Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategyby Kenneth Pollack
The world’s foremost expert on Middle Eastern relations examines Iran’s current nuclear potential and charts America’s future course of action.
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Since 2002, when the world learned of Iran’s progress toward acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, the United States has endured a protracted crisis with the Islamic Republic. It has been painful and frustrating, as all interactions with the Iranian regime typically prove. There have been moments of success. The United States has helped forge a broad coalition of states that have imposed unprecedented sanctions, isolation, and other forms of punishment on Iran to try to convince it to negotiate an end to its nuclear program, albeit to no avail. Iran today is weaker, poorer, and more friendless than ever. Yet for all its successes, the policy has not achieved its ultimate goal and may never do so. In spite of all the pain Iran has suffered, its leaders remain determined to acquire the capacity for nuclear weaponry—and perhaps to field an arsenal once they have done so. There may still be some options for the United States, short of war, to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear weapons threshold, but their number is dwindling, as is the likelihood that they will succeed.
This presents us with a dilemma over what to do next. Having tried the easy options and many hard ones, too, it looks increasingly likely that we will soon have to make the hardest choice of all: whether to contain a nuclear Iran or go to war as the final option to prevent one.
That decision is the principal focus of this book.
The debate has already begun. Many on the right have already begun to advocate for an attack on Iran. Others who recognize that America’s war-weariness after Iraq and Afghanistan makes it politically impractical to call openly for war with Iran have instead begun to argue that no alternative to war is viable. Meanwhile, many on the left are pleading that war is unnecessary or that it would be disastrous. Some have begun to argue that containment offers a better alternative.
Both sides know the ultimate fork in the road of America’s Iran policy is approaching. We are not there yet, but we may be there soon. It is time to begin to consider those choices so that we can make the best one, rather than having one forced upon us. None of the options we have left when it comes to dealing with Iran’s nuclear arsenal are good ones. Events overtook the good options long ago, leaving a bunch of difficult long shots. If our last chances all fail, as seems distressingly likely, we will have only the two worst options left: war or containment.
I believe that going to war with Iran to try to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear arsenal would be a worse course of action than containing Iran, even a nuclear Iran. However, I do not believe that the military option is foolish, and I believe that there are much stronger arguments in its favor than was the case even a few years ago. I simply believe that it entails more costs and risks than containment—except in some very specific circumstances. I will explain why in the course of this book.
Although frequently misrepresented, at its heart, containment is a strategy that seeks to prevent Iran from expanding beyond its current borders or destabilizing the Middle East until the regime collapses of its own internal contradictions. It is the strategy that the United States has employed against Iran since the earliest days following the Islamic Revolution. It is not appeasement. It does not mean simply acquiescing to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, let alone to its dominance of the Persian Gulf region. Indeed, there are many varieties of containment, some more passive, some very aggressive. If we continue to pursue containment toward Iran in the future, one of the most important questions we will have to address is when to employ a more assertive brand of containment and when to hold back and focus more on its defensive aspects.
I also recognize that containment is nothing but the less bad of the two final options. Perhaps more important than which option we choose, the worst thing of all we could do would be to refuse to think through our choice beforehand. Frequently, a politically expedient denial of reality has left us unprepared for unfortunate choices. On those occasions, we have stumbled into one policy or another, and the result has often been disastrous.
Many Americans believe that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was our nation’s greatest foreign policy mistake since Vietnam. That war was born of the failure of our efforts to contain Saddam Husayn’s Iraq in the 1990s, and that failure was itself the result of our unwillingness to recognize the need to contain Saddam’s regime for the long term back in 1991. At that moment, at the end of the Persian Gulf War, America’s leaders assumed that Saddam would be overthrown by his generals. They designed U.S. policy toward Iraq based on this assumption without any consideration of backups or alternatives. When Saddam survived, the United States was forced into a containment policy for which it had not planned. When that policy crumbled less than a decade later, it left the American people with the worst choices of all and convinced President George W. Bush (and the majority of the American people, who supported him at the time) to invade Iraq. Yet the worst decision was not the decision to invade, but the insistence that it was not necessary to plan or prepare to occupy, secure, and rebuild Iraq. And that mistake stemmed from the Bush 43 administration’s willful denial that such a massive undertaking would be necessary.
