What should we do about Iran? This is the question that Kenneth M Pollack poses and tries to answer in this voluminous study of the conflict between Tehran and Washington.
Pollack, who headed the Iran desk at the National Security Council during the second Clinton administration, is best known for his first book which appeared in 2002 while the debate over Iraq was raging. In that book Pollack urged the Bush administration to invade Iraq, remove Saddam Hussein from power, and help Iraqis develop a democratic system. Since then, however, Pollack has changed his mind and now says he was wrong about invading Iraq.
So, those who might have expected Pollack to advocate regime change in Iran will be disappointed. He is resolutely opposed to taking military action against the Islamic Republic. At the same time, however, he admits that there is no realistic prospect for normalization between Washington and Tehran as long as the Khomeinist regime is in place. In other words, we have a catch-22 situation.
Pollack”s book was published before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the radical Mayor of Tehran won the presidency against Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a wealthy mullah-cum-businessman favoured by some circles in Washington. This means that the potential for conflict between Tehran and Washington may now be greater than it was when Pollack was writing
That Polack wrote his Iran book in some haste is evident from his numerous grammatical lapses, factual errors, and convoluted phrases.
He writes that it was under Hitler”s influence that Reza Shah chose the name "Iran" for the country. This is nonsense: Iran has always been named Iran since Cyrus the Great took the crown 2564 years ago. He claims that Khomeini was behind the plan to attack the US Embassy in Tehran in November 1979. Anyone familiar with the story would know that this was not the case. Ayatollah Kashani was not a member of Mussadeq”s political party if only because the latter never formed such a party. General Zahedi was not chief of any tribe and did not organise tribal uprisings against the British during the Second World War. Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual leader of the Lebanese Hezballah, was not a professor of theology in Baghdad in 1960 if only because he was aged only 18 at the time.
Pollack also suffers from the fact that he has never been to Iran and does not know the Persian language. It is to cover that weakness that Pollack unleashes an avalanche of facts garnered from as many sources as he could find. This turns his book into something like a doctoral dissertation without a central argument.
Pollack asserts that Iran and the United States are in conflict without trying to establish the actual extent and depth of the conflict. Nor is he able to find the real roots of the conflict in terms of power politics. Instead, he goes for pseudo-psychoanalytical affirmation that are at times laughable, and, to many Iranians, downright offensive.
Pollack has an amazing arsenal of adjectival bullets with which to shoot his hated Iranians. He writes that Iranians are "stupid, naïve, paranoiac, delusional, unreasonable, and obtuse." And that is only for starters!
And that, of course, makes a rational discussion of the conflict that much more difficult.
Despite all that Pollack”s book is of immense value to students of Irano-American relations for one important reason. It spells out in detail the inability of American policymakers of successive administrations to develop a coherent policy towards Iran.
The root cause of the American inability may well lie in the fact that US policymakers have always been more concerned about the behaviour of a foreign power abroad rather than the nature of its regime.
In the case of Iran this was evident even before the Khomeinist regime was installed. As Pollack shows, late in 1978 the Carter administration threw its weight behind the Khomeinist movement against the Shah. This was because the Khomeinists appeared to be marginalizing the left in Iran, thus serving US interests in the context of the CoId War. President Jimmy Carter sent a hand-written letter to Khomeini praising him as "a man of God", offering "the closest of possible ties." The US Ambassador to the United Nations, a certain Andrew Young, described Khomeini as "a Twentieth Century saint". Carter also dispatched his National Security Advisor Zbigniew Bzrezinski to meet Mahdi Bazargan, Khomeini”s first prime minister, and offer the new regime a strategic partnership. Carter couldn”t care less that Khomeini and his cohorts were executing people without trial every day and trying to remould Iran into a medieval theocracy.
Carter was no exception, of course. Successive US presidents had supported despots of all denomination for decades, ignoring the nature of their regimes. Ronald Reagan became involved in the Iran-Contra scandal while the first President George W Bush did all he could to sweeten the mullahs. Under President Bill Clinton the US developed the so-called "dual containment" aimed at dealing with both Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and Iran.
Pollack offers a revealing 1998 quote from Martin Indyck, the principal advisor of Clinton on the Middle East: " We have no problem with the nature of Iraqi or Iranian regimes; only their behaviour."
But can a regime behave against its nature for any length of time? Does the scorpion sting because it is programmed by nature to do so or because it is simply misbehaving?
