Misunderstanding Iran

Misunderstanding Iran

A threatening storm gathers in the Middle East.


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.

In truth, Pollack’s book is less analysis than psychoanalysis. He begins it by casting the United States and Iran as “former lovers who went through a messy divorce” and concludes with the assertion that until Iran comes to grips with its “emotional baggage” and its “unresolved pathologies,” it is simply not “psychologically ready” to have a “meaningful relationship with the United States.”

In Pollack’s narrative, the two countries first met in the dark and heady days at the end of World War II. At the time, Iran was a wracked and weary nation reeling from a colonial ménage à trois it had stumbled into with the British and Russians, while the United States–rugged, buoyant and flushed with victory–was only just beginning to sow its oats as a virile superpower. Aghast at the “imperial ambitions” of its wartime allies and supposedly motivated solely by its desire to see an “independent, stable, and prosperous Iran,” the United States grudgingly asserted itself in Iranian affairs to free the country from the iron grip of Stalinism and to temper the rapacious greed of the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Yet, having come to Iran’s rescue, the United States suddenly found itself shackled with a frail and emotionally needy country that viewed itself as “the center of the universe” and cleaved to its new benefactor as though America were a savior with the ability to control its destiny.

At first, the United States tried to live up to the responsibilities of its new affaire de guerre by funneling money and resources into Iran. But this only “whetted Iranian appetites for more, and when it was not forthcoming they felt betrayed.” Unhinged at the thought of sharing America’s attention with the younger, budding nations of Europe and East Asia, Iran grew enraged and, like a jilted lover, lashed out at the United States for failing to live up to Iran’s unreasonable expectations.

This, then, is what Pollack believes is the recurrent theme that runs through the history of US-Iran relations. Time after time, the United States has sought to push “political, economic, and social reform” by interfering in Iranian affairs. And yet, despite “America’s good intentions,” it has received “little credit from the Iranian people” for its efforts, only anger and blame. Perhaps there were times when American interference was carried out “in very unpopular ways,” but in Pollack’s view the extent of that interference has been “wildly exaggerated by Iranians.”

Take, for example, the 1953 CIA-engineered coup that reinstalled Muhammad Reza Shah after he had been ousted in a popular revolution led by the nationalist forces of Muhammad Mossadegh. In Pollack’s version of events, the CIA did not so much orchestrate the putsch as intensify “trends already under way.” Pollack argues that Mossadegh’s “undemocratic actions” had “effectively made [him] dictator of Iran” (an appellation he never applies to the Shah, the actual dictator of Iran), thereby eroding his support among the masses and making his political demise inevitable.

That there were deeply divisive factions vying for power in the chaotic aftermath of the nationalist revolution is hard to deny. But it is another thing to suggest that, had the United States not engineered the coup, the “Iranians would have done it themselves.” Despite the fact that the overthrow of Mossadegh was given the highest priority by both Eisenhower and Churchill; that it was endorsed by Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles; that it was personally managed by CIA chief Allen Dulles, who sent $1 million to Iran to be used “in any way that would bring about [Mossadegh’s] fall”; that four-fifths of the newspapers in Tehran were at the time run by the CIA; and that the so-called popular demonstration of clerics, peasants, soldiers, criminals and street thugs that ultimately brought Mossadegh down was rounded up, instructed and bribed by CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt–despite the overwhelming evidence of America’s hand in destabilizing Iran, Pollack somehow cannot accept that Mossadegh’s political and religious opponents were acting “in response to Western overtures.” Pollack attributes this view to the “tragic-mythic version” of events fabricated by an Iranian imagination prone to blame “everything but the weather on foreign subversion.” And yet, after all his apologetics and revisionism, Pollack admits that “there is a kernel of truth” in the Iranian version: namely, that “the United States did help to overthrow Mosaddeq, and it was culpable in the establishment of the despotism” that followed.

Therein lies the principal failing of The Persian Puzzle. Pollack’s thesis is that “the only way to understand the twenty-five-year confrontation between Iran and the United States is to know the history of the relationship.” This is no doubt true. But Pollack’s grasp of that history is too often myopic and sometimes startlingly jingoistic. In fact, his chief purpose in recapping the history of US-Iran relations seems to be to argue that while many of our problems are “a product of American mistakes made twenty-five or fifty years ago,” those mistakes have been so “embellished and exaggerated to grandiose proportions by the Iranian imagination” as to make rapprochement all but impossible.

