The Persian Puzzle: An Interview With Kenneth Pollack

What’s next for U.S. foreign policy in Bush’s second term? Iran, that’s what.

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

Iran, between its burgeoning nuclear program, its active support for terrorism, and its reported meddling in the Iraqi elections, is headed for a showdown with the Bush administration. But what to do about it? In his new book, The Persian Puzzle, Kenneth Pollack argues that regime change is not the answer to dealing with Iran—instead, the Bush administration is going to have to flex some diplomatic muscle. It certainly won’t be easy: the U.S. and Iran have built up a lot of animosity over the past few decades, and overcoming this distrust will be difficult, requiring a series of carrots and sticks from both the United States and her allies.

Pollack, a veteran of both the CIA and the National Security Council, recently sat down with over the phone to talk about Tehran’s long, bloody relationship with the West, its nuclear program, the prospects for regime change, and most critically, the future of America’s Iran policy. Going through the history of Iran, as you do in your book, is really useful. It seems that the conflict between Iran and the U.S. isn’t so much about a geostrategic rivalry, or even necessarily about an ideological conflict per se, so much as a lot of bad blood built up between the two over the past few decades.

Kenneth Pollack: Absolutely. I think if you could remove all of the baggage—all of the ideology, the history, whatever else—and look in purely geostrategic terms, I think it’s hard to figure out why the US and Iran would necessarily be in conflict. In fact during the shah’s era, before 1979—recognizing that there were all kinds of other problems—the US and Iran worked together splendidly at the strategic level.

But the source of the problem is this history—our support for the Shah, the CIA coup in 1953—has become infused into the Iranian political discourse. The regime that came to power in 1979 during the Iranian revolution actually defined itself as anti-American, and that’s now a critical ingredient in the Iranian domestic political debate. That really is the source of our problems—the regime in Tehran continues to see itself as opposing the US. In their eyes, everything the US does is directed at them in a very malevolent way, and therefore they have to fight back against it. So that’s the Iranian side. On our side, why has the U.S. failed to engage the Iranian regime over the years?

KP: Two reasons. The less important reason is that, in the United States, Iran is nothing but a whipping-boy. Few Americans have any real use for Iran. Most of us, what we know and remember about Iran are things like the hostage crisis in 1980, or they think about the Iranian attacks in Lebanon, or on the Khobar Towers. So you don’t get a whole lot of political mileage in the United States by going out and advocating better relations with the Iranians.

Second reason, and I ultimately think the bigger source of our problems, has actually just been neglect. It’s one of the most consistent patterns that I found in U.S. foreign policy—both in my research, and also from my 17 years in government and in the policy community. The US has just consistently tried to ignore Iran. And this is ironic because the Iranians believe that the United States is as obsessed about them as they are about us. Now the most pressing Iran issue right now is their nuclear program. Take me through the “Triple-Track” approach you outline in your book for dealing with this issue.

KP: Sure. The first track is to say the Iranians, “Look, we think there is a deal to be cut here. You give up your nuclear program, put it under the sort of inspection and monitoring regime that we had in Iraq, give up your support for terrorism, and stop opposing the Middle East peace process. In return, we’ll lift our sanctions, we’ll settle all the claims dating back to the shah’s era, we’ll bring you into the World Trade Organization, we’ll give you security guarantees, and we’ll create a security structure in the Persian Gulf that benefits you.”

The problem, of course, is that we’ve been offering this deal to the Iranians for the past 20 years, and they’ve never been able to pick it up, often for domestic political reasons. So here you fall back to the second track: a true carrot-and-stick approach, where we work with Europe and Japan to persuade the Iranians that they’re going to have to make a choice. One of the problems we had in the 1990s was that we and the Europeans were on different sheets of music on Iran. We were only interested in sticks: just hit the Iranians and hit ’em harder with sanctions. The Europeans, meanwhile, were only interested in carrots—no matter what the Iranians did, they would turn a blind eye and still offer trade, investment, and foreign aid. But Europe’s starting to change their approach?

KP: The Europeans are starting to show that they’re finally serious about the Iranian nuclear program, and they appear to be willing to use sticks against Iran. So I think it is imperative that as part of the second track, the United States sit down with the Europeans and say, “Let’s make this very clear to the Iranians. Either they can give up their nuclear program and their support for terrorism, in which case we’ll given them all kinds of benefits. Otherwise, we’ll join in comprehensive, multilateral sanctions that will cripple their very fragile economy.” And do you think this would really work?

