The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America
by Kenneth M. Pollack
Random House. 539 pp. $26.95

In the eyes of many Middle Easterners, Iran today seems to be on a roll. While other regimes (the Syrians, the Saudis, the Egyptians) are perceived throughout the area as inextricably mired in corruption, Islamic heterodoxy, or political impotence, Iran’s Shiite mullahs have maintained an image of integrity, piety—and power.

There is much to sustain that image. From Damascus, which increasingly takes its directions from Tehran, to Bahrain and the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, where Shiite majorities seethe, Iranian influence is growing. Through its Lebanese proxy, Hizballah, the Islamic Republic has placed some 10,000 Katyusha rockets along Israel’s northern border and (according to Israeli intelligence) has orchestrated almost two-thirds of all recent terrorist attacks from the West Bank and Gaza. Finally, over the past two years, Iranian leaders have leaned back and watched as the United States—the Great Satan—has eliminated two of their most pernicious rivals, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. And even in the new Iraq, the American aim of facilitating democratic elections will enable Shiites to dominate that country to an extent unimaginable in the days of Ayatollah Khomeini.

All of these accomplishments, impressive in themselves, may yet pale beside Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, which, even the most skeptical observers predict, can be operational within two years. Borne by advanced Shihab missiles, Iranian warheads will be capable of hitting not only Israel and every Arab state but also Europe and, in the not far-off future, the United States as well. Protected by its nuclear umbrella, Iran will be able to promote terror, undermine pro-Western governments, and transfer its nuclear know-how to other recalcitrant states—all with near-impunity.



Clearly, preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear-weapons capability constitutes a primary interest for the United States and its Middle Eastern allies. But how is this to be done? That is the question tackled by Kenneth M. Pollack in his voluminous new book, The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America. A former CIA and National Security Council analyst, and currently the director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, Pollack is also the author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, which, back in 2002, portrayed Saddam Hussein as a serious menace to both America and the West and urged the Bush administration to eliminate him militarily.

Many people’s ideal solution to the Iranian menace, Pollack stipulates, would involve either a reenactment of Israel’s 1981 attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak or a combined air-and-ground offensive similar to America’s “Shock and Awe” in Iraq. But this ideal solution is also, he argues, a fantasy. Unlike Osirak, which was a single facility constructed mostly above-ground and within range of Israeli aircraft, Iran’s nuclear plants are widely spread out, heavily fortified, and located in areas so remote that Israeli planes would have to refuel at least twice in order to reach them. As for armed intervention, the forces of the United States, straining to combat insurgents elsewhere in the region, seem incapable of invading a country with well over twice the population and three times the landmass of Iraq.

Lacking a simple military option, the United States might, Pollack suggests, follow the example of the European Union, which has threatened to impose sanctions unless Iran desists from making nuclear weapons, while at the same time offering to assist the country in developing peaceful nuclear energy. Recent experience, however, has demonstrated the utter inefficacy of international sanctions to restrain rogue states like Iraq, Libya, and North Korea, as well as the determination of Western European governments to conduct business with even the most murderous regimes. Though Iran has accepted lucrative inducements from Britain, France, and Germany to suspend its uranium enrichment program, the Bush administration has reason to believe that the Iranians will simply pocket Europe’s concessions and proceed with that program secretly.

What options does that leave American policy-makers? The answer, according to Pollack, is: precious few. While citing evidence of growing dissent within Iran and the palpable dissatisfaction of Iranians with their repressive regime, he rejects suggestions that Washington can help trigger an internal revolt, warning that any attempt to do so would only reinforce the mullahs’ prestige. The only possible course, he concludes, is a tougher version of the European formula: offering Iran a smorgasbord of economic and political incentives while threatening it with sanctions and armed reprisals.

Pollack readily concedes that even this “least bad option,” which he dubs a “grand bargain,” is likely to be dashed on the rocks of American military exhaustion, UN impotence, and the avarice of the Europeans, the Russians, and the Japanese. Still, he sees no other viable policy. Only by retaining large numbers of American troops in the Persian Gulf region and trying to collaborate more closely with our allies can we dare hope that an Iran with nuclear weapons will act more responsibly than it did before acquiring them.



Purportedly written in three months, The Persian Puzzle has a breathless, extemporaneous quality. It is riddled with clichés, and its bibliography, though prodigious, contains not a single work in Farsi. Yet despite these and other shortcomings, Pollack has provided his readers with a concise and balanced history of America’s involvement in Iran, not only over the past quarter-century but going back to the early 1800’s. He skillfully reveals the contradictory thrusts of a policy that at one time supported independence and democracy for Iran while plotting to oust anti-Western Iranian leaders and backing the corrupt autocracy of the Shah. He also reminds us that the same hostile theocracy that held American diplomats hostage, supported terror worldwide, and earned a place on the “Axis of Evil,” also expressed sympathy for America’s losses on 9/11, helped facilitate the allied invasion of Afghanistan, and refrained from openly opposing the United States intervention in Iraq.

But if Pollack does a decent job of reconstructing the elements of the “Persian puzzle,” he is utterly at a loss to suggest how that puzzle might be unlocked. Recalling the failure of every past American attempt either to ignore or to influence Iran, he can only inform us, correctly but lamely, that the Iranian bomb is a “problem from Hell,” arguably the greatest single challenge facing America’s global leadership. when it comes to offering a convincing formula for meeting that challenge, or providing other guidelines for maintaining American preeminence, he throws up his hands.

This denouement is certain to disappoint readers who have managed to soldier through to the end of this 500-page book. One is left wondering why, if his purpose was merely to paint a picture of an insoluble problem, Pollack bothered in the first place. A clue may lie in a recent interview in which, stating that his previous book had been based on a faulty assessment of Saddam’s arsenal, Pollack proceeded to apologize publicly for having advocated war in Iraq.

In contrast to the boldness and confidence displayed in The Threatening Storm, at any rate, Pollack’s latest volume is rife with equivocations and readily retractable assertions. A typical sentence reads: “While it is certainly possible that the current regime in Iran would revert to its former, aggressive foreign policy once it acquired nuclear weapons, it is far from certain.” The book also contains several conspicuous falsehoods—“Hizballah has mostly ceased direct attacks on Israel,” or “the Middle East peace process broke down . . . because the Israelis and Palestinians could not overcome their differences”—of a kind favored by the politically correct school of Middle East analysis.

It would be disconcerting indeed to discover that American intelligence and policy agencies could offer no better advice on Iran than to renew cooperation with France and Germany and pray for restraint in Tehran. But does one have to be a national-security analyst to recall that the United States is a country with hundreds of strategic bombers and thousands of long-range missiles at its disposal, with a fleet in the Middle East, and with many and powerful allies outside of Western Europe; that it is capable of dealing a death blow to Iran’s military and political assets; and that it is most assuredly capable, with whatever degree of subtlety, of credibly threatening to do so?

Thankfully, one does not. Still awaiting its author is a book that will explain in clear-cut and convincing terms how the United States, together with its dependable allies—and here Israel tops the list—can confront Iran and prevent its mullahs from acquiring nuclear arms, by political or other means. Today, thanks to regional developments in Iraq and elsewhere, those means would seem to be more abundant than ever.


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