Pollack is not even sure what the use of rapprochement with Iran would be. Casting aside Iran’s strategic and geographical importance in an increasingly unstable region, Pollack writes, “I don’t think the United States ‘needs’ Iran; we have been isolated from Iran for twenty-five years and in that time have experienced the most extraordinary economic prosperity in our history…. Clearly, the lack of a warm relationship with Iran has not exactly held us back.”

Still, Pollack’s fear of a nuclear-armed Iran ultimately leads him to draw upon his blinkered interpretation of Iranian history to devise a new policy for dealing with the Islamic Republic. However, because he disputes the effectiveness of either unilateral concessions that would incrementally remove economic sanctions or a comprehensive settlement of Iran’s “silly grievances,” he ends up with a scheme that, stripped of its policy-wonkism, amounts to little more than a perpetuation of the ineffectual containment policy already in place (albeit with the caveat that the United States should continue its “development of anti-ballistic missile defenses,” just in case).

But as a recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations declared, two and a half decades of sanctioning, isolating and containing Iran has only strengthened the hand of the country’s clerical regime, accelerated its weapons program and made the achievement of a full-fledged democracy there a more distant prospect. For this reason, many foreign policy experts, most notably Zbigniew Brzezinski and Richard Haass, have been publicly calling for the Administration to follow Europe’s lead and actively pursue negotiations with Iran’s clerical regime.

Pollack remains skeptical, pointing to President Clinton’s failed attempts to coax Iran into dialogue as proof that negotiations are doomed to failure. But Clinton’s efforts came at a time when Iran’s conservative and reformist factions were embroiled in a cultural civil war for control of the country. In those years, diplomatic relations with the United States were the proverbial “third rail of politics” that few in Iran were willing to touch.

That is no longer the case. The civil war for Iran’s future is over, and for the moment the conservatives have won. Iran’s clerical establishment is more deeply entrenched now than it has been in a decade. The country’s once-vibrant reform movement is slowly crumbling into irrelevance. Despite the dreams of the Bush Administration, the time for another popular revolution has come and gone. In an utterly collapsed economy, where nearly a fifth of the population (and a third of those under 30) is unemployed, the vast majority of Iranians are far too concerned with eking out a living to consider rising en masse against the clerical establishment, the fantasy of Pentagon neoconservatives.

This is precisely why an increasing number of experts now favor the “China policy” of entering into interdependent trade relations with Iran in the hopes that economic growth will foster democratic change. Again, Pollack disagrees, arguing that the removal of economic obstacles in China has only allowed its leaders to ignore pressure for political change by emphasizing the country’s economic development. What Pollack does not recognize is that unlike China, Iran is built upon a representative constitutional framework (albeit one that has been hijacked by the clerical oligarchy) and has in place the democratic institutions that can pave the way for dramatic social and political change. However, these institutions can exert themselves only if Iran is forced out of its economic isolation. If recent history has proven anything, it is that some sort of representative government plus some sort of free-market economy usually paves the way for national stability and greater openness.

The fact is, there are only three options with regard to Iran. We can continue our failed policy of isolating and containing the regime and simply learn to “live with a nuclear-armed Iran,” as Pollack suggests. We can continue with the Administration’s plans, recently revealed by Seymour Hersh, to strike Iranian targets pre-emptively in a vain attempt to incite a popular uprising (or, as Dick Cheney hinted, allow Israel do it for us). Or we can put aside our ideological reservations and aggressively engage the clerical regime in diplomacy and dialogue–the way we did with the Soviet Union, the way we do with China.

There is every reason to believe that the clerical establishment, despite its stale, shrill anti-American rhetoric, would jump at the chance at opening economic ties with the United States. It would be an enormous coup for it to accomplish what Iran’s reformists have been trying so hard to do for more than a decade. Already the clerics have co-opted the rhetoric of reform in order to appease the population and thereby cling to power: A new generation of clerics now speaks openly of a steady transition to full democracy. Extremism and militancy in the clerical hierarchy are gradually giving way to moderation and pragmatism, particularly in the economic realm, and Iran’s leaders have reportedly discouraged their Shiite allies in Iraq from seeking to impose an Islamic theocracy along Iranian lines.

President Bush has launched his second term on a rhetorically bold initiative of spreading freedom and liberty to the world, but he must recognize that there is more than one way to accomplish this task. Indeed, in Iran there is but one way to do so, and that is by stimulating Iran’s economy and persuading its leadership to open the country to the rest of the world. This is far from the “siren song” that Pollack suggests it is. It is conceivable that this President, with his impeccably hawkish credentials, is in a position to bring it about. After all, if only Nixon could have gone to China, then perhaps only Bush can call Tehran.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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