Taking on Iran: Strength, Diplomacy, and the Iranian Threat

Taking on Iran: Strength, Diplomacy, and the Iranian Threat

by Abraham D. Sofaer

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Abraham D. Sofaer argues that US policy toward Iran cannot safely be restricted to a strategy that considers only the two high-risk, costly, and potentially infeasible options of a preventive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities or containing a nuclear-armed Iran. Instead, the United States should respond forcefully to Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) aggression, enhancing its credibility and increasing the likelihood that Iran will negotiate in earnest. The United States must also be prepared to engage Iran in a disciplined manner, avoiding disabling preconditions and adopting the negotiating practices used successfully by the United States when dealing with the Soviet Union during the 1980s.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817916343
Publisher: Hoover Institution Press
Publication date: 07/01/2013
Series: Hoover Institution Press Publications
Edition description: Updated Edition
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Abraham D. Sofaer, who served as legal adviser to the US Department of State from 1985 to 1990, was appointed the first George P. Shultz Distinguished Scholar and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution in 1994. During his service as legal adviser, he was responsible for US/Iran negotiations at the Iran/US Tribunal in The Hague.

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Taking on Iran

Strength, Diplomacy, and the Iranian Threat

By Abraham D. Sofaer

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 2013 Abraham D. Sofaer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-1636-7


Dealing with the Iranian Threat

The Islamic Republic of Iran has posed a threat to international peace and security since 1979. The range of Iranian misconduct has been broad, including the seizure of US diplomats as hostages, suppression of the rights and liberties of Iranian nationals, assassinating the Islamic regime's enemies in foreign countries, supporting Shia groups against Sunni-controlled governments, arming terrorist groups (including Sunnis) that have attacked US soldiers in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and abetting terrorist attacks in many other countries, notably Israel. The US has repeatedly protested these activities and has issued numerous threats to counteract them; but it has done little or nothing to deter them, concentrating its efforts instead on Iran's nuclear program.

The official US position, fully supported in principle by several other leaders, is that, because a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten international peace and security, it is "unacceptable." US President Barack Obama has promised to "prevent" Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. French President Nicolas Sarkozy insisted that the program end, and he proposed the current effort to have Europe ban the import of Iranian oil and block Iran from banking transactions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said, "It is a must to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons." Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has promised to prevent a state committed to Israel's destruction from acquiring the means for bringing it about.

US statements have become increasingly specific. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said, for example, on December 19, 2011, that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon during 2012 and "That's a red line for us and, ... obviously, for the Israelis. If they proceed ... with developing a nuclear weapon then we will take whatever steps necessary to stop it." When asked, "Including military steps?" he replied in language that has become formulaic: "There are no options off the table." President Obama said in his 2012 State of the Union address that he was determined to "prevent" a nuclear-armed Iran, thereby suggesting a willingness to disregard the conventional, international law prerequisite for the use of self-defense — an attack or threat of imminent attack:

Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal. But a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better, and if Iran changes course and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations.

President Obama and Secretary Panetta are undoubtedly sincere in their desire to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Yet the statements they and other Obama Administration officials have made in describing US intentions resemble those made by officials in former US administrations expressing their determination to prevent North Korea's development of nuclear weapons. President Clinton said in 1993, for example, that "North Korea cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb ... [W]e have to be very firm about it." And on October 4, 2006, Assistant Secretary Christopher Hill, US negotiator with North Korea under President George W. Bush, declared that "we are not going to live with a nuclear North Korea" and that North Korea "can have a future or it can have these weapons. It cannot have both." The measures actually implemented by the US to prevent what presidents and high-level officials characterized as "unacceptable" failed to stop North Korea from obtaining nuclear weapons and have thus far failed to stop Iran from pursuing the capacities it needs to achieve the same objective.

