Sohrab Ahmari is a conservative Iranian-American writer. Formerly a non-resident fellow at the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society, Ahmari is the assistant books editor for the Wall Street Journal. Ahmari's articles and commentaries have also been published in neoconservative outlets Commentary and the Weekly Standard, as well as the Tablet, Foreign Policy, Huffington Post, and the Boston Globe.
Described by former Media Matters writer MJ Rosenberg as "the neocons' favorite Iranian," Ahmari has been a vocal advocate of U.S.-imposed regime change in his native Iran, which he left as a teenager. Rosenberg likened Ahmari to Ahmed Chalabi, the formerly exiled Iraqi politician who curried favor with U.S. neoconservatives ahead of the Iraq War and lent an Iraqi name to the list of those supporting the U.S. invasion.
Some writers have suggested that Ahmari's hostility to the clerical regime in Iran stems from an affinity for the monarchical and dictatorial regime that Iran's Islamist revolution replaced. Pointing to a 2012 review Ahmari had written of Patriot of Persia, a biography of Mohammad Mossadegh—the democratically elected leader of Iran who was ousted in a U.S.-engineered 1953 coup that reinstalled the Shah—Huffington Post contributor Shawn Amoei wrote, "While a visceral contempt for Mossadegh shines through his writings, Ahmari gushes over the Shah and a paradise that never was. … Ahmari's writings signify that somewhere, somehow, the monarchists' sense of entitlement to rule Iran has morphed into a hatred of Iran—and of themselves."
On BDS and Israel-Palestine
Ahmari has been a vocal critic of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a nonviolent effort by Palestinian activists and their international supporters to pressure the Israeli government because of its occupation of Palestinian territories. In a 2013 Tablet article, Ahmari argued that "the activists and academics who make up the BDS movement must remove all moral complexity from the century-long conflict, including by portraying the Palestinian national cause as wholly benign—denying even the most obvious facts about the Palestinians." Ahmari did not elaborate on this vague charge against Palestinians except to declare that BDS activists refuse to "acknowledg[e] the obvious about Hamas."
In a contentious Twitter exchange with Daily Beast writer Ali Gharib, Ahmari doubled down on his claims about the causes behind the turmoil in the Middle East, claiming that Israel's illegal settlement-building program in the West Bank—which BDS was organized to oppose—is in part a response to Arab "murderousness."
"Do you realize now," Ahmari tweeted to Gharib, "that Arab pathologies have nothing to do with a few Jews in the West Bank? … The [Middle East and North Africa] problem, to which Israel policies in territories are a reaction, is crisis of Arab civilization." When pressed by Gharib to clarify whether he was arguing that West Bank settlements are in fact "a reaction to insecurity," Ahmari wrote: "I'm saying security is a part of it. Oui, oui. But there are also legal claims to the land which I don't want to hash out here. … It is easy in Brooklyn [Gharib's home] to tell a besieged, flawed democracy to relinquish a buffer against all that [Arab] murderousness." After Gharib subsequently pressed Ahmari to "tell me what kind of pathologies lead to the installation of civilian families—[including] children—as a security buffer," Ahmari apparently ended the exchange.
Ahmari drew special notice when he criticized Stephen Hawking, the renowned Cambridge physicist, for endorsing the BDS movement and declining an invitation to attend an academic conference in Israel in 2013. "The hypocrisy and double standards of this are astounding, because Hawking actually traveled to Iran in 2007 to great fanfare from the state-run media there," Ahmari charged in "Hawking's Moral Black Hole," a video posted on the Wall Street Journal's website. "He didn't boycott the Iranian regime, where there's no such thing as academic freedom. … He's also been to China, another country where there's no such thing as academic freedom. But Israel, the one state in the region where there's a vibrant academic life … that's the country you boycott?" In a final quip aimed at the disabled Hawking's use of an Israeli-produced computer chip to help him speak, Ahmari added, "If [Hawking] were to be [boycotting] in really good faith, maybe he would be doing away with the chip as well."
Ahmari ignored Hawking's own explanation for his decision to boycott the Israeli conference as opposed to one in China or Iran—namely that Palestinian activists had specifically asked him to. "I accepted the invitation to the Presidential Conference with the intention that this would not only allow me to express my opinion on the prospects for a Peace Settlement but also because it would allow me to lecture on the West Bank," wrote Hawking. "However, I have received a number of emails from Palestinian academics. They are unanimous that I should respect the boycott. In view of this, I must withdraw from the conference. Had I attended, I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster."
A writer for The Daily Beast argued that critics like Ahmari missed the point of Hawking's gesture. "[W]ill someone," he wondered, "somewhere in Jerusalem ask why a man of Hawking's standing, who has visited Israel four times in the past and was willing to come again despite his age and ill-health, has become so alienated, so quickly, from a country he previously admired so much?"
