THE PERSIAN PUZZLE
The Conflict Between Iran and America
By Kenneth M. Pollack. Random House. 539 pp. $26.95
Isfahan's uranium conversion facility is one of the operations the United States wants suspended in Iran.
Rarely has a policy wonk made such a splash as Kenneth M. Pollack did two winters ago. His 2002 bestseller The Threatening Storm convinced hundreds of otherwise liberal opinion leaders -- and, in turn, thousands and possibly millions of their readers and viewers -- that invading Iraq was a good thing to do. Few read the book's final section, which laid out the steps Pollack insisted the United States take before roaring toward Baghdad (smashing al Qaeda and tamping down the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, among others). But Pollack too brushed aside his caveats, appearing on innumerable TV news shows to argue eloquently for war -- a campaign for which he has since apologized, claiming that he, too, had been snookered by bad intelligence.
Now the specter of Iran, whose nuclear ambitions and resources seem very real, looms before us. Another debate rages over what is to be done. And here comes Pollack with another all-too-pertinent book, The Persian Puzzle.
Many will be relieved, and others dismayed, that Pollack opposes war this time out. (In a clear reference to his earlier book, which was subtitled The Case for Invading Iraq, he labels one section of this new work "The Case Against Invading Iran.") An invasion, he notes, is impractical. Iran is four times as large as Iraq and three times as populous, and its terrain is forbiddingly mountainous; besides, as long as the United States is stuck in Iraq, there aren't enough troops. As for launching a coup, the CIA lacks assets; Iran's security apparatus is impenetrable; and, bitterly as most Iranians detest their regime, they hate interlopers even more.
The most tempting option is to bomb Iran's nuclear reactors, as the Israelis did with Iraq's Osiraq facility in 1981. But, Pollack laments, the Iranians -- precisely to avoid a repetition -- have dispersed their facilities in underground sites whose locations are unknown.
So what should we do? Alas, Pollack is as uncertain as everyone else. "There are no easy answers," he cautions in the book's introduction. It's "a problem from Hell. There simply is no school solution," he sighs on the penultimate page.
The Persian Puzzle is mainly a history, and Pollack -- a former Persian Gulf analyst for the CIA and the National Security Council -- grippingly narrates the last 50 years of U.S.-Iranian relations, a loopy psychodrama of mutual suspicion and tragic stumblings. Iran's behavior has been marked by deep paranoia. But Pollack recites an old saw: " 'Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that someone's not out to get you.' And we were out to get them."
The dynamic was set in 1953, when the CIA helped overthrow Iran's president, Mohammad Mossadeq, and install Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Pollack recounts this episode in absorbing detail, blaming both sides for the ensuing tensions. Mossadeq, "a true eccentric," rejected generous offers on oil profits that might have kept him in power for the sake of martyrdom. President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles played into this weird complex and elevated Iranians' traditional xenophobia to an all-consuming passion.
Over the next half-century, Mossadeq's ghost has haunted the Iranian landscape, animating every crisis, not least the Islamic revolution of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 and the subsequent seizure of the U.S. embassy, a trauma that, in turn, molded our own attitude toward Tehran.
Pollack heaps particular scorn on two presidents: Jimmy Carter, whose ill-timed embrace of the shah enraged and radicalized Iranian students; and George W. Bush, who muffed a serious opportunity for a breakthrough after 9/11. Both countries saw the Taliban as a threat and cooperated to oust it from Afghanistan. For the first time, U.S. and Iranian officials met face-to-face at conferences in Geneva. But the Americans were low-level; Bush seemed unaware of the meetings, much less of their significance. In early 2002, just as things "were starting to really get interesting," as an inside source put it to Pollack, Bush delivered his State of the Union address branding Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an "axis of evil." The Geneva talks ended, and Iran's nuclear program accelerated.
Yet Pollack holds the Iranians -- with their "impractical ideology" and "dysfunctional government" -- most responsible for the continued deadlock. Bush's father and Bill Clinton both made genuine overtures, but they were repeatedly dashed by the mullahs, whose control has only tightened over the years.
Pollack argues that the Iranians want the bomb in order to deter an American attack, which they genuinely fear. Still, the prospect of nuclear-armed Islamic fundamentalists is a prima facie threat, even if their motives are defensive. The United States "must address Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons," Pollack acknowledges, at the expense of other concerns.
If his analysis is correct, the current talks between Iran and the European Union are probably a snare and a delusion. Iran does fear sanctions, which the U.N. Security Council is scheduled to consider and may impose if diplomacy seems hopeless. Once that threat passes, Iran will probably return to its intransigence. (If the talks do produce results, Pollack will need to rewrite whole chapters for the paperback edition.)
In the last chapter, Pollack proposes a true "carrot-and-stick approach," in which the United States and its Western allies offer Iran rewards if it backs away from its nuclear-arms program, and penalties -- mainly sanctions -- if it persists. But he doubts that U.S. allies, whose "paramount desire" is "to make money off Iran regardless of its actions," would really enforce sanctions. So he proposes broadening the approach to cover not just Iran but all nuclear aspirants. He calls for a conference to revise the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to forbid signatories to revoke it and to impose harsh sanctions on any country that violates it. In many countries that resist, their populations "could be mobilized to compel their governments . . . to join the effort."
How is all this supposed to happen? And how quickly? Pollack correctly notes that a clock is ticking; Iran will soon have a self-contained program to build nuclear weapons. Any preventive measures would have to take hold before that threshold is crossed. Yet Pollack's vision of a new international order, assuming the best intentions, would take many years to hammer out.
If diplomacy fails, Pollack gloomily grasps at two opposing poles. One is to take "a much harder look" at a preemptive air strike on Iran's facilities. If we had "very solid intelligence" on where they are (which Pollack thinks unlikely), "the costs might well be worth the payoff." The other is to figure out a way of "living with a nuclear Iran." He adds, "Iran's behavior over the past fifteen years suggests that it can probably be deterred from taking the most harmful offensive actions even after it has acquired nuclear weapons." Yet his phrasing here is far from reassuring, and he barely tries to back up the sentiment.
The final chapter, then, only dramatizes the lesson spelled out in the preceding chapters: that this "Persian puzzle" is a tough nut, and one that may simply be uncrackable. If an analyst as expert as Pollack can't figure a way out, we may have no choice but to live with -- and contain -- a nuclear Iran. If somebody has a better idea, write it fast.
Fred Kaplan is the national security columnist for Slate.