[inset_left] Taking on Iran: Strength, Diplomacy, and the Iranian ThreatBy Abraham D. Sofaer Hoover Institution Press, 182 pages United States, 2015 [/inset_left]
With the future of the much-advertised nuclear “deal” between Iran and the six major powers still uncertain, the debate about how to deal with the Khomeinist regime in Tehran continues.
Abraham Sofaer, the author of this new book, has good credentials for taking part in this debate. For five years he was the US State department’s legal adviser focusing on relations with Iran, a position that enabled him to meet many Iranian officials and semi-officials and have access to confidential reports on US relations with Tehran. His book gains additional authority thanks to a lengthy forward by former US secretary of state George P. Shultz and blurb endorsements by former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and Abbas Milani, a prominent Iranian–American expert on the Islamic Republic.
Sofaer’s argument is that successive US administrations have had Iran policies largely based on wishful thinking. Some have pursued the dream of “regime change” in Tehran without really providing the necessary instruments for achieving it. As a result they further antagonized the mullahs while allowing them to crush their domestic opponents. Others toyed with the idea of accommodation with the mullahs in the hope of persuading them to change aspects of their behavior. That scheme also failed because, once assured that they are not threatened, the mullahs became more rather than less aggressive. Whenever the mullahs felt really threatened they put on a “reformist mask” and fielded “a smiling mullah” like Mohammad Khatami in the last century or Hassan Rouhani today.
Sofaer admits that even Reagan had “wasted three years” in secret talks with then-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in Tehran to help the latter’s faction defeat the rival faction led by Ayatollah Montazeri. Once Rafsanjani had achieved his goal he ordered a resumption of hostile operations against the US, including the capture of more American hostages in Lebanon.
Under President Barack Obama, the US adopted a policy of accommodation regardless of the cost. To sell that policy to an American public that is suspicious of the mullahs, Obama narrowed the choice between full-scale invasion of Iran and granting it what it wants. Obama also limited the whole Iranian conundrum to the nuclear issue, leaving aside such issues as Iran’s role in exporting terror, and its systematic violation of human rights. Since the American public is in no mood for another land war in the Middle East, Obama was able to trigger the process that produced the Vienna nuclear “deal.”
Sofaer argues that all those policies were wrong and, in some cases, even counterproductive. He suggests that the US should abandon the idea of regime change in Tehran along with any dream of “internal reform” within the Khomeinist set-up. At the same time he suggests, the US should regard the Islamic Republic as a much more complex problem, beyond the nuclear issue. It is against those assertions that he tackles the issue of “Taking on Iran.”
The question is: how?
Sofaer’s solution is simple. The US should judge and hence treat the Islamic Republic based on what Tehran does at any given time. If Tehran threatens Washington’s interests anywhere then the US should reciprocate by attacking Khomeinist interests. Whenever used, the method has worked, Sofaer claimed.
For example, at one point in Iraq, the Americans found out that many of their soldiers who died were victims of roadside bombs supplied by Tehran. The then-US commander, Gen. David Petraeus, sent a message to Qassem Suleimani, the Iranian general in charge of “exporting revolution”: Stop or we will come and get you!
The deadly supplies stopped within days.
Another example was in the1980s when Khomeini ordered his forces to target Kuwaiti oil tankers. President Ronald Reagan ordered the US Navy to sink the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s navy in a day-long battle (April 18, 1988). Khomeini instantly stopped targeting the tankers and even agreed to halt the war with Iraq.
In contrast, Sofaer claims that when the US decided to turn its face the other way, Iran was encouraged to do more mischief. He says: The FBI had all the evidence anyone needed that the attack on Khobar in which American personnel were killed was carried on orders from Tehran. However, President Bill Clinton decided to hush things and thus encouraged Iranian hostility.
Sofaer also claims that Iran had maintained a working relationship with Al-Qaeda and that Washington had intercepted a letter from Ayman Al-Zawahiri thanking the Khomeinist leadership. He further claims that Iran supplied some of the bases maintained by Al-Qaeda in Yemen, presumably through the Houthis.
Sofaer cites another attempt by the Rafsanjani faction to “neutralize” the US. In May 2003, Tehran sent a proposal, ostensibly written by Sadeq Kharrazi, Iran’s former ambassador to the United Nations, offering Washington a “grand bargain.” Though President George W. Bush was not keen on the exercise, he took it into consideration and reduced pressure on Tehran.
Sofaer claims that there is “solid legal basis” for taking punitive action, including punctual military strikes, against the Islamic Republic, with reference to the right of self-defense under the Charter of the United Nations.
Taking punitive action in response to mischief-making by Tehran does not exclude diplomatic negotiations, Sofaer asserts. The most important point is for Tehran leaders to know that every one of their actions will have consequences. The author even suggests some specific targets for US punitive “strikes,” including the islands of Farsi and Abu Musa, and Revolutionary Guard command-and-control centers in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
It is unlikely that President Obama would buy Soafer’s scenario. However, Obama’s successor might find the Sofaer thesis intriguing, to say the least.
Sofaer’s book suffers from poor editing. Several long paragraphs are repeated on different pages and too much space is given to the settling of scores by Shultz with his colleague Caspar Weinberger, Reagan’s former defense secretary.
There are also numerous mistakes. Obama’s first secretary of defense was Robert Gates, not William. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was not “the leader of the Taliban” but head of Hezb-e Islami finance first by the CIA and then by Iran. The woman assassinated by Khomeini agents in Washington was Mrs. Nayereh Rafizadeh, not Narea.
Rafsanjani sent his son, Mehdi, for secret talks with the Reagan administration. Then-prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi had his own separate channel with Washington.
And dialogue between the US and the USSR was not started by Reagan. The two had been allies during the Second World War and, later, with one exception, held summits. (The exception was during the brief premiership of Georgy Malenkov, who succeeded Stalin but was quickly eased out of office by Nikita Khrushchev.)
Whether or not one agrees with Sofaer’s exposé, his take on “Taking on Iran” is original.