KP: What we’ve seen from the Iranians over the last 15 years is that any time they thought they really were going to get multilateral sanctions, they jumped out of their socks, and reversed course immediately. They’re very vulnerable on the economic front. So what if we can’t get Europe and Japan on board?

KP: Exactly. I’m not convinced that the second track is going to work. I’ve seen the Europeans sound tough before and not willing to come through. If that’s the case, the Iranians will find it out very quickly. So you have to have the third track: pure containment. Laying down “red lines” for the Iranians, so they know what is and is not permissible. Working harder to shut down the flow of nuclear technology to Iran. Setting up some kind of security structure in the Persian Gulf that will hopefully make other countries feel less anxious about their own security. We need to make Iran understand that they are not able to act aggressively in the Persian Gulf, and that they are paying some kind of price for this continued intransigence. Now many people have suggested that regime change or some sort of military strike might be better options for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. What do you think about these options?

KP: Let’s start with the disarming strike. I think here it’s a matter of weighing the costs and benefits. We just don’t know a great deal about the Iranian nuclear program, especially where all of the key Iranian nuclear sites are. I mean, in 2002 we suddenly found about Arak and Natanz, to our surprise. So it’s just unclear. This would be a very big effort, we’re talking about days of air-strikes, maybe even weeks, and we wouldn’t know what, if anything, we’d accomplished. Meanwhile, we would also pay some very high prices for a strike. We’d set back regime change, because the people would rally around the government. It would preclude any further diplomacy. And beyond all that, the Iranians are very skilled terrorist, and we’d have to expect that they’d hit back at us as hard as they could. Especially in Iraq, where they have a great deal of power and influence. If they wanted to, they could wage a clandestine war against us in Iraq that would be truly horrific. So it just doesn’t look like the costs and befits add up, at least not until a) we have a much better intelligence picture of the nuclear program, b) we’re much less vulnerable in Iraq, and c) not until we’ve exhausted all of our other options. You don’t want to go down this path unless we’ve at least tried all the diplomatic options.

As far as regime change, I think you need to look back at Iran’s history. First off, regime change is coming—it’s clear that the Iranian people generally want a very different form of government. It’s coming very slowly. Most Iranians are sick and tired of revolutions. They’ve had one for the last 25 years, and they don’t want another one. Those who’ve tried to spark another revolution have failed time and again. I don’t think there’s any evidence that somehow, if the U.S. gave these guys the high sign, it would make regime change somehow more likely. Every time the U.S. has tried to interfere in Iranian affairs to help a particular group of Iranians, it’s backfired on us, and hurt the group we tried to help. Look, regime change will eventually happen, but this isn’t an answer to the very short-term problem of the nuclear program. So now how does the current deal that Iran struck with the Europeans fit into your triple-track approach?

KP: I think that the European deal is a perfectly fine first step towards the second track. There are still big holes in that agreement—there is no threat of sanctions if Iran reneges, and there isn’t a viable inspections program to actually monitor the deal. There’s also nothing about terrorism. But I think if the United States were willing to get involved, we could take the deal and make it a lot better. Unfortunately, right now we are wasting a terrific opportunity. Standing on the sidelines and simply criticizing Europe when we have no viable alternative, that’s not helping anyone. Time is passing. Iran’s at least three—and probably more like 8 or 10—years off from having a nuclear weapon. But we do have a fairly narrow window—probably a year or two—to deal with this problem at the diplomatic level. Now you’ve been a big critic of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), arguing that it’s inadequate to deal with states like Iran. Especially since it allows these countries to build a civilian nuclear program, and then pull out at the last minute when they have everything they need to build a nuclear bomb. So how should we go about updating the NPT?

