- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The civil unrest in Iran is being directed by a secret cabal of intellectuals in the United States, or so the Islamic regime would like the world to believe.

Defendants in the show trials under way in Tehran are being given the third degree over their links to foreign masterminds. The chief prosecutor is asking defendants questions such as, “Were you sent by Michael Ledeen? What did Michael Ledeen tell you to do?” Another was told flat out, “You are an agent of Michael Ledeen!” The universal response has been, “Michael who?”

“You have to understand - these are crazy people,” Mr. Ledeen told The Washington Times yesterday. He is the Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former consultant to the National Security Council, the State Department and the Defense Department. He has published widely on Iranian matters, and his tag line “faster, please” — referring to the need to accelerate the pace of change in Iran — is well-known among those who follow the issue closely. Mr. Ledeen is one of three public intellectuals implicated by the Iranians, the others being Ambassador Mark Palmer and political science professor Abbas Milani at Stanford University. Why these three? “I have no idea,” Mr. Ledeen said. “We mostly agree on the issues, but we’ve never worked as a group.”

Accusations began to fly after Iran’s former President Mohammad Khatami called for a referendum on the recent contested presidential election, invoking Article 110 of the Iranian constitution. Reformist media took up the idea, and it began to gain momentum. They must have touched a nerve. On July 21, the hard-line paper Keyhan ran an editorial denouncing the idea, “Khatami’s Suggestion or Michael Ledeen’s Guideline?” The author, a radical named Hoseyn Shari’atmadari, accused Mr. Khatami of “acting upon the guidebook provided by Michael Ledeen or the CIA” and said that even proposing a referendum was “part of the scenario written by the West for creating sedition” in Iran.

“I’ve been putting the idea of a referendum out for years,” Mr. Ledeen told us, “and I’m not the only one.” His version is much different from what Mr. Khatami suggested. He would pose one simple question: Do you want an Islamic Republic? “My belief is, most Iranians would say no,” he said. Once Islamic rule has been delegitimized, the Iranians can establish an interim government with a neutral party in charge — “Jimmy Carter, someone like that,” Mr. Ledeen suggested helpfully — until a new secular-based constitution could be written. As for the idea of conniving with Mr. Khatami, Mr. Ledeen laughed, calling him a “phony reformer who was guilty of ordering the massacre of Iranian students 10 years ago” when he was president.

The Islamic regime has responded with vitriol because it sees any such referendum as a mortal threat. The last thing the rulers want is for the unvarnished, unfiltered voice of the people to be heard. So they need scapegoats to discredit the idea of a referendum and the civil unrest generally. The picture they are painting at the show trials is that the uprising in Iran is not a spontaneous expression of domestic public outrage after decades of repression but a sinister plot being orchestrated by malevolent forces outside the country.

Mr. Ledeen told us the regime has to blame an organized conspiracy from abroad “because they cannot admit the possibility that there are ordinary citizens who got it into their heads that their government stinks.” Laying the blame on malefactors in the heart of the Great Satan absolves the regime from having to address the hard questions that put people out in the streets in the first place. This is kind of like when the White House shrugs off tea parties or the town-hall ruckus.

The accusations against Mr. Ledeen, Mr. Milani and Mr. Palmer are farcical, but their purpose is deadly serious. The Iranian mullahs are using the show trials to lay the groundwork for future action against leaders like Mr. Khatami, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Hashemi Rafsanjani. Badgering street demonstrators into confessing they were acting under the influence of foreign ideas raises the specter of treason charges. The hard-liners are gradually building their case based on forced confessions and fabricated conspiracies.

All the while, the Obama administration sits idle, waiting for Tehran to respond to its feeble diplomatic overtures. We hope the U.S. government will soon realize the nature of the regime it is trying to deal with. To borrow a phrase, faster please.