Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a neoconservative advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. A former Middle East specialist at the CIA's directorate of operations, Gerecht is a vocal advocate of bombing Iran and has pushed U.S. military intervention across the Middle East. Before joining FDD, Gerecht was a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a leading figure in the Project for the New American Century's "Middle East Initiative."
Gerecht has aggressively supported U.S. intervention in Syria for several years, advocating in particular the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad. Setting aside concerns about the influence of Islamic militants in the Syrian opposition, Gerecht has argued that "America's credibility in the region—which is overwhelmingly built on Washington's willingness to use force—will be zero unless Obama militarily intercedes now to knock down the Assad regime." In an August 2013 New York Times op-ed, he wrote, "Washington's response to Assad's challenge must be devastating. … The choice now is either war or headlong retreat."
After the dramatic success of the so-called Islamic State (IS or ISIS) in Iraq and Syria in 2014, Gerecht rejected the idea of working with Iran to combat the group. "Some Westerners are again hoping that Iranians can be helpful against Sunni holy warriors in the Middle East. …None of this makes sense," he wrote in Weekly Standard op-ed in June 2014.
The main focus of Gerecht's work has long been Iran, his former charge at the CIA. He has consistently promoted militarily overthrowing the Iranian clerical regime and cast doubt on any diplomatic rapprochement between Washington and Tehran. So strident is Gerecht in his rhetoric on Iran that he once admitted, "I've written about 25,000 words about bombing Iran. Even my mom thinks I've gone too far."
After the 2013 election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate who campaigned on seeking an accord with the West over Iran's nuclear enrichment program, Gerecht dismissed the vote as irrelevant to prospects for peace. "Rouhani's triumph in the recent presidential election wasn't a victory for 'moderation' and 'rationality' in Iranian politics," Gerecht wrote in the Weekly Standard. "It was the triumph of class, of revolutionary clerics of good taste and slightly better economics, over the hoi polloi who'd rallied to [former Iranian President Ahmed] Ahmadinejad."
Gerecht maintained this line even as Iran entered new talks with the P5+1 negotiating powers in late 2013 that were generally praised by all parties. "Iranian leaders," he wrote in an October 2013 op-ed co-authored with FDD executive director Mark Dubowitz, "probably are entering these negotiations for one reason: to test Barack Obama's mettle. They want to see whether Tehran can have the bomb and sanctions relief." They added: "The United States shouldn't be fooled by false divisions within the regime. Abandoning the long quest for atomic weapons would be an extraordinary humiliation for Iran's ruling class. That isn't going to happen unless Iran's supreme leader and his guards know with certainty that the Islamic order is finished if they don't abandon the bomb." In a separate article, from May 2013, Gerecht and Dubowitz argued that "The principal question is whether the West can bring sufficient non-military pressure upon Ayatollah Khamenei and his guards to make them relent in their atomic quest. We are skeptical."
As the deadline for talks approached in November 2014, the two writers continued their drumbeat of pessimism. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Gerecht and Dubowitz argued that in the event the negotiations fell apart, sanctions would fail to curb Iran's purported ambitions "without other forms of coercion." They added that "Ayatollah Khamenei, if he isn't otherwise deterred, may well respond to new, economy-crushing sanctions by accelerating the nuclear program, presenting Mr. Obama with the choice he most dreads: launch militarily strikes or accept Iran as a nuclear state."
They also argued that "only one target" would leave a "lasting impression" on Iran, Syria's Bashar al-Assad. "Taking Mr. Assad down would let Tehran know that America's withdrawal from the Middle East and President Obama's dreams of an entente with Iran are over."
Gerecht was particularly strident after an alleged plot by an Iranian-American used car salesman to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington was foiled in 2011. Accusing the Iranian regime of orchestrating the plot, Gerecht declared that "The White House needs to respond militarily to this outrage. If we don't, we are asking for it."
Gerecht's views on Iran largely reflect those of the entire FDD institution, including its funders. In a controversial 2013 speech, major FDD donor and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson called on the United States to drop a nuclear bomb somewhere in the Iranian desert. "Then," Adelson opined, "you say, 'See! The next one is in the middle of Tehran. So, we mean business. You want to be wiped out? Go ahead and take a tough position and continue with your nuclear development.'" When asked by a reporter for his reaction to this outburst, Gerecht said that dropping a nuclear weapon on Iran "wouldn't be my first suggestion."
Compared to his pessimism about diplomacy with Iran, Gerecht is relatively optimistic about the prospects for democracy in the Arab Middle East. In his 2011 book The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East, published by the Hoover Institution, he argued that "America must reassess democracy's supposed lack of a future in the region."