How we handle Iran is likely to be every bit as consequential as how we handled Iraq. This time, we need to do it right. That can only mean considering our options and preparing to implement them with a clear-eyed resolution, rather than the rose-colored ignorance that plagued us in Iraq.
Defining a new policy toward Iran has two inherent, unavoidable problems. First, there is too much that we do not know. It is too often the case that we just don’t know what the Iranians are doing and thinking. It is not that we do not have any information, only that the information is incomplete and open to multiple interpretations. Therefore, much of our decision-making about Iran must of necessity be based on assumptions. And the assumptions we make determine which policy options we favor or dislike. If you assume that the Iranians will use nuclear weapons once they get them, you will prefer war over containment, and vice versa. How we choose to fill the gaps in our knowledge is often more important than the knowledge we have.
The second unavoidable problem in making policy toward Iran is that there is no “best” strategy to pursue. We have tried lots of different approaches to Iran. None has worked and the Iranians are getting close to having the capability to quickly build nuclear weapons—a point that most people believe could change our relationship and our policy options with Iran. Every path we might take, every policy we might adopt, both before and after we reach that point, entails both significant costs and frightening risks. Deciding which strategy the United States should adopt is a matter of deciding which costs and risks are more or less acceptable. And every individual will weigh those costs and risks differently depending on his or her own perspectives, preferences, and assumptions.
This book is meant to serve two purposes. First, it lays out my own thinking about how the United States should handle the current crisis over Iran’s nuclear program. I have been thinking about and working on this question for more than twenty-five years, both in government and out, and I have a preference for one course of action—containment. Second, the book is meant to provide a framework for understanding the current crisis over Iran’s nuclear program and to help others make an informed choice regarding what the United States should do about it, whether that means agreeing with my preference for containment or adopting the alternative of war.
My foremost consideration in writing this book has been to try to be as transparent as I can. I have tried to make the best arguments for all the different policy options that the United States might pursue toward Iran, even those with which I disagree. I have also tried to be honest about the drawbacks associated with the policies that I prefer. If you end up agreeing with me, great; but you should only do so in the full knowledge that the course of action I favor carries significant risks and costs, too, if only because they all do. Similarly, if you end up disagreeing with me and preferring a different policy option toward Iran, that’s good, too. My hope is only that this book will have helped you to figure out which strategy you prefer and why, and to be ready to accept the costs and risks (and uncertainties) involved in whichever option you prefer.
In the past, my views on various issues have been misrepresented. I tried to write a balanced, nuanced book about Iraq in 2002 only to find it caricatured by people who read nothing but the subtitle—or cherry-picked lines from it. There is only so much I can do to prevent that happening to this book as well, but I am going to do what I can to make it harder this time around. And I want to start by presenting, up front, the basic argument of this book.
So here is a summary of my view:
I believe that U.S. policy toward Iran moving forward should begin by trying a revamped version of the carrot-and-stick strategy Washington has employed at least since 2009 (and arguably since 2006). In particular, we need to lay out more attractive benefits to Iran if it is willing to make meaningful concessions on its nuclear program and other problematic activities. Simultaneously, and as one of the “sticks” to convince Tehran to compromise, the United States should explore how we might better support indigenous Iranian opposition groups seeking to reform or even overthrow the Islamic Republic. I see this latter option as morally right, strategically sensible, and a potentially useful adjunct to a carrot-and stick approach of diplomacy and sanctions. I believe that an Israeli strike on Iran would serve no good purpose and might be disastrous for the United States, Israel, and our other allies. If the carrot-and-stick approach fails and regime change proves impractical, I prefer to see the United States opt for containment of Iran rather than war. I do not see the military option as stupid or reckless, and there are strong arguments in its favor. There are also circumstances in which it could be the best course of action. However, on the whole, I believe that the costs and risks of containment are more acceptable than the costs and risks of starting down the path of war with Iran. I do not believe that the containment of Iran, including potentially a nuclear Iran, will be easy or painless, just preferable to the alternative. Finally, containment does not mean appeasement, or even acceptance, of a nuclear Iran. Containment can take many shapes, some confrontational, some far more passive, and one of the keys to making containment work will be determining how assertive or reserved to be at any time.
