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Outposts of Tyranny: Iran

Dr. Kenneth M. Pollack
The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America
Friday, April 22, 2005; 12:00 PM

In January, at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to consider her nomination for secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice named the nations of Belarus, Cuba, Iran, Burma, North Korea, and Zimbabwe as "outposts of tyranny."

Rice's nomination speech may have given an insight into her foreign policy agenda for the next four years. "We must use American diplomacy to help create a balance of power in the world that favors freedom," she said. Rice Stays Close to Bush Policies In Hearing (The Post, Jan. 18) Dr. Kenneth M. Pollack, author of The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America, was online Friday, April 22, at 12 p.m. ET to discuss Iran's development of nuclear arms, his new book, and the recent violence concerning Arab minorities.

Dr. Pollack is Research Director of The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution was. He was an Iran-Iraq Military Analyst for the CIA for seven years and served as director for Gulf affairs at the National Security Council until 2001, where he was the principal working-level official responsible for implementation of U.S. policy toward Iran. He wrote the 2002 bestseller The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq and has also written for The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly, and Foreign Affairs magazine.

This is the fifth discussion in a six part series focusing on the nations Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice named "outposts of tyranny" and the specific issues that have caused tensions with the U.S. Authors, journalists, representatives from foreign policy think tanks, and professors will take questions from readers.
A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Kenneth Pollack: Hi, this is Ken Pollack. I'm really delighted to be able to respond to some of your questions about my book--the Persian Puzzle, Iran, Iraq, or whatever else is on your mind related to the Middle East.


Harrisburg, Pa.: For years, especially after Iraqis seized the American Embassy, it appeared to be American policy that Iran was the country we feared in the region and the country whose influence we wished to see contained. In fact, it seemed we tilted towards Iraq in an effort to keep Iran bogged down fighting Iraq. Now that we have removed Iraq as a threat to Iran, have we now allowed Iran to better concentrate on spreading its influence to nearby countries? Have we lost ground on our previous policy of containing Iran?

Kenneth Pollack: This is an interesting one. There are a number of people who contend exactly that. In fact, it is safe to say that by eliminating Saddam Hussein’s regime, as well as that of the Taliban in Afghanistan, we removed two of Iran's biggest security threats from the 1990s. However, we replaced those threats with a much greater American presence in both countries, which the Iranians see as threats in themselves. Now it gets even more complicated because right now the Iranians believe that we are completely bogged down in Iraq. When you combine this with the high price of oil, many Iranian leaders believe that they have something of a "window of opportunity" when there are relatively few strategic threats to them. Many of these people have been arguing for a more assertive Iranian policy, including with regard to their nuclear program. This is tempered however, by concerns that Iran's long-term situation is more troubling, particularly because its economy is so weak and high oil prices can do little more than to buoy the economy in the short-term.


Washington, D.C.: How can the U.S. complain about Iran trying develop nuclear weapons and not having inspections, when Israel refuses to do the same and we turn a blind eye?

Kenneth Pollack: This is the old double standard question and it is worth tackling head on.

First, Iran has signed the NPT while Israel has not, so under international law there is no basis for such demands against Israel.

Second, and of far greater consequence, the United States--and a great many other countries around the world--feels threatened by Iran. While there are countries that feel threatened by Israel as well (and these countries do demand that Israel give up its nuclear arsenal) the United States does not. Nor do any of our European or Asian allies. In fact, there is an argument to be made that Israel's possession of a nuclear deterrent has made them feel far safer than they otherwise would and so has made them more restrained in their foreign policy.

But the simple truth is that our concerns about nuclear non-proliferation are much more about pragmatism than principle. The United States never said a word about French development of nuclear weapons and we actively aided the British. The same can be said about India. We briefly penalized Pakistan for its 1998 nuclear test, only to reverse course when we found we needed Islamabad after 9/11. Moreover, we are no different in this than any other country around the world. In the Muslim world itself there is now a parallel double standard--with Muslims demanding that Israel give up its nuclear arsenal while remaining silent about Pakistan's weaponry (and Iran's efforts to procure them). So everyone is hypocritical about nukes, and I for one don't believe that the principle of non-proliferation should be the only determinant of U.S. policy regarding nuclear weapons.

I think the U.S. (and our allies) have been relatively consistent, and generally correct, in identifying countries where nuclear proliferation is a threat to our interests and international security/stability--North Korea, Libya, Iraq, and Iran, and taking actions to try to stop them. (Recognizing that we have not always succeeded or even gone about it the right way). The fact is that since the Iranian revolution, the Iranian regime has been an anti-status quo power that has often defined its policy in opposition to that of the United States, and has aggressively employed terrorism, subversion, and even a variety of other dangerous instruments to achieve its aim. This is why the United States--and so many other countries, including European allies who were not as exorcised about Iraq--would like to dissuade or prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.


