BOOK REVIEW
A Treatise on Iran-America Relations

Review by Dr Afzal Mirza

THE PERSIAN PUZZLE
(The Conflict between Iran and America)
Author: Kenneth M. Pollack
Publisher: Random House New York
Pages: 537

Kenneth M. Pollack is at present director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He used to be director of Gulf Affairs at the National Security Council in the Clinton Administration. Earlier he had worked for seven years in the CIA as an analyst for Gulf affairs. His book ‘The Threatening Storm’ written in 2002 was on the New York Times bestseller’s list.
Pollack claims that he had started work on the book about Iran much earlier but in between he was asked to write a book on Iraq because Iraq had suddenly assumed great importance after the American attack on Afghanistan. In his book on Iraq, Pollack had written that “Saddam Hussein is not Adolf Hitler mostly because Iraq is not as powerful as Germany was. And defeating Saddam Hussein will not require the same sacrifices as defeating Hitler did. But the threat that Saddam presents to the United States and to the world is just as real and the one we have today is no less pressing than those we faced in 1941.”
Pollack thought that Roosevelt justified his participation in the World War II by saying that “ if your neighbor’s house were on fire and you had a hose wouldn’t you lend it to him — if only to put the fire out before your house caught too?” According to him, “Today another house is burning and we are the only ones strong enough to douse the blaze. An invasion of Iraq may not be cost free but it is unlikely to be horrific and it is the only sensible course of action left to us.” And so the America invaded Iraq though the venture has proved quite horrific contrary to the expectations of Pollack.
Now after his second ascendancy to the office of the president of USA George W. Bush has turned his guns towards Iran and the appearance of this book on the occasion is no less significant. In his foreword to the book the former deputy secretary of state in Clinton Administration, now chief of the Brookings Institution, a think tank of great significance, Strobe Talbott writes, “This book is the latest evidence of Ken Pollack’s impeccable sense of timing. Two years ago in October 2002 as the Bush Administration was focusing the world’s attention on the dangers posed by Saddam Hussein Ken’s best selling The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq appeared. It argued both for decisive use of force and for strategy to win the peace that would follow a military victory. Now Iran is increasingly the focus of international attention - and with The Persian Puzzle of Ken’s incisive analysis and hardheaded policy prescription as well.”
Before unraveling Pollack’s policy prescription for the Persian Puzzle let us see what he writes about Iran in his book. Though he claims that it is not a book on Iranian history, he has put sufficient material on Iranian history and at times has conceded that in the Iran-America rift or conflict the fault is not entirely of Iran and Americans have also made mistakes. He begins his thesis with the lines, “Persia. The name alone conjures images of exotic. veiled women. Strange spices. Labyrinthine bazaars. Men selling ornate carpets. For some the name may still evoke an antique land.” For Americans he thinks the name brings to mind many different images. “Mad ayatollahs blaming all the ills of the world on the ‘Great Satan’. Hostage takers. Terrorists. Our primary adversary in the Persian Gulf for the past twenty-five years. “ Then he goes on to pose this question which according to him intrigues Americans in general: “Why do they hate us so much?” And in order to answer this question he thinks that a history of Iran-United States relationship should be studied and he comes out with abundant details on the subject.
Pollack argues that those who say that the USA needs Iran badly because of its strategic position to them “I will say very bluntly that I don’t think the United States ‘needs’ Iran; we have been isolated from Iran for the last twenty-five years and during that period we have experienced the most extraordinary economic prosperity in our history.” On the contrary, he is of the opinion that Iranians need them badly. “They have not fared particularly well over the past twenty-five years. They are not destitute but their economy is hobbled. They are not quite international pariahs but they have an unsavory reputation that follows them wherever they go.” Enumerating the problems that America is facing with respect to Iran Pollack thinks that “the worst mistake we could make would be to approach Iran through the prism of war on terrorism. Getting Iran out of the terrorism business will be very difficult and the approach we have used with Afghanistan and Iraq would likely be grave mistake with Iran.”
