Is Iraq's Biggest Problem Iran?

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," Dec. 15, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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RICHARD BOUCHER, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON: We are indeed seeing a variety of efforts by Iran to support groups or otherwise get involved in the internal affairs of the Iraq.


JOHN GIBSON, HOST: That's State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher (search) talking about an accusation from Iraq's defense minister. That defense minister says Iran and Syria are supporting terrorists in Iraq, especially Iran.

President Bush is warning Iraq's neighbors to mind their own business. Joining me now from Washington to assess the accusation, American Enterprise Institute (search) resident scholar, Michael Ledeen (search).

Michael, today's big question: so is Iran trying to sabotage democracy in Iraq?

MICHAEL LEDEEN, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE: Oh, yes, desperately, with every means and every effort they can possibly muster and they have been since well before the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom (search).

GIBSON: How are they doing it, Michael?

LEDEEN: Well, they sat down with the then Iraqis, with Saddam and the Syrians and the Saudis and they said, "OK, the Americans are going to come into Iraq and they're going to occupy the country. Then we must try to replicate in Iraq what we did to the Americans in Lebanon in the 1980s, that is, a combination of suicide, terrorism, hostage taking and political and religious disturbances and try to drive them out."

They must drive us out. If they don't drive us out, if Iraq turns into a stable, peaceful democracy, then all those regimes are doomed and democracy will indeed sweep the Middle East.

GIBSON: Is Iran really worried about ending up in a sandwich between a democratic Iraq and a democratic Afghanistan and that that will impinge on Iran in some way that we find it hard to imagine?

LEDEEN: Yes, you bet they're worried about it. And what they're above all worried about is their own people because they know their own people hate them.

They tried desperately to manipulate the Shiite community in Iraq and they have failed because the Iraqi Shiites don't want an Islamic republic. Iraqi Shiism is different from the radical Iranian version of it, and they want a separation of mosque and state.

And so, if the Iranian people see a flourishing Shiite democracy on one side and a flourishing Sunni democracy in Afghanistan, why would they put up with this regime? More than 70 percent of them, we know, hate the Iranian regime.

GIBSON: Now, there is some information that Zarqawi is getting help from Iranian intelligence. That would seem to me to be pretty bold on the part of the Iranians, of funding or helping the very guy who is beheading Americans and killing American troops.

Are they going that far?

LEDEEN: Oh, Zarqawi operated out of Iran for several years. He created his whole European network of recruiting Jihadists to go into Afghanistan and Iraq when he was based in Tehran, and all of that is publicly documented abundantly in court transcripts in both Germany and Italy.

GIBSON: What is it the Americans can do about that? How can we point a gun, if you will, at the Iranians and say, knock it off?

LEDEEN: Just do for the Iranian people what we're doing for the people of the Ukraine: support democracy. Support transparency, free elections, and a national referendum to finally decide what kind of government the Iranian people want.

GIBSON: All right. Let's back up. Is there a danger that Iraq is going to emerge from this election as essentially an old Soviet-style satellite of Iran?

LEDEEN: No, I don't think there's really much danger of that because the Iranians have failed to get a foothold among the Iraqi Shiite community. The Iraqi Shiites basically have rejected the Iranians. They hate the Iranians.


LEDEEN: Because they've always hated the Iranians, since hundreds of years of history. And, I mean, there are sayings in Arabic that the Iraqis use over and over again which are extremely unflattering to the Iranians and which neither you nor I is going to repeat on this broadcast.

GIBSON: Not until we're on satellite radio, in any case. But, nonetheless, it seems like Iran seems to think that the Iraqi Shia south is their natural sphere of influence and they ought to be in there and they ought to have their fingers in that pie and that the Iraqi Shias ought to dance like puppets to the Iranians.

You don't think that is going to happen. Why not?

LEDEEN: No, it's what the Iranians want, it's what they wanted and it's what they expected they would get. But they didn't get it. Instead what they found was real opposition from the Iraqi Shiites and the leaders of Iraqi Shias and people like Ayatollah Sistani have been quite explicit about not wanting an Islamic republic.

GIBSON: Do Sistani and the Iraqi Shias have to worry about just being overwhelmed by the Iranians? They don't have much in the way of defense with the border with Iran. They're relying on the Americans.

LEDEEN: Yes, they have to worry about being killed, and they're very worried about being killed.

GIBSON: So how do you see this playing out? If the Iranians aren't going to give up and the Iraqis are resisting if it's the Iran-Iraq war over again, who fights it?

Is it Americans fighting on behalf of the Iraqis?

LEDEEN: Well, what we're trying to do is to get the Iraqis in a position where they can defend themselves and that's what [Iraq's] defense minister has been talking about for many months.

Every time anybody has asked him about it — he was in Washington a few months ago and someone said, "Well, what's your biggest problem," and he virtually spat out the word Iran.

He wants defense forces that are capable of defending their borders with Iran and he wants people who are capable of going after the thousands of Iranian revolutionary guards agents that are all over his country right now.

GIBSON: You would think the Iraqis would know who the Iranians were among them. Do they? Can they root them out?

LEDEEN: Sometimes they do, but there is significant chunk of the Iraqi population — more than two million — who went into Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. And those people ethnically are Iraqis, look like Iraqis, lived in Iraq for a long time.

They went into Iran and they became Iranians and the Iranians are now using them as agents back inside Iraq. Those people are very hard to identify.

GIBSON: All right, Michael Ledeen from the American Enterprise Institute. Michael, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

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