Friday, December 03, 2004

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Asia Times - Asia's most trusted news source for the Middle East: "The Persian puzzle, or the CIA's?
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

TEHRAN - The Persian Puzzle is the name of a new book by Kenneth M Pollack, author of The Gathering Storm: The Case for Invasion of Iraq , widely regarded as a main justification for Iraq's illegal invasion last year. Pollack, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst now at the Brookings Institution, seeks to explore the roots of problems between Iran and the United States over the past quarter-century. In so doing, however, Pollack unfortunately proves incapable of breaking free from a CIA school of thought that, in addition to denigrating Iran's national character, consistently predicts the imminent demise of the Islamic regime in Iran.

Concerning the former, much like Graham Fuller, another former CIA analyst and author of The Center of Universe: The Geopolitics of Iran (Westview Press, 1991), Pollack indulges in criticizing Iranian emotionalism, xenophobia, exaggerated "self-importance", "considerable ignorance of many of its policymakers", etc, thus making a mockery of objective analysis bereft of such abstract generalization smacking of what the late Edward Said labeled "Orientalism".

According to Pollack, the "clock is ticking" for regime change in Iran, reminding us of the rosy predictions of another CIA analyst, Raul Grecht, who in the early and mid-1990s wrote articles, for instance in the influential Foreign Affairs, under the pseudonym Edward Shirley, about the "meltdown" of the Islamic Republic of Iran, so imminent that Grecht advised the US government against even bothering to locate any moderates in the Iranian system in order to enter into dialogue with them.

A decade or so later, it is of course a legitimate question to ask what is behind this persistent CIA knack for vilifying Iranian national character and taking the risk of going on record with respect to regime change, even though there are few, if any, visible signs of regime change in today's Iran. Is it because of an undeclared, subliminal CIA grudge harking back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution that caught the US government totally by surprise, notwithstanding the complaint of then US president Jimmy Carter that a few months prior to the revolution he was never told by the agency that Iran was in a pre-revolutionary stage? Or is it because the CIA has received so much flak recently over what Pollack in his new book refers to as "our 25-year experience misstating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction" that the likes of Pollack want to redeem the agency in the guise of former CIA analysts?

Clearly, even with their high-tech pool of information, no present or former CIA analyst, or for that matter anyone else, is capable of historical clairvoyance with respect to a future regime change in Iran. Certainly, one may cite the indicators of regime instability and its opposite for a "scientific" study of political trends inside Iran enhancing the potential for political transformation, but to leapfrog from such limited studies to the categorical, albeit metaphoric, conclusion that the "clock is ticking" - in other words, it is simply a matter of time - is to substitute teleology for empirical research.

Related, Pollack presents a skewed analysis of post-revolutionary state-building in Iran and simultaneously refers to the present regime as the "worst sponsor of terrorism" and also as an increasingly moderate regime that "has no history of reckless behavior". At times, Pollack appears undecided as to where the chips are falling regarding the evolution of the Iranian system, contradicting himself particularly when discussing the Iranian nuclear issue.

On the one hand, Pollack claims that Iran's possession of nuclear bombs will stimulate a back-to-the-past policy of "aggressive" foreign policy by Tehran aimed at undermining its neighbors, using past tense, and on the other, accusing Tehran of precisely such "aggressive" actions as terrorism and subversion, using present tense. As a result, the book leaves a confusing impression of the post-ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini political system in Iran, partly due to Pollack's failure to touch on important facets of Iran's foreign policy, such as Iran's role in regional conflict management.

A major flaw of the book is that it claims that the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) permits nuclear weaponization through "transparency", whereby all the fissile stages, save "loading the material" in a bomb, can be done under the watchful eyes of the NPT. This is, without doubt, a caricature of the NPT and its safeguard mechanisms, which Pollack may have been cognizant of had he devoted minimal attention to the intrusive Additional Protocol of the NPT, signed by Iran last December.

The biggest flaw of the book, however, is that it adds precious little to our knowledge of the subject matter. A fairly average summarizer of pre-existing approaches (eg, the grand bargain approach, which Pollack endorses by nuancing it), the book reads like a polished doctoral dissertation, and a mediocre one at that, one that insists Iran is to blame for most, if not all, of the problems in the current US-Iran quagmire, in part by psychologizing deep-seated, even structural conflict, and insisting that if only the Iranians could set aside their "emotionalism", then they could see the light of rapprochement with the US.

In an ideal world, authors explicitly espousing war and armed conflict would be chastised for contributing to "hate literature", and the likes of Pollack would at least not be treated as media celebrities as they are in the US today. But sadly we live in a unipolar Orwellian order where truth is a casualty of ideological warfare, espoused under the veneer of "clashing civilizations", and certainly ill-equipped to deconstruct the discourse of warmongers who use the considerable resources at their disposal to lay the groundwork of public diplomacy for America's next military gambit.

The Persian Puzzle is, in conclusion, highly recommended as a useful reading for the students of the CIA and the US government to decipher the riddle of a whole array of (former) CIA analysts sold to the historical determinism of regime change in Iran, as part and parcel of its perpetual demonization reaching its apex in George W Bush's "axis of evil".

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and "Iran's Foreign Policy Since 9/11", Brown's Journal of World Affairs, co-authored with former deputy foreign minister Abbas Maleki, No 2, 2003. He teaches political science at Tehran University.

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