In attempting to curb Iran's nuclear aspirations, the US has shifted among several approaches, including regime change, sanctions, negotiations ("engagement"), and direct appeals. Each approach — alone or in combination — has failed thus far to convince Iran to modify its nuclear program in a manner that negates an intention to develop nuclear weapons.

Regime Change

Since the Islamic regime took power in 1979, many political leaders, officials, and experts have advanced the notion that Iran's threat to international peace and security could and should be eliminated through regime change brought on by sanctions, political isolation, covert operations, and internal pressure. Thirty years of Islamic rule have undermined the credibility of this strategy, at least in the absence of far more intrusive methods than have been or are likely to be authorized. The notion of regime change as the solution to the Iranian nuclear threat continues to emerge, however, in one form or another, creating unrealistic expectations and undermining any possibility of successful engagement. While the US has insisted that regime change is not its official policy, this means in practice that the US takes no action within Iran to bring about regime change, which would amount to an illegal intervention. US policy has continued to rely on regime change from within. As Henry Kissinger has testified: "The current US policy of refusing to engage Iran was founded on the belief that the regime would collapse from within," an assumption he noted may be incorrect.

Calls for displacing the Islamic regime invariably lack any feasible plan of action. A petition drawn up in 1989 and signed by 186 members of Congress, advocated that the US government support the "opposition" rather than try to help the moderate regime then in power. Had President Akbar Rafsanjani been removed at that time, however, he would have been unable to secure the release of the US hostages being held in Lebanon. Congress thereafter passed legislation providing $18 million for efforts in Iran to help Iranian "civil society" and pro-democracy groups. The strategy backfired. Reformers in Iran dared not apply for this money. The Iranian government, meanwhile, cited the bill as a basis for intensifying its repression and responded to the legislation by providing roughly the same amount to undermine US attacks on Islam. This legislation was soon followed by IRGC assistance to Saudi Hezbollah in its attack on the Khobar Towers.

The US should actively support a "freedom" agenda for the Iranian people, just as it actively supported freedom within the former Soviet Union. But the public demonstrations that have taken place within Iran have thus far been aimed at economic issues and corruption, and the government has brutally suppressed them. It is unclear whether most Iranians favor overturning the Islamic regime. Disorder would have to become widespread, and be more broadly aimed, in order to pose a significant threat to the regime. Some US officials appear to have believed, and some may still believe, that the regime "is discredited, a house of cards ready to be pushed over the precipice," but that conclusion is speculative at best. Predictions of regime change in North Korea, by a panel of government and outside experts convened by the CIA in 1997, may have contributed to the failure of US efforts to keep that regime from becoming a nuclear power.

Advocates of regime change share a common assumption, rejected by many national security experts, that it provides a more effective way to reduce the Iranian threat than preventing nuclear proliferation. Robert Kagan has written, for example: "Were Iran ruled by a democratic government, even an imperfect one, we would be much less concerned about its weaponry." Kagan's observation is obviously correct but hardly proof that regime change is a workable strategy. Such arguments lend support, moreover, to Ahmadinejad's "claims that it is the [Islamic] regime, not its nuclear program, that the United States finds objectionable." Henry Kissinger, by contrast, has written: "Focusing on regime change as the road to denuclearization confuses the issue. The United States should oppose nuclear weapons in North Korea and Iran regardless of the government that builds them." In fact, regime change is unlikely to result in new leaders who favor giving up enrichment and other troubling aspects of Iran's nuclear program.

In any event, efforts to bring about regime change are no substitute for acting to deter IRGC aggression. Defending against IRGC actions might be helpful, in fact, in bringing about a regime change that reduces the threat posed by Iran. If Iran is held accountable for irresponsible IRGC conduct, that organization may lose some of the political and economic power it has been able to acquire. Currently, as Scott Sagan has written, it is "misguided simply to hope that eventual regime change in Tehran would end the nuclear danger." There is "no reason to assume that, even if they wanted to, central political authorities in Tehran could completely control the details of nuclear operations by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps"; a new regime would be preferable only if it were both inclined and able to curb IRGC aims and operations.