Los Angeles, Ca.: I really don't see how Iran would be a threat to the area if it developed nuclear weapons. For one, it would not be able to use them without the mullahs giving up power because the world community would overthrow them in that instance. Second, if something did happen and a nuclear incident did occur, what would Tehran have to gain from it? I see the only reason they are moving so aggressively towards a weapon is for protection.

And the idea that they would spend billions of dollars to make a bomb and then just up and give it to terrorist organizations strikes me as absurd. You don't buy the best weapon with all the bells and whistles and then hand it over to somebody else.

Kenneth Pollack: This is an important question. I think there is a lot of fear mongering when it comes to Iran. Like the questioner, I see little reason to believe that Iran would give nuclear weapons to terrorists. The Iranians do support terrorist groups (and employ it themselves) but they are very careful and deliberate about how they do so. Unlike al-Qa'eda, which often just wants to kill as many people as possible, the Iranians use terrorist to accomplish specific aims and send specific messages. What's more, Iran has possessed WMD (chemical and biological warfare agents) for at least 15 years and they have been supporting terrorist groups for 25 years and they have never combined the two. In fact, Iran's leadership would probably be very wary of giving a nuclear weapon to terrorists because once it is out of their hands they can't be sure where it will be detonated--thus if they were ever going to use one, I think they would just do it themselves, rather than hoping that a terrorist is going to do what they want with the ultimate weapon.

Nor do I buy the rationale made by some that because there is a remote possibility that Iran would give them to terrorists--and the consequences of them doing so would obviously be catastrophic--that this justifies any action. Personally, I am far more concerned that Pakistani nukes could fall into the hands of terrorists than I am with Iranian nukes, so if this is really our rationale, shouldn't we be doing everything we can to eliminate Pakistan's nuclear arsenal?

I will also say that, like the questioner, I think it unlikely that Iran would actually use their nuclear weapons. Since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran's leadership has mostly demonstrated a high degree of rationality and prudence--they are aggressive, anti-American, and even murderous, but they are not reckless the way that Saddam Hussein was.

So what is the danger? Well, there are three. First, the Iranian leadership does have some real fanatics in it as well--people like Ayatollah Khomeini. And although they do not hold the reins of governance right now, if they ever did, then I would be extremely concerned about what Iran might do. As long as Iran's leadership remains a small, closed oligarchy that includes so many of these zealots and wild ideologues, I don't think we can dismiss this threat.

Second, there is the very real fear that while Iran might not use the weapons themselves, they might believe that possessing them will deter any retaliation by the United States, thereby enabling them to be more aggressive at lower levels on the force spectrum. This is exactly what happened with Pakistan. The Pakistanis wanted nuclear weapons for defensive reasons--to deter India. However, once they got them and tested them in 1998, Pakistani military leaders became convinced that India was now completely deterred. In other words, India would be unlikely to ever attack Pakistan either with nuclear weapons or with conventional weapons for fear of escalation to nuclear war. This made them very aggressive and led them to drastically increase their support for the Kashmiri insurgents attacking India. The result was the Kargill crisis of 2000 that nearly resulted in a war between the two. I think we have to be very concerned that Iran would think the same: there are a number of Iranian leaders who have noted that Iran has been forced to rein in its efforts in the region for fear of provoking an American military response and have suggested that they want nuclear weapons so that they won't have to fear that anymore. That is a very dangerous way of thinking about the world and the role of nuclear weapons.

Finally, there is the fear that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, a number of other countries in the region are going to feel threatened--Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, even Egypt--and they will likely react in some way. We don't know how they will react, but it could be very dangerous. The Israelis might attack Iran (although I think that unlikely) and the others might try to acquire nuclear arsenals of their own, opening up new cans of worms.

At the end of the day, there should be little reason to doubt that the United States, the Middle East, and the world would be much better off if this regime in Tehran never acquires nuclear weapons.


Ames, Iowa: Your vigorous defense of the U.S.'s permitting Israel to develop nuclear weapons and criticizing Iran for the same thing overlooks the Iranian perspective. Why should Iran feel it should give up its nuclear program when a neighbor it considers hostile is allowed to develop its own?

Kenneth Pollack: They shouldn't. If I were the Iranians, I would probably want nukes too. But international relations is not about "fairness" and American policy makers need to worry about the security and interests of the American people. The U.S. government, along with many others, all believe that Iran's possession of nuclear weapons would threaten their security and their interests that is why they are all trying to dissuade or prevent Iran from acquiring them. I am not suggesting that Iran should be happy about this.

