In Box

My Secret Plan to Overthrow the Mullahs

It was late February 2003, a few weeks before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and President George W. Bush’s administration still lacked a real strategy for the would-be regional hegemon next door. As the Iran desk officer in the office of the secretary of defense, I felt desperate. We were about to invade Iraq without ...

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

It was late February 2003, a few weeks before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and President George W. Bush’s administration still lacked a real strategy for the would-be regional hegemon next door. As the Iran desk officer in the office of the secretary of defense, I felt desperate. We were about to invade Iraq without a definitive policy toward its most bitter foe. I feared a repeat of Vietnam and saw in Iran a new Ho Chi Minh Trail — the enemy lifeline that snaked through Laos and Cambodia and helped dash U.S. hopes for Southeast Asia. I knew that the Islamic Republic would endeavor to replicate this disaster in the Middle East from the moment U.S. troops stormed Baghdad — just as it had bloodied our noses in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere for decades.

In fact, I knew from my sources that Tehran had already prepared an entire network of operatives, proxies, and weapons ready to challenge the United States as soon as it toppled Saddam Hussein. I also knew it would be foolish to assume — as many in the Bush administration did — that Iraq’s many pro-Iranian political and religious leaders could be trusted to cooperate with the United States’ stated goal of building "a peaceful … democratic, and united Iraq." I had spoken with many of these people myself and was on friendly terms with the representatives of several prominent Shiite religious leaders. I was not an ideologue, and I spoke Farsi. I was steeped in Islamic culture and history. I suspected that many of these individuals were essentially Iranian agents — including the opportunistic "man for all factions" Ahmad Chalabi, a suspicion eventually confirmed when I was later told he had encouraged the pro-Iranian Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to "dig in" against the U.S. Marines in Najaf.

I was not, however, very brave. I did not confront either my boss in the Office of Special Plans, Douglas Feith, or his boss, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, about my overriding fears that Iran could spoil our plans in Iraq — and wreak havoc in the region. In the fevered atmosphere of the time, I didn’t think they would take my concerns seriously, and I was convinced Feith was too ideologically committed to overthrowing Hussein and too enamored of Chalabi in particular to hear any doubts. So, in a foolish, spur-of-the-moment decision, I asked Steven Rosen, foreign-policy director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, to approach the National Security Council’s Elliott Abrams with my concerns. This action ultimately led to my indictment, in 2005, for espionage after Rosen relayed my comments to an Israeli diplomat. But my intention was never to leak secrets to a foreign government. I wanted to halt the rush to war in Iraq — at least long enough to adopt a realistic policy toward an Iran bent on doing us ill.

Today, still serving my 10-month sentence, I take little solace in the knowledge that my concerns were justified. As early as 2004, the editor of Kayhan newspaper, the mouthpiece of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, boasted that "the American invaders are our hostage in Iraq."

I often wonder what would have happened had we fully committed to overthrowing the Islamic Republic. Inside the Pentagon, I had long argued that regime change, not accommodation or war, would be our best policy. Competent counterparts in the State Department and the CIA, however, disagreed. That left us with a muddle: The hard-line mullahs who run Iran thought we were trying to oust them, but in practice we weren’t. I sought alternatives, for example, the possibility of shocking Iran into ground-level neutrality in Iraq so that U.S. aims might succeed without unacceptable casualties. But ultimately, I failed.

My plan was designed to shake the foundations of Iran’s mullahcracy without resorting to military action. I urged the United States to recognize a government in exile, perhaps in a nearby Central Asian country with a Persian heritage. I proposed a sophisticated propaganda offensive, planting stories both true and otherwise in the Persian-language media to undermine Iranians’ confidence in their leaders. I urged that we highlight Iran’s human rights record by focusing attention on at least one victim of the regime every day of the year, and that we expose the regime’s "gulag archipelago" of prisons. And I proposed the selective declassification of documents that would embarrass Iran on the world stage.

I also called for our financial specialists to compile and publish a list of foreign-based bank accounts, properties, and businesses owned by key regime leaders, and suggested we disrupt the Islamic Republic’s monetary transactions, for example, blocking its attempts to secure loans and grants from international lending institutions.

Finally, I suggested we make the same commitment to Iran’s people as we did to Solidarity in Poland: to help train an entire generation of free unionists and political activists to surreptitiously exit and re-enter Iran. People forget that containing the Soviet Union didn’t mean accommodating it; in fact, the United States spent millions to help overthrow that evil empire.

With the passage of time, the Iranian regime’s grip on power has solidified further, even as opposition to the ruling theocrats has grown. But some of the same weapons short of war that I proposed could still be effective today. This past summer’s election proved there are growing pockets of discontent in Iran. It also showed that not nearly enough has been done to broaden and focus that discontent beyond the middle- and upper-class confines of north Tehran.

Yet many in the United States now see just two choices for dealing with Iran: military action or some form of accommodation. Bombing suspected nuclear-related facilities or other military targets would prove inconclusive and risk strengthening the regime. But allowing a hostile Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, or stop just short of doing so, would hardly be better.

There is a third option. The United States could offer its unwavering support to the Iranian opposition, strengthening and broadening this newly reawakened movement by arming it with satellite phones, digital cameras, and GPS units. America could train a cadre of countersnipers to neutralize the regime’s rooftop shooters, many of whom have fired into peaceful crowds of protesters.

Data could be fed into the government’s channels of information to confuse its intelligence organs, turning various elements of the regime on each other. Shortwave radio could be used to educate people in rural regions where the regime enjoys some support. America could eviscerate the regime’s moral authority by showing its perfidy and corruption for what it is.

U.S. action might well precipitate a massive crackdown, though such a move by the clerical-military junta could spark widespread resistance. At last, the great majority of Iranians who oppose tyranny might rebel. In one scenario, the regime would end with a bang of terrible bloodshed, chaos, and reprisals. But if Iranians were coaxed into mobilizing a long-lasting general strike, the regime would end in a whimper. Then, we could finally toss Iran’s vicious Islamic Republic — a regime that has murdered and wrongly imprisoned thousands of its own citizens — on the ash heap of history.

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