An American Scenario for Taming the Mullahs of Tehran
10 August 2015
By Amir Taheri
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
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
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
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
Whether or not one agrees with Sofaer's exposé, his take on "Taking on Iran"
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London
and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran
(1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In
1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press
Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the
New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine
Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he
was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11
books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a
columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian
Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.