In particular, Gerecht has been more sanguine than many of his fellow travelers about the prospects for elected Islamist rule in a democratic Middle East, especially Egypt. "What is poorly understood in the West," he wrote in 2012, "is how critical fundamentalists are to the moral and political rejuvenation of [Muslim] countries. As counterintuitive as it seems, they are the key to more democratic, liberal politics in the region. … Dictatorship nostalgia, on the other hand, will take us right back to the cul-de-sac where Osama bin Laden was born."
Gerecht reprised these sentiments after a military coup, which was cheered on by many hawks in the United States, toppled Egypt's elected Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013. "Only the deluded, the naïve and the politically deceitful—Western fans of the coup come in all three categories—can believe that Islamism's 'moment' in Egypt has passed," he wrote. "More likely, it's just having an interlude."
Previous Track Record on Iran
Even before 9/11 and the presidency of George W. Bush, Gerecht was pushing for regime change in Iran, most notably in a chapter he contributed to the volume Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy, edited by Robert Kagan and William Kristol and published by PNAC in 2000 to serve as a neoconservative foreign policy agenda-setter for the next administration. In his essay, "Iran: Fundamentalism and Reform," Gerecht wrote: "If Washington catches the Iranians in a terrorist act, then the U.S. Navy should retaliate with fury.... If we attack, U.S. armed forces must strike with truly devastating effect against the ruling mullahs and the repressive institutions that maintain them. That is, no cruise missiles at midnight to minimize the body count. The clerics will almost certainly strike back unless Washington uses overwhelming, paralyzing force." He added that if the Israelis "believe they've got the goods on the Iranians—for example, finding evidence linking them to anti-Israel/anti-Jewish bombings abroad—then they should by all means retaliate as directly as possible."
In September 2005, Gerecht gave testimony to the U.S. House Armed Services Committee during which he argued that diplomacy with Tehran was a dead end. Pointing to the Clinton administration's efforts to "give peace a chance," which Gerecht said had included apologizing for "the supposedly bad behavior of the entire Western world toward Iran for the last 150 years," Gerecht argued: "American apologies in revolutionary clerical eyes mean only one thing—weakness. And showing weakness to power-politic-loving Iranian clerics is not astute. This is 101 in Iranian political culture. Yet I'm willing to bet that most analysts dealing with Iran at the State Department and the CIA probably thought American soul-searching was a good thing, that the political elite in Tehran would respect us more."
Two years later, in a widely quoted September 3, 2007 issue of Newsweek, Gerecht remained on message, writing: "Fears [in Europe about U.S. intentions to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization] are unfounded ... and rest on several basic misunderstandings. For one thing, the terrorist label is nothing new, and thus will do little to change the current state of play. For another, Iran represents a much greater threat than Europe typically recognizes. It is not a status quo state that favors stability, as most pundits and governments portray it. Iran is, instead, a radical revolutionary force determined to sow chaos beyond its borders. Assuming that normal negotiations can bring it around is, therefore, a grave mistake. The mullahs don't want peace in Iraq—just the opposite. War may come, but not because negotiations break down. The likely trigger is an Iranian provocation."
In March 2007, Gerecht shared his arguments with a European audience during a "U.S.-European Traveling Debate" cosponsored by AEI and the German Marshall Fund, which included stops in Berlin, Brussels, and Paris. Titled "Iran and the Bomb: Will It Get It and What Will It Mean?", the series included Gerecht, the Washington Post's David Ignatius, and several policy figures from European countries. It was aimed at discussing "what courses of action the United States and its allies can take against Iran" in light of Tehran's refusal to halt uranium enrichment activities despite considerable diplomatic pressure.
By early 2008, however, Gerecht, like many other neoconservatives, was pushing a seemingly more nuanced stance toward Iran—likely in response to the November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which argued that Tehran halted its efforts to build a nuclear weapon in 2003 (see also, Khody Akhavi, "New Report Shows Tactical Neocon Switch on Iran," Right Web, February 28, 2008). Perhaps recognizing that U.S. military intervention in Iran was unlikely to occur during Bush's short remaining time in office, Gerecht argued in a February 20, 2008 New York Times op-ed that the United States must begin "direct, unconditional talks" with the country.
But what might have been mistaken as an argument for diplomacy was revealed as little more than an effort to push for military intervention. "Foreign-policy hawks ought to see such discussions as essential preparation for possible military strikes against clerical Iran's nuclear facilities," Gerecht wrote. He furthered his advocacy of diplomacy-as-prelude to military intervention later in the op-ed, writing, "If the mullahs don't want to negotiate, fine: making the offer is something that must be checked off before the next president could unleash the Air Force and the Navy."
