A threatening storm gathers in the Middle East. A rogue nation in the hands of a tyrannical regime with possible ties to Al Qaeda and a history of supporting global terrorism is secretly developing weapons of mass destruction, which pose an imminent risk to the security of the United States and its allies in the region. Sound familiar?
It is becoming increasingly clear that the rhetoric the Bush Administration employed to justify its pre-emptive invasion of Iraq may have been better suited to Iraq’s neighbor Iran. Now, as Iraq tumbles toward autonomy, the Bush Administration is frantically shifting its attention to the seemingly graver threat posed by Iran. According to some estimates, Iran is three to five years from developing the capability to produce nuclear weapons. And while most analysts agree that Iran’s nuclear ambition is as much a response to regional instability and the nuclear threat posed by Israel as it is a reaction to the aftermath of September 11 and the invasion of Iraq, there is no consensus on what to do about it.
On the one hand, a war against Iran seems highly unlikely, with 150,000 American soldiers fighting an insurgency in neighboring Iraq. On the other hand, as Seymour Hersh recently reported in The New Yorker, influential figures in the Pentagon are said to favor the military option, and the Bush Administration has been noticeably cool toward the efforts by Britain, France and Germany to coax Iran out of its nuclear program, efforts that cannot succeed without American support. Meanwhile, as the world squabbles over whether to wield the carrot or the stick with Tehran, Iran’s nuclear clock continues to tick, creating what Kenneth Pollack calls “a problem from Hell” in his new book, The Persian Puzzle, an ambitious analysis of the past, present and future of US-Iran relations.
Pollack, a former CIA analyst now at the Brookings Institution, rose to prominence in 2002 for his acclaimed book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. The book was widely hailed as a balanced, reasoned and well-documented polemic against allowing a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein to remain in power in Iraq. It was also catastrophically wrong.
As everyone now knows, Saddam possessed no weapons of mass destruction, and certainly not the nuclear capabilities that would have warranted a pre-emptive invasion. Pollack has spent most of the past year apologizing for his part in this colossal miscalculation. “I made a mistake based on faulty intelligence,” he recently confessed to The New York Times Magazine. “Of course, I feel guilty about it. I feel awful…I’m sorry; I’m sorry!” Pollack now admits that prewar intelligence was severely hampered by a lack of physical access to and direct knowledge of Iraq on the part of military analysts like himself. All the more dismaying, then, to find the same fatuous intelligence that made Iraq such a mess underlying his analysis of Iran.
Despite never having been to Iran, never reading the Iranian press, never consulting with any Iranian government officials or policy-makers, knowing no Persian and only “dribs and drabs” of Arabic, and viewing Iranian policy solely “through the eyes of America’s intelligence and defense communities,” Pollack has devised what he believes should be the blueprint for US-Iran relations. Of course, such limitations do not necessarily preclude an intelligent and capable analyst like Pollack from making certain astute observations about Iran. But, by his own admission, any viable analysis of Iran requires both a mastery of Iranian history and an intimate awareness of Iranian culture, neither of which is evinced by The Persian Puzzle.