Michael Ledeen is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center and Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
As President Trump heads to Helsinki, the North Koreans call him names, and the Iranian regime leaders run from demonstrators throughout the land. These are elements of the global war against us, and we continue to deal with it as a series of separate challenges rather than a world war, to our ongoing detriment.
The president loves to talk about winning, but he does not appear to have a winning strategy. He seems to be sticking to his plan to mount pressure on our foes in Iran and North Korea, mostly by hitting them with more and more sanctions. Meanwhile he will try to convince Putin to abandon the mullahs in Syria, perhaps easing sanctions on Russia in return.
I don’t think that will work. I do not know of any case in which sanctions have compelled an enemy to make a significant policy change. Our enemies are totalitarians or authoritarians who are quite prepared to see their people suffer rather than bend to Trump’s wishes. Indeed, it may well be that tyrants actually want their people to suffer for the greater glory of the regime.
That surely seems to be the case in Iran, a committed enemy of America. Iranians are very badly off, and their misery will only increase for the rest of the year. Conditions there are awful. The currency is in free fall, every major social/economic/political indicator is negative, and they are—right now—running out of water. And it’s hot as hell. The anti-regime uprising throughout the country may have had economic causes once upon a time, but that moment has passed. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei now faces a political rebellion, and he has no conceivably winning strategy. The rebellion will continue, and the numbers are against him; probably 85-90 percent of the country detests him and his They know they are suffering because of regime policies, and they know that only the overthrow of the Islamic Republic has a chance of changing things.
Does Trump know this? He may have bought in to the pidgin Marxist view that regimes fall when they fail economically. Ergo, he may think that ratcheting up sanctions will ensure the end of the regime. If so, the world wouldn’t have regimes like those in North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and, increasingly, Russia and Turkey. Yet there they sit.
Revolutions are not desperate acts, they are acts of hope. The Iranian people need support, but I don’t see any evidence that Trump et. al. intend to provide it. We need to talk to the revolutionary leaders, both directly and via our broadcasters. Yet the long-awaited shakeup at places like VOA-Farsi, RFE and RL has not taken place, and I don’t see any signs that it’s imminent. This is part of what appears to be Trump’s inability to staff out his administration. Who is running Iran policy? Perhaps it’s Jared Kushner, as so often when Middle East issues are on the line. If so, he needs to work even harder. To be sure, positive change is under way in some areas. Anthony Ruggiero is a great appointment at NSC’s Asia (aka North Korea) slot. And I am told that the terrific Victoria Coates will have a key post on ME policy. And cheers for the appointment of Fred Fleitz as Bolton’s chief of staff.
As we stick with our sanctions, the Iranians kill with greater frenzy. Regime assassins are in action in Europe, North Africa, and Saudi Arabia. Sometimes we bomb their forces in Syria, but Assad—an Iranian/Russian puppet—seems to be gaining strength. In the Islamic Republic itself, repression expands. The most recent outrage is the arrest of a dancing girl.
Nonetheless, Iran is a classic case of a revolutionary situation, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if the regime were overthrown today or tomorrow. Do we have a plan for that? It would be good for Pompeo to speak to the Iranians about revolution, and show signs of supporting them. He could link his remarks to the appalling German move to send cash to the regime, an action that makes me shudder, as its effect is to pay the world’s greatest sponsor of terrorism to send assassins to the West. Including here.
I do not doubt that Khamenei would approve an effort to kill Trump. He would love that. I rather suspect that his agents have acted against us here in the homeland. Things like forest fires.
Which brings us back to Helsinki. Trump would like the Russians to throw the Iranians out of Syria. What does Putin want? I doubt he’ll play. After all, he’s in Syria because the Iranians were losing, and begged him for help. Will he now betray them? I don’t think so, even if the mullahs fear it. The North Korean insults suggest to me that the enemy alliance thinks they can gull Trump, and don’t need to do him any favors.
We’ll know soon enough.