Iran’s nuclear program is another issue that Pollack has tried to discuss. He thinks that “like a bad dream Iran’s nuclear program continues to plague us night after night….there seems to be a consensus among even the most dovish that Iran is further along in acquiring nuclear weapons capability than was believed even a few years ago.” Pollack is of the view that “Iran’s nuclear program makes the present an important moment to consider policy towards Iran… If possession of a nuclear deterrent prompts Iran to revert to an aggressive anti-American foreign policy of destabilizing regional regimes as it tried in 1980s and 1990s it could cause great harm to US interests in the region.” Thus Pollack thinks that the present moment is critical to deal with the Iranian nuclear program.
Going back in history Pollack feels that when America came into its own as a global power after World War II Iranians for a brief moment saw the United States as a protector against Soviet and British infringement “but when the CIA masterminded a coup against a nationalist prime minister ( Mosaddeq) and reinstated the Shah on the Peacock Throne Iranians went back to believing that the United States had the ability (and the desire) to control their destinies.”
In the twelve chapters of the book Pollack traces the history of Iran from Persapolis to Pahlavis. He tells how Reza Pahlavi the commander of Cossack Brigade first forced King Mohammad Ali to make him the commander in chief and then elevated himself to the post of defense minister, then prime minister and finally became the king of Iran. Reza Shah’s hobnobbing with Nazi Germany resulted in his ouster by joint British and Russian action in 1941 and he was replaced by his young son Mohammad Reza Shah the last king. Mohammad Reza Shah’s period has been discussed in two chapters entitled The Ugly Americans and The Last Shah. It describes how he consolidated his power in the face of various crises including the one of nationalization of AIOC and became one of the most tyrannical rulers of history who was brought down by the Iranian revolution as described in details in the chapter entitled Come the Revolution.
The most fascinating chapters of all is the America Held Hostage which tells the details of the hostage crisis. Pollack has described the desperation of Carter administration to free the hostages taken in their embassy in Teheran. The root cause of the students’ reaction was the fact that America admitted the Shah into their country and Iranians believed that America wanted to reinstall him in Iran as it did during the Mosaddeq episode. As for Khomeini Pollack writes that “Khomeini’s obsessive hatred for the United States was a central motivating force in his decision making. He was a devoutly anti-American as he was devoutly Muslim. Anti-Americanism was not a tool he used to achieve power rather it was one of his primary goals.” Carter’s late action to free the hostages backfired and that also resulted in his failure to get elected for the second term.
In the chapter At War with the World the author has written the details of the Iran-Iraq War and American support to Saddam during the war that lasted for eight years and resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of Muslims on both sides of the border.
During the Clinton period the administration followed a policy of “dual containment” of Iraq and Iran based on the assumption that the current Iraqi and Iranian regimes were both hostile to American interests.
Containment of Iran had succeeded by 1997. Changes at the top of Iranian hierarchy (Khatami’s election) resulted in the change in their behavior fearing that they were close to provoking an American military operation. Tracing the events of the last twenty years Pollack in the chapter Toward a New Iran policy sets the tone for American strategy to bring Iran to shed its policy of Anti-Americanism and hostility in the face of America’s deep involvement in the region in the name of war against terrorism.
As mentioned earlier he is against the invasion of Iran on the pattern of Afghanistan and Iraq bearing in mind the specific geo-political situation of that country and proposes a different approach. He suggests a Triple Track program namely Holding Open the Prospect of the Grand Bargain, A True Carrot-and Stick Approach, and Preparing for the New Containment Regime.
Concluding his treatise Pollack suggests a multilateral approach to bring Iran around to abandon its nuclear program instead of a unilateral approach practiced in Iraq. “We must sort through the myriad pieces of our own relationship with this troubled and troubling nation while also sorting our equally difficult relations with the rest of the world. For this reason perhaps more than invasion of Iraq, the war on terror or any other conflicts we have waged since the fall of the Berlin Wall the problem of Iran may be the ultimate test of America’s leadership in the new era that is dawning,” he concludes.



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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