And by 2009, Gerecht's overt cynicism had returned. In a January 2009 Wall Street Journal op-ed, he wrote, "Ultimately, it's doubtful that Tehran will find President-elect Barack Obama's offer of more diplomacy, or the threat of more European sanctions, to be compelling."
Gerecht was also a supporter of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, often couching it as a prelude to regime change in Iran. In February 2002, he wrote in the Weekly Standard that "[I]f President Bush follows his own logic and compels his administration to follow him against Iraq and Iran, then he will sow the seeds for a new, safer, more liberal order in the Middle East. If America can hold its ground, two Muslim peoples who were badly burned by the 20th century just might lead the way for their religious brethren to a more civil society, where the basic human decency their countries knew a century ago could return."
Gerecht argued that a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq would stir a democratic revolution in Iran, an idea that proved wildly incorrect. In a 2002 AEI policy brief, he wrote, "An American invasion [of Iraq] could possibly provoke riots in Iran—simultaneous uprisings in major cities that would simply be beyond the scope of regime-loyal, specialized riot-control units. The army or the Revolutionary Guard Corps would have to be pulled into service in large numbers, and that's when things could get interesting. ... And if an American invasion doesn't provoke urban unrest, the creation of a democratic Iraq probably will. Iraq's majority Shiite population, who will inevitably lead their country in a democratic state, will start to talk to their Shiite brethren over the Iran-Iraq border."
On September 18, 2007, Gerecht participated in the University of Virginia's "National Discussion and Debate Series," in which he and Frederick Kagan argued in favor of keeping troops in Iraq. "You cannot hope to deflate Islamic extremism by losing," Gerecht argued. "The presence of the United States [in Iraq], though aggravating to many a Muslim fundamentalist, is certainly, I would argue, less of a problem than in fact the United States fleeing the country and allowing that country to go tailspin into massive internecine violence." Gerecht argued further that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would strengthen Iran's regional position: "Also, what is important to remember, you cannot deal with that country unless you are willing to actually deal with the Iranian threat. Now, what the Iranians are doing inside of Iraq is radicalizing it. ... [T]hey're trying to fuel internecine conflict. If we leave, it is bound to happen."
Despite the spiraling violence in Iraq in the wake of the U.S. invasion, as well as little evidence pointing to a weakening of the regime in Tehran, Gerecht remained convinced of the possibility that the Iraq War would help bring regime change to Iran. According to writer Gareth Porter, by late 2007 Gerecht was one of the most aggressive proponents of the argument "that Iraq's Shiites, liberated by U.S. military power, would help subvert the Iranian regime" (see Porter, "The Warpath to Regime Change," Right Web, November 6, 2007).
Intelligence and the CIA
Gerecht has played on his CIA experience to argue the inefficacy of the agency, a favorite topic of neoconservatives since the 1970s (see Right Web Profile: Team B Strategic Objectives Panel). In the wake of the resignation of CIA director Porter Goss, Gerecht offered a pessimistic view of the CIA in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. "Regrettably, reform at the CIA is now dead," he wrote, arguing that the Democrats and an anti-Bush press have "put another nail into the clandestine service's coffin by rallying around an organization that desperately needs to be radically deconstructed. However tepidly or lazily Mr. Goss approached his work, he and his abrasive minions ought to be complimented for at least firing somebody. Given the history of the CIA, this is not an insignificant achievement."
Gerecht is a contributor to a 2005 Hoover Institution book on U.S. intelligence titled The Future of American Intelligence. Its lead author was Gerecht's then AEI colleague Gary Schmitt, who, like Gerecht, served as a principal of PNAC.
Gerecht, who has been a contributing editor at the Weekly Standard and a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, is also the author of The Islamic Paradox: Shiite Clerics, Sunni Fundamentalists, and the Coming of Arab Democracy (AEI Press, 2004) and Know Thine Enemy: A Spy's Journey into Revolutionary Iran (1997), which he wrote using the pen name Edward G. Shirley. According to the Washington Post's Vernon Loeb, Gerecht describes a CIA directorate of operations that "had grown intellectually dishonest and become an institution where case officers played a cynical 'numbers game' to get promoted by recruiting large numbers of paid foreign agents, regardless of quality. The 'secrets' these agents produced were often nearly worthless [he wrote] and typical case officers either didn't care or didn't know better, lacking language skills and much grounding in the culture in which they operated. 'America's national security would not be compromised by temporarily shutting down the DO,' Gerecht wrote. 'A Directorate of Operations that produces mostly mediocre intelligence and egregiously stupid coup d'etat schemes against, for example, Saddam Hussein harms the United States abroad.'"