Saturday, December 11, 2004

The New York Times > Books > Sunday Book Review > 'The Persian Puzzle': Misjudging Iran

The New York Times > Books > Sunday Book Review > 'The Persian Puzzle': Misjudging Iran: "'The Persian Puzzle': Misjudging Iran

Published: December 12, 2004
WHEN ''The Threatening Storm'' came out in 2002, it caused a sensation. The author, a Brookings Institution scholar who had been a Central Intelligence Agency analyst and the director of Persian Gulf affairs on President Bill Clinton's National Security Council staff, offered a measured and thoughtful argument paralleling that of hard-liners in the administration of President George W. Bush. The subtitle of the book was ''The Case for Invading Iraq.''

''The Persian Puzzle'' deals with the other big country in Kenneth Pollack's portfolio: Iran. To the question is it, too, a brief for pre-emptive war, the answer is a qualified ''no.'' Pollack (who, for the record, now says he made a mistake about Iraq, based on faulty intelligence) sees more cons than pros to a war with Iran -- too many Iranians, too many mountains, too many potential guerrillas and too many possibilities for trouble elsewhere. He finds more of a case for a pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, like Israel's 1981 bombing of the Iraqi nuclear facility at Osirak, but here too he sees more cons than pros. He recommends that the United States cope with the challenges posed by Iran by forming a tight combination with other nations and presenting Tehran with really big carrots and sticks, mostly economic.

But ''The Persian Puzzle'' is most rewarding when it deals with the past, not the future. Many Americans were surprised to learn from the recent report of Charles Duelfer, the chief American weapons inspector in Iraq, that Saddam Hussein had pretended to have weapons of mass destruction because he was preoccupied with deterring Iran. Pollack reminds us again and again how often American assumptions about Iranian concerns were wrong.

The pivot of Pollack's narrative is the C.I.A.-sponsored 1953 coup that unseated the demagogic reformer Mohammed Mossadegh and entrenched young Mohammed Reza Shah. The coup created among Iranians a lasting belief that the United States not only wanted to but could control Iranian politics. Early on, Pollack quotes Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's 2000 St. Patrick's Day speech expressing regret at the ''setback for Iran's political development.'' He returns to it toward the end of the book, insisting that, however small the immediate result, confession of past errors is the starting point for avoiding future mistakes.

The Americans who engineered the 1953 coup understood neither Mossadegh nor the shah. Mossadegh believed that the United States thought Iran vitally important and that he could win concessions from Washington by appearing willing to bargain with the Soviet Union -- making him look, to American eyes, like Moscow's cat's-paw. The shah saw himself as totally dependent on the United States yet so necessary to it that he could squeeze Washington like a protection racketeer -- and he did, most clearly in 1973, when he prodded OPEC into its most extravagant price gouging. (''The shah turned around and screwed us,'' Robert Hormats, then at the National Security Council, has been quoted as saying.) The shah's sense of dependency was most nakedly visible in his last days, when he considered trying bloody all-out suppression of the Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamist revolution but told the American ambassador that he could not take such action except on orders from Washington -- orders that President Jimmy Carter refused to give. Pollack is unsparing in his criticism of Carter administration policy making; hard-liners and soft-liners, he says, were both ''operating under completely false assumptions.''

The litany of mutual misjudgments continues through chapters on Ayatollah Khomeini's rule, the hauling and tugging between theocrats and secular Westernizers that followed and the recent past, when, as Pollack sees it, the theocrats solidified control by following the Chinese model -- trading some social liberalization for surrender of all political power. Khomeini is said not only to have blessed taking the embassy hostages but to have held on to them with the specific aim of costing Carter votes in 1980 -- as a payback for 1953.

The title of Chapter 7, ''At War With the World,'' captures the essential thread of the 1980's. Iran was at war with Iraq. At the same time it was building up Hezbollah and supervising plans for attacks like the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. The internal struggles within the Reagan administration and the Iran-contra scandal may be highest on the register of American mistakes. The decision to put marines in Lebanon, Pollack writes, ''was a disaster for U.S. policy toward the region, and it was a disaster for U.S. policy toward Iran. It was a mistake to have intervened in Lebanon at all.'' Of Iran-contra he comments, ''Congress had denied the administration funding for the C.I.A. program to support the contras, but the N.S.C. and C.I.A. had found a way to tie one harebrained scheme to the other.''

Not surprisingly, Pollack's view of the Clinton administration is more sympathetic. He gives Clinton's tough talking credit for Iran's pullback from anti-American terrorism after the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia. (Perhaps because of censors at the C.I.A. or N.S.C., he doesn't discuss the 9/11 commission's evidence that Iran facilitated the travel of the Saudis who were 9/11 muscle men.) Still, he concedes that the Clinton-era gestures came to naught. The hopes Pollack invests in his own recommendations seem to rest primarily on Tehran's pragmatic cooperation immediately after 9/11 and during the military campaign against the Taliban.

For a background understanding of U.S.-Iranian relations, ''The Persian Puzzle'' is matchless. No one newly appointed to the second Bush administration will have time to read it, but every young person who wants to work in the national security apparatus should memorize it. Pollack says he started this book before an editor diverted him to writing a book on Iraq. That was a shame. If it had been the other way around, ''The Threatening Storm'' might have had a more cautionary thesis.

Ernest R. May, a professor of history at Harvard, was senior adviser to the 9/11 commission. His most recent book is ''Strange Victory: Hitler's Conquest of France.''"


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