However, there are two related points worth mentioning. First, assuming we are not going to invade or launch air strikes to try obliterate the Iranian nuclear program (both of which I think have more liabilities than benefits at this point and for the foreseeable future) we are going to have to convince the Iranians that it is in their best interests to give up their nuclear program. This is not going to be easy, and it is why I advocate a policy of a multilateral approach with our European and Japanese allies to provide Iran with very significant economic benefits for complying and very severe economic sanctions if they refuse--we need to convince them they will be much happier without the weapons than with them.

Second, we need to recognize that Iran actually does have legitimate security concerns of its own, and that we are also going to have to address them if we are going to convince them not to pursue nuclear weapons. This is why I have argued for providing them with security guarantees that we won't invade, and why I have proposed that as part of this process we begin to set up a new security architecture in the Persian Gulf along the lines of what we did with the Russians and Europeans during the 1980s and 1990s that would make it possible for us to address Iran's security concerns in a cooperative, multilateral framework. It is worth pointing out that a number of senior Iranians have proposed exactly the same thing and while it won't be easy to make this work in the Persian Gulf (it was pretty tough to do in Europe) there is also no reason to believe it can't be made to work.


Clarendon, Va.: From reading some of the energy journals and such, it seems that Iran is in cahoots with India, Russia and China in the energy realm. They seem to be making some pretty serious deals with each other over natural gas and oil exploration. Does this have any direct or indirect national security implications for the U.S. ? What should we do about it if so ? Have there been any gas pipelines built or considered from Iran to China or India ?


Kenneth Pollack: This is a very important new factor in the region. The massive economic growth of India and China are placing huge strains on oil production (it's one of the major reasons for the high prices at the pump). All of the oil experts expect this trend to continue, and because the Persian Gulf is the only part of the world that has the easily-recoverable petroleum reserves to meet this ballooning demand, global dependence on Persian Gulf oil is likely to increase considerably, and Chinese and Indian interest in the Persian Gulf is likely increase along with it.

These trends have started to create two new factors in the Middle East. First, some of the region's anti-status quo states, and particularly Iran, increasingly look to China as a great power backer against the United States, the region's ultimate enforcer of the status quo. The Chinese have never shown any concern about WMD proliferation, terrorism, human rights, or anything else, but they are looking for markets and sweetheart deals on oil. That fits Iran's agenda perfectly and so you have seen a deepening of Chinese-Iranian ties. Second, the Chinese themselves seem increasingly concerned about their dependence on Persian Gulf oil and American dominance of the region. Basically, we have control of the oil "spigot" upon which they increasingly depend. It seems that they are thinking more and more about how they can reduce our dominance in the region while increasing their own influence. All of this suggests that the Persian Gulf might be a tenser place in the future.

Now some caveats are in order. First, Chinese influence remains slight, even though it is growing. It is certainly the case that trade with China can help Iran's economy, but Iran's own economists have made clear that there is no way China can provide Iran with the levels of trade and investment they need to actually solve their economic problems. Second, the Chinese are NOT looking for a fight with the U.S., at least as best we can tell. As part of this, the Chinese have recognized that while they may not care about terrorism and nuclear proliferation, we and the Europeans do and they have been helpful at times mostly just so that they don't get too crosswise with us. SO it means the region could become even more difficult and complicated, but not necessarily that we are headed pell-mell for disaster.


Boca Raton, Fla.: Dr. Pollack,

Thank you for taking the time to be with us today. If Iran should move ahead on the nuclear front, and given that we are militarily over extended in Iraq and given that we have very little economic leverage, do you think it possible that we would engage Israel as a proxy to neutralize Iran's nuclear capability?

Kenneth Pollack: I think it would be a horrible mistake for the United States to expect, let alone request, that Israel strike Iran's nuclear program. Doing so would only cement the notion of many Iranians--and many other people throughout the region---that the U.S. and Israel are indistinguishable. Moreover, I do not believe Israel has the capacity to take on this challenge. This is based both on my own analysis and conversations with Israeli Air Force officers. Israel faces three huge problems: 1) Iran is very far from Israel, over 1,000 miles to the nuclear sites we know about, and Israel has only a handful of planes that could fly that far unrefueled: 2) the Iranians learned the lesson from Israel's 1981 Osirak raid and have built multiple nuclear facilities that are redundant, heavily defended, and well camouflaged so it would take a lot to destroy each one, and whole lot more to destroy the whole program; 3) neither we nor the Israelis know if the Iranians don't have additional facilities that remain completely secret--remember, up until 2002, we did not know that their plants at Natanz and Arak were even related to the nuclear facility. The Israelis are very resourceful and might be able to come up with solutions to these problems, but they are very big problems--which is why I think the Israeli government is making such a ruckus right now, because they know they can't deal with Iran's nuclear program by themselves and they need us to help them rather than the other way around.