The rest of the book will flesh out this perspective while providing the background to the crisis and the key aspects of the different policy options available toward Iran. It is not a history of Iran or of the American relationship with Iran, although I will try to provide all the pertinent history related to the different issues relevant to Iran, its nuclear program, and the wider U.S.-Iranian confrontation.1
The book has three parts. Part I addresses the “problems” of Iran. It looks at Iranian goals, personalities, decision-making, and policies, as best we understand them. In particular, I try to highlight what we don’t know and the competing explanations for what we do know. It also provides an overview of the Iranian nuclear program. The first part then goes on to discuss the different threats that a nuclear Iran could create for American interests. Taken together, this information should serve as a foundation on which to build a new American policy toward Iran.
Part II looks at the different policy options we might still try to employ to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. It starts by discussing the trade-offs involved in these policies and then provides a summary of the progress of the Obama administration’s policy so far. It moves on to look at four potential paths forward: revamping the current Dual Track (or carrot-and-stick) strategy, pursuing a form of “regime change” by aiding Iranian opposition groups, allowing Israel to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, or exercising the military option ourselves.
Part III explores containment in much greater depth. It surveys what different versions of containment could look like, what it would require to make them work, and under what circumstances the United States might opt for more or less aggressive versions of containment. It spends as much time on the question of “how to contain” as on “whether” the United States should do so. The strongest argument for war is that containment is impossible, or at least unlikely to work, and therefore choosing between them requires looking much harder at the question of whether containment can work.
I end by laying out how I weigh the different trade-offs, pros and cons, and how I arrive at my conclusion that, left with no other alternative but war, I believe containment of Iran to be the better choice. I do so in the firm belief that, given the many problems that beset either course of action, what matters most today is less what path we as a nation decide to take and far more having an honest, open process to reach that decision. Whatever we conclude, we need to be clear about the price we will pay, the risks we will run, and what it will take to make it work.
In 1962, the Cold War nuclear strategist Herman Kahn wrote a famous book called Thinking About the Unthinkable.2 At that time, what was “unthinkable” was the idea of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Kahn’s warning was that we had to think about that “unthinkable” event, because not to do so would leave us unprepared if it ever occurred and so might make it more likely. Today, as we face the challenge of Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, I fear that our choices are being narrowed to just two: going to war to prevent Iran from acquiring such a capability, or else learning to live with it. Watching our current public debate over Iran policy, I am struck by how many of our leaders, thinkers, and opinion-makers have deemed both of these ultimate alternatives inconceivable, unimaginable, impossible—unthinkable. Yet, it seems ever more likely that we will have to choose between them. When we do, we are going to wish that we had thought a great deal about them and decided which was the least bad, even though they may both be unthinkable.
Meet the Author
Kenneth Pollack is a well-known expert on the Middle East and Persian Gulf and has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Charlie Rose, C-SPAN, and NPR. He is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. Dr. Pollack earned his BA from Yale and a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of seven other books on the political, military, and economic affairs of the Middle East, including Unthinkable, The Threatening Storm and The Persian Puzzle.
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Excellent analysis and very timely book about which path to take in dealing with the reality of a nuclear Iran. If you're looking for a book that explores Iranian culture this is not the book for you. However if you are looking for a non-political, intelligent sober, but very readable book on the choices in dealing with Iran, then this is the book for you. Very well written, and easy to read. Pollack is masterful at what he does. Pollack's analysis is sometimes misunderstood because he explores in detail arguments against his own conclusions. I find that fascinating and intellectually honest, even when I disagree with him.