Economic sanctions have a long, unsuccessful history in US dealings with Iran. In large part, this is because the most severe types of sanctions imposed have had little support from other states, including US allies. Germany, Japan, and Russia are among the states that have grasped the economic opportunities that the US has given up in its effort to create pressure on Iran to curb its nuclear program. President George W. Bush acknowledged in January 2005: "We're relying upon others, because we've sanctioned ourselves out of influence with Iran." In the last several years, as a result of the US decision to join the Europeans in offering engagement and benefits to Iran, the other permanent members of the Security Council and Germany have agreed to join the US in adopting resolutions prohibiting enrichment and ballistic missile development, and imposing several rounds of sanctions. Iran has disregarded the resolutions, even though the sanctions have had significant, adverse effects on its economy.

Further escalation in sanctions took place after November 2011, when French President Sarkozy proposed that the European Union (EU) member states, together with the US, Canada, Japan, and others, stop purchasing Iranian oil. Many states have agreed to this embargo, and the US and other supporters are attempting to convince as many purchasers of Iranian oil as possible that they should join. Saudi Arabia has agreed to supply oil to any state that needs it to replace what otherwise would have been bought from Iran. Maritime insurance coverage for shipments of Iranian oil has become difficult to obtain. On January 23, 2012, the EU agreed to freeze "assets of the Iranian central bank within the EU" as well as to prohibit "trade in gold, precious metals, and diamonds with Iranian public bodies." On February 6, 2012, President Obama signed an executive order blocking all "property and interests in property" of the Government of Iran, the Central Bank of Iran, and Iranian financial institutions. Iran has also been denied access to the SWIFT system for international financial transfers, severely limiting the nation's ability to engage in major financial transactions.

The escalation of sanctions against Iran, which continues, has adversely affected its economy, but for how long and with what consequences is uncertain. Prior sanctions aimed at Iran have met with much resistance from EU states, and major purchasers of Iranian oil, including China and India, have refused to accept the embargo. (China reduced purchases of Iranian oil, but this may have been for the purpose of obtaining lower prices.) Although Japan and South Korea have restricted their purchases of Iranian oil, this policy may not be sustainable, because it could force them to buy expensive liquid natural gas from other states, including the US. The six-month delay in implementing the oil embargo was to enable participating states to make alternative arrangements; that time also allowed Iran to make arrangements to reduce the embargo's effects.

Iran is attempting to establish methods for completing financial transactions that do not depend on SWIFT and other mechanisms that are being blocked. British insurers were prepared to deny coverage to tankers shipping Iranian oil, but were forced with EU support to secure a six-month delay in implementing that policy; Japan made alternative arrangements, and both China and India are likely to do so as well. Iran has re-registered its merchant vessels and oil tankers in a variety of other states, increasing the difficulty of denying access. Much has been made in the press of the drastic reduction in the value of the Iranian rial. But many Iranians attribute this development largely to mismanagement of the national economy and faulty currency restrictions, not solely or even primarily to the sanctions; even the decline in the rial's value may have a positive effect on Iran's economy by making its exports cheaper.

US domestic financial sanctions on Iran have never been more comprehensive, but their effect is often exaggerated. Kenneth Katzman's comprehensive study of the sanctions, for the Congressional Research Service (CRS), cites National Security Adviser Tom Donilon's statement that sanctions "coupled with mistakes and difficulties in Iran, ... have slowed Iran's nuclear efforts," but then notes that the US Defense Department and others have concluded that sanctions have not stopped Iran's conventional and missile activities and that Iran's nuclear stockpile has continued to expand. Realizing these limitations, a distinguished group of national security experts has recommended that Iran be completely isolated from access to international business; that strategy would have a powerful effect, as comprehensive sanctions did on Libya, but no realistic prospect of the adoption of "total" sanctions on Iran by the UNSC currently exists.

