating nuclear program vaults it to the top of the U.S. foreign policy agenda.
The activities of Michael Ledeen, one of the most prominent of the Washington neoconservatives advocating that the U.S. back a plan to overthrow the mullahs, illustrate some of the complexities of modern-day regime change.
Trained as a historian, and now the "Freedom Scholar" at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor of the National Review, Ledeen first came to public prominence during the Reagan administration. While serving as a consultant to national security advisor Robert C. McFarlane, he became entangled in the arms-for-hostages trade that became part of the Iran-Contra scandal. It was Ledeen who brought the U.S. government into contact with the Parisian-based Iranian arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar, who claimed he would be able to win the release of U.S. hostages held in Lebanon by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in exchange for U.S. weapons.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Ledeen has resumed contact with Ghorbanifar, as he has set about gathering information to lobby the Bush administration, private constituencies and public opinion to back a plan to destabilize the Iranian regime and support dissident forces. In a December 2001 meeting in Rome, first reported in Newsday, Ledeen introduced Ghorbanifar to two Pentagon officials interested in discussing the regime change idea.
In June 2003, one of those Pentagon officials, Harold Rhode, went to meet Ghorbanifar in Paris for further discussions -- a meeting the Pentagon originally said was the result of a chance encounter.
On April 21, 2003, in the final days of the major combat operations in Iraq, Ledeen traveled to Los Angeles, where he spoke to a group of about 200 Iranian exiles on the border of West Los Angeles and Santa Monica. The event was organized by the owner of a Los Angeles-based Persian radio station, said to be sympathetic to the monarchists (the people surrounding the late shah's son, Reza Pahlavi, who lives in a Washington suburb).
"The Iranian diaspora is one of the richest diasporas in history," Ledeen told the audience, according to a tape recording of the event. "So as you contemplate the future of Iran, think first about how to organize the Iranian community and diaspora to raise money for Iranians in Iran to stage democratic revolution that we all know can succeed."
The private money, Ledeen explained, would jump-start a campaign of civil disobedience by providing financial support for the families of Iranian opposition and dissident leaders, enabling them to step up their campaign of resistance against the Iranian regime. Once the U.S. government saw the mass demonstrations, Ledeen said, it could then be persuaded to seriously back a regime change initiative.
"I think you can buy yourself a free Iran now for $20 million," Ledeen added. He also advised the audience on tactics to increase their lobbying influence in Washington.
Some Iranian Americans in the audience were dismayed by Ledeen's talk of the ease with which the oppressive Iranian regime that had driven most of them from their homeland could be overthrown. "It was insulting to every person sitting in that room," said one Iranian American journalist in attendance, who asked that his name not be used. "If it's such an easy thing to overthrow a government, then why have the Iranian millionaires not done it themselves?"
Among Iranian Americans, there's both a fascination and a wariness about neoconservatives like Ledeen -- as well as considerable uncertainty about what, if any, role the diaspora itself should play in any democratic revolution in Iran.
"I believe the future of Iran is in the hands of the Iranian people," the Iranian American journalist said. "The young people who have been sacrificing their lives, and their families."
The Ledeen initiative shows the contradiction of the neoconservative worldview: While seeking to liberate and empower the peoples of the Middle East it also makes them pawns in a historical drama in which they have little voice. The execution of this sort of radical foreign policy vision has often run roughshod over the details, as the aftermath in Iraq has shown.
No one is advocating a U.S. invasion of Iran at the moment, although clandestine support to Iranian opposition groups is on the table. For Iranian Americans, the present question is whether their home country should become a sequel to Iraq or if there is a way to democratize Iran without Washington's heavy hand.