The primary focus of Ahmari's writings is Iran. He has advocated U.S.-led regime change and chided Western academics for "legitimizing" Iran's regime by visiting the country or giving interviews on its state media.
In a March 2012 Commentary article, Ahmari suggested that tensions over Iran's nuclear program could be used to promote a regime-change agenda. "The Iranian regime's intransigence with respect to a number of hotly contested issues—above all, its nuclear-weapons program—is setting the stage for a military conflagration between Iran and the West," he wrote. Noting that such a confrontation "could spell the fall of the clerical regime under the weight of far superior Western militaries," Ahmari channeled Iraq-era neoconservative claims that U.S.-led regime change in one country would lead to democratization in others. "Regime collapse in Iran," he wrote, "represents a historic chance for advancing democratic development there and, by extension, the wider Middle East and North Africa."
Ahmari opposes "containing" a nuclear Iran, invoking alongside geopolitical concerns a common neoconservative talking point that Iran's leaders are too irrational to be reasoned with and willing to sacrifice themselves in order to spite the West. "The Iranian regime is [a] complex entity," he wrote in a March 2012 brief for the Henry Jackson Society, "with multiple factions vying to shape its future. Yet the fact remains that one of these factions—the one currently ascendant in Iranian politics—is genuinely beholden to an apocalyptic, messianic worldview." He concluded that "Tehran's ideological extremism—combined with a credible nuclear deterrent—will likely leave Western powers and their Arab allies in an unenviable position: confronting Tehran and risking nuclear catastrophe or acquiescing to Iranian aggression."
Ahmari has been critical of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a U.S.-based Iranian-American advocacy group that opposes Iran's clerical regime but favors diplomacy over sanctions and military confrontation. In a February 2012 opinion piece for Foreign Policy, Ahmari and coauthor Peter Kohanloo described NIAC as "decidedly ayatollah-friendly" and suggested that its opposition to U.S.-led regime change in Iran was out of step with the broader Iranian-American community.
MJ Rosenberg, however, noted that a Zogby poll referenced by Ahmari and Kohanloo showed that only 30 percent of the Iranian Americans surveyed listed "promoting regime change" as one of their top priorities for U.S. policy toward Iran. "NIAC opposes the Iranian regime and supported the 2009 protests against it. But it believes that the most effective, and probably only, way to successfully change Iranian behavior is through diplomacy, not sanctions and war threats," he wrote. "This drives the Iranian neocons nuts." Rosenberg added that another poll showed that only 3 percent of Iranian Americans favored U.S. military action against Iran.
In a post coauthored for the Weekly Standard blog, Ahmari and Kohanloo suggested that the democratic uprisings of the Arab spring had somehow "revealed the left's intellectual inconsistency and hypocrisy regarding America's role in the Muslim world." Drawing no distinction between calls for the United States to pressure an allied autocratic government and spurning calls to intervene against a hostile one, the authors claimed that progressive groups like Just Foreign Policy and Code Pink had "all but demand[ed] American military intervention" in Egypt but had found "speaking out—let alone acting—in support of Iranian democrats [to be] out of line."
A piece from February 2011 shows that Just Foreign Policy's Robert Naiman had called for "specific threats [by the Obama administration] linking U.S. aid to … the protection of peaceful protests" in Egypt, including "the cutting or suspension of particular [U.S.] aid programs" to Egypt and the "canceling [of] U.S. visas of specific Egyptian officials"—demands that fall far short of military intervention. Moreover, although Naiman expressed doubts about western media reports saying the 2009 elections in Iran were rigged, he added in a September 2009 op-ed, "I strongly sympathize with the protesters' desire for more social freedom, and empathize with their outrage over the crackdown."
Ahmari is co-editor of Arab Spring Dreams, a 2012 collection of essays by young dissidents in the Middle East. One reviewer praised the book for highlighting the "homophobia, sexism, racism, corruption, election fraud, [and] dictatorship" experienced by many in the Muslim world, but concluded that "the book's major flaws do in fact overwhelm the positive aspects." Alongside numerous errors of historical fact, the reviewer chided Ahmari and his collaborators for imposing a uniform narrative over disputed events—for example, attributing the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri to Hezbollah without acknowledging the considerable controversy surrounding this claim—and for maintaining an "Islam vs. the West" frame for regional politics. "As much as the book aims to convey the complexities of the Muslim world," the reviewer wrote, "by using such an 'East-West' paradigm they are perpetuating simplicities the editors seek to de-construct!" The reviewer also faulted Ahmari and his co-editors for what he saw as their "rancid" whitewashing of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, for their unnuanced view of Islamist political parties, and for ignoring the historical role of the United States in suppressing pro-democracy movements in the Middle East.