Some analysts continue to believe (or hope) that economic sanctions will cause Iran to agree to curb its nuclear program. Given the exceptions that already exist, however, plus the evasions Iran is able to develop with help from others, enhanced sanctions are unlikely to lead Iran to negotiate in earnest. As Scott Sagan notes: "Washington learned with India and Pakistan in the 1980s and 1990s [that] sanctions only increase the costs of going nuclear; they do not reduce the ability of a determined government to get the bomb." Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi reacted to the recent escalation of sanctions by stating that "Iran, with divine assistance, has always been ready to counter such hostile actions, and we are not concerned at all about the sanctions." Of course, Iran is concerned about the sanctions, but it demonstrated during its war with Iraq the capacity to bear economic hardship to maintain policies on which the Iranian public and its government are aligned. The adverse impact of the sanctions may in fact lead Iran to speed up rather than suspend its nuclear effort, hoping that sanctions may be lifted once they have failed, as they were after Pakistan and India achieved nuclear-weapons status.

Finally, continued application or escalation of economic sanctions on Iran will receive increasing scrutiny by those concerned with their harmful impact on the population. The US government continues to casually dismiss this consideration, as it did prior to the invasion of Iraq, where sanctions did grievous harm but nonetheless failed to cause Saddam Hussein to capitulate to Security Council demands. But the fact is that, while sanctions may well fail to secure their political objectives, they are imposing significant and increasing hardship on the Iranian people. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, for example, criticized the US and EU for imposing sanctions that are injuring the well-being of innocent Iranians, increasing unemployment and shortages of food and medicines (despite exceptions for the latter that fail to be effectively applied). Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel Prize winner and human rights lawyer who opposes the current Iranian regime and any nuclear weapons program, supports "targeted sanctions that weaken the government" but urges that "any sanctions that are detrimental to the people should be avoided."

Negotiations and Direct Appeals

Every US administration since 1979 has at times threatened and refused to negotiate with Iran. Every administration since 1979 has also at times agreed to negotiate with Iran, sometimes with demanding preconditions, sometimes with no preconditions at all. Recently, the US has limited its interest in negotiations with Iran to demanding concessions related to its nuclear program. The P5+1 talks have included discussion of political and economic benefits, but only as incentives that would be granted for Iran's concessions on the nuclear issues. All efforts to convince Iran significantly to modify its nuclear program have failed, and Iran has repeatedly and deliberately used the negotiations, including the P5+1 talks, to deflect or delay international pressure.


Excerpted from Taking on Iran by Abraham D. Sofaer. Copyright © 2013 Abraham D. Sofaer. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by George P. Shultz vii
Acknowledgments xiii
Introduction 1
Chapter 1 Dealing with the Iranian Threat 5
      Regime Change 7
      Sanctions 9
      Negotiations and Direct Appeals 13
      Preventive Attack or Containment? 15
      An Alternative to Preventive Attack and Containment 24
Chapter 2 Thirty Years of IRGC Aggression 27
      Lebanon 29
      Iraq 31
      Afghanistan 33
      Saudi Arabia 35
      United States 36
      Attacks on Other States 41
      Interference with Navigational Rights 43
Chapter 3 Thirty Years of US Weakness 45
      Jimmy Carter 47
      Ronald Reagan 48
      George H.W. Bush 54
      William J. Clinton 60
      George W. Bush 69
      Barack Obama 78
Chapter 4 Defending Against IRGC Attacks 83
      Legality of Defending Against IRGC Aggression 84
      Legitimacy of Defensive Measures Against the IRGC 88
      Covert Attacks 91 Balance of Consequences 92
Chapter 5 Beyond Strength: Effective Diplomacy 101
      Rhetorical Restraint 101
      Regime Engagement 105
      Limited Linkage 110
      A Broad Agenda 114
      Forum Flexibility 116
Conclusion 119
Notes 125
About the Author 171
Index 173

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