For all of these reasons, if the U.S. ever wanted to resort to the military option to deal with Iran's nuclear program, we will have to do it ourselves--we should not and probably cannot rely on Israel to address Iran's nuclear program. IN general, I think the military options with Iran are not good and I think there are much better diplomatic options--and I always prefer diplomacy to force. But I think goading the Israelis into a war with the Iranians would be a terrible idea for us and for the Israelis.


Arlington, Va.: I question the administration's name-calling strategy against countries like Iran. Where does calling them the "Axis of evil," "centers of tyranny," etc. get us in terms of diplomacy and strategy?

Kenneth Pollack: Very little. I agree with you. I was very unhappy with "Axis of Evil" especially since we did not have any Iran policy at the time.


Fairfax, Va.: Did the American diplomats taken hostage by the Iranians all fully recover from their ordeal? Have any of them sued Iran, or if that seems useless with the current regime, will they do so once the mullahs are booted out?

Kenneth Pollack: Different hostages have responded differently. Many of them have given interviews or published memoirs of their ordeal. Some seem to have become rabidly anti-Iranian, others more sympathetic. The Algiers Accord, which secured their release specifically, bars them from filing suits against Iran, but some have argued that this was inappropriate and are trying to have their claims addressed.


San Francisco, Ca.: Dr. Pollack - A very fine article in Foreign Affairs. A question about "lower levels of the force spectrum": We all know that Iran is capable of stirring up trouble via unconventional means -- Hezbollah and the like. But how aggressive do their conventional capabilities allow them to be? Their performance in their war against Iraq was unimpressive, to say the least.

Kenneth Pollack: Not very. You're absolutely right. Iran's conventional capabilities are very limited. They're not non-existent--they've shown us some surprising things when they are out playing with their new Kilo-class submarines in the Gulf, and they have some deadly naval mines and anti-ship missiles--but they are not great, and certainly marginal when it comes to power projection.

That's why I, and most Iran experts, focus on Iran's unconventional capabilities. Basically, the Iranians also seem to recognize that if they ever got into a conventional fight with us they would lose. In fact, they did, during the Iran-Iraq War on April 18, 1988 and we sunk a big chunk of their navy in an afternoon without really trying. The Iranians have never forgotten that, nor have they forgotten what we have done to Iraq's armed forces in 1991 and again in 2003, after all this was the army that defeated them in 1988.

So the Iranians have tried hard never to cross swords with us again since 1988. Instead, they rely on terrorism, covert action, subversion, etc. They have done things like tried to support coup attempts against the Bahraini government and blowing up the Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia to wage asymmetric warfare against us. And since it is so hard for the United States to retaliate against Iran for these kind of actions (we did not retaliate for either of these Iranian "attacks"), and we be even more so if we knew we risked nuclear escalation, it's why some Iranian decision-makers want the nukes, and so many Western governments don't want them to get them.


Washington, D.C.: What do you think it would take for the United States and Iran to become friends and/or allies in the future?

Kenneth Pollack: In some ways this is a hard one and in some ways it is an easy one. It's easy because all of the information we have is that the vast majority of Iranians like Americans and want a better relationship with Iran. So if they were allowed to dictate Iran's policy, I think they would actually make choices that we liked and it could happen fairly quickly.

But it's hard because the Iranian people are not in charge of their country and they are run by a regime that continues to define its mission in the world as defying the US--the Great Satan or, as they now call us, Global Arrogance. Reagan, Bush 1, and Clinton all tried to reach out to the Iranian regime to fundamentally change the nature of the relationship and begin a total rapprochement (Reagan's was the Iran-Contra fiasco) and every time, the hard-line elements in the Iranian regime killed the effort. As long as they have the power to keep doing that, I don't think an improvement is likely (and that's not to say that I am certain the Bush 2 Administration would reciprocate if they did, just that the first obstacle is on the Iranian side, then we would need to convince the Bush White House to respond in kind).

Wish I could be more optimistic.


Kenneth Pollack: Okay folks. I am afraid my time here is done. I have enjoyed this. Thanks so much for taking the time with me. And if you do buy The Persian Puzzle, I hope you enjoy it--or at least find it thought provoking!

All the best,
- Ken Pollack


The "Outposts of Tyranny" Series
North Korea


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