Pollack reveals that sometime in 1997 Clinton decided to offer the Islamic Republic what he calls "a grand bargain". Clinton sent a typically Clintonian message to the mullahs: " You are right to be angry at something my country or my culture did to you. You are right, but your underlying reason is wrong." (sic) One could imagine the face of the mullahs as they tried to work out what that meant.
We are not told in any detail what the "grand bargain" consisted of. But, reading between the lines, we may surmise that Washington offered Tehran a deal under which the Islamic Republic would be acknowledged as the "regional superpower" in exchange fort an undertaking not to bother Israel or interrupt the flow of oil.
The then newly-elected President Muhammad Khatami welcomed the deal which was put to him through an Italian diplomat working for the UN. Within a year or two the two sides appeared close to making that " grand bargain" and it was arranged that Khatami and Clinton should have an " accidental meeting and handshake" in the lobby of the UN building in New York as a goodwill gesture. At the last moment, however, Iran”s "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenehi vetoed the deal, ordering Khatami to even boycott the group photo of world leaders for the new millennium at the UN. A sulking Clinton spent 20 minutes walking the UN lobby waiting for the Iranian mullah who didn”t show up.
The whole story, presented by Pollack as another sign of "Persian perfidy" is, in fact, an illustration of American naiveté. It shows that the Americans didn”t know that in the Khomeinist system real power lies in the hands of he "Supreme Guide" and that the elected president is little more than the chairman of the council of ministers.
Pollack writes of the bitterness that he and others in the Clinton administration felt, especially since the president believed that Khatami represented the same supposedly liberal and progressive sentiments that he also harboured.
Pollack analyses the Iranian "misbehaviour" in psychological terms. He sees Iran as a "tar-baby" any involvement with it would only bring grief.
This application of Freudian jargon to foreign policy though at times amusing is ultimately misleading. It occults the fact that a power struggle is ultimately about how much pain an adversary can endure before he submits to your will.
What Pollack sees as a "puzzle" is, in fact a simple and classical case of power struggle between rival nations. The Komeinist regime, based on a messianic ideology, believes that it can, one day, unite the Muslim world under its banner and offer mankind an alternative to the current global system shaped by the West and dominated by the US. The first step towards that goal is to drive the US out of the Middle East. Once that has happened Iran will be the natural hegemon in the region. It could then use the region as a "core" for a new Islamic superpower to take the US on in a global challenge.
Once that is understood a number of questions need to be asked. Is an accommodation possible? If yes, at what price? Is the US prepared to pay that price? If not what are the alternatives?
The rivalry between Iran and the US has become sharper in the past three years because of American intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. Abandoning the pragmatism of his predecessors, President George W Bush has opted for a missionary foreign policy that the Iranians understand. He says he wants to transform the Middle East from a jumble of largely despotic regimes into a democratic and pluralist space integrated into the US-dominated global system. Tehran cannot accept that scenario because it has its own scenario of the Middle East, indeed for the whole world.
This leaves three possible outcomes.
First, the US manages to defeat the Islamic Republic and impose its scenario. In that case the Islamic Republic would not be able to survive for long. Secondly, the US is defeated by a combination of slow but steady bleeding in Afghanistan and Iraq and public opinion fatigue at home. In that case, the Islamic Republic will emerge as the regional superpower dictating its own version of regime change. The third and by far the remotest possibility is that the US and Iran agree upon a new version of the Clintonian "grand bargain", enabling both to impose part of their agenda.
What is certain is that the present situation is fundamentally unstable.
The mullahs have the will but not the power to take on the "Great Satan" while the Americans have the power but not the will to cut the Islamic Republic down to size. The mullahs have a high threshold of pain as long as their regime is not in danger. The Americans, in contrast, have a low threshold of pain and are already tearing each other apart because they have lost 2000 men conquering Afghanistan and Iraq.
The situation is more complicated by differences in the rival cultures. American and other Western leaders lose popular support if they look stubborn and unable to compromise with adversaries. The opposite is the case in the Middle East where people admire stubborn leaders even if they lead them into tragedy.
The election of Mahmoud Ahamdinejad as the new President of the Islamic Republic may well hasten a showdown between Tehran and Washington. This is why Pollack” book, despite its shortcomings, is a must read for all those who wish to understand the American approach to foreign policy.