KP: The basic problem with the NPT is there’s no teeth in it, no penalties for countries that don’t comply. Worse, as you say, the very naïve structure of the NPT has actually made it helpful for countries who want to acquire nuclear weapons. Iraq, North Korea, Iran, all used the NPT to build up their nuclear programs. Unfortunately I don’t think you can solve the problem by calling a meeting of all NPT signatories and renegotiate the treaty. That’s too difficult to do. What we could do, though, is call together a group of countries outside of the framework of the NPT, all of whom have an interest in squelching nonproliferation. We could ask them to adopt, on a multilateral basis, a series of sanctions that would be applied to states that do violate a more rigorous version of the NPT. Because of the importance of trade from the U.S., Europe, Japan, etc., I think the potential nuclear wannabes would take this very seriously. We’ve seen this historically—there have been several dozen countries that pursued nuclear weapons, and then discontinued their programs out of fear of sanctions they would incur by doing so. So this would just formalize the process. Now what if all of this fails? What happens if Iran does get nuclear weapons anyways—what do we need to worry about then?

KP: What people normally think about is the possibility that Iran will give nuclear weapons to terrorists—to Hizbullah or some similar group. I think that fear is mostly groundless. Iran has had WMDs—chemical and biological weapons—for at least 15 years, they’ve supported terrorist groups for 25 years, and they’ve never mixed the two. Iran uses terrorism very instrumentally as an element of foreign policy; they are not just intent on just killing as many people as possible, like al Qaeda. There’s no reason to believe that would change.

The real concern is that Iran would do what Pakistan did. Pakistan wanted nuclear weapons, like Iran, purely for defensive reasons—to defend itself against India. The problem was that once Pakistan acquired the weapons, it allowed the country to be more aggressive. So they stepped up their support for the Kashmiri terrorists, and it led very quickly to the Kargil crisis in 2000, which almost sparked a nuclear war between India and Pakistan. That’s the greater concern with Iran. What we saw in the last 8 years, Iran moderated its aggressive behavior largely out of fear of a U.S. conventional military response or a European economic response. Once Iran gets nuclear weapons, they may believe that they are no longer vulnerable to either. So how do we learn to live with a nuclear Iran?

KP: It’s not going to be easy, and I’d like to avoid doing it if we can. But what I’ve seen from Iranian behavior over the past 15 years, since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, really does convince me that it will be possible to live with a nuclear Iran. This is not a reckless regime like Saddam Hussein’s was—it’s nasty, aggressive, and ruthless, but it’s also very pragmatic. That suggests that we could approach Iran like we approached the Soviet Union—laying down “red lines”, making clear that things like destabilizing Saudi Arabia would be beyond the pale. We would also need to set up the kind of cooperative security arrangements in the Persian Gulf that we used in Europe during the Cold War, maybe even moving towards arms control. I think all of those things should allow us to work out a cold peace between ourselves and the Iranians. Is it possible that a nuclear Iran could be a positive thing in some respects? For instance, might the GCC countries start huddling closer to the United States, thus giving us more of an ability to push for political and social reforms on the Arabian peninsula? Or is that crazy?

KP: I don’t think that’s crazy. But it’s just unclear which direction the GCC would go in. There’s an equally plausible case that they would go in the opposite direction. Perhaps they’d decide that the US couldn’t prevent Iran from going nuclear and therefore they either have to find their own means of deterring Iran, maybe by getting their own nuclear weapons, or else accommodate Iran entirely. On the other hand, if they saw the US being responsible and determined in response—if we made clear to the Iranians that they couldn’t just come across the Gulf and do whatever they wanted to—then I think we’d have a much greater likelihood of getting the GCC to move in a more positive direction. Now what’s your take on Iran’s apparent support for al-Qaeda?

KP: Yeah, Iran is constantly doing this to us, where you shake your head and say, “What on earth are you guys doing?” I think that leaders in Tehran, for whatever reasons, were trying to keep their options open with al-Qaeda, especially since they didn’t know what the U.S. was going to do after we got through with Iraq. I think they were also hoping to trade the al-Qaeda leadership they had in Iran for the MEK people we had in custody.

More likely, there were probably some real divisions within the Iranian government—some groups wanted to ally with al Qaeda against us, others didn’t want to have anything to do with that. So I think that debate resulted in no decision being made for awhile. The problem was they left the al-Qaeda folks in Iran in the hands of their intelligence services and Revolutionary Guard, who didn’t really keep an eye on them—and may not have kept an eye on them on purpose. As a result, al-Qaeda used Iran as a base to participate in the May 2003 Riyadh attacks. But I think the fact that Iran clamped down on them so quickly afterwards, and are now claiming to put these guys on trial, suggests that Tehran recognizes that they were way too lax with them. Now how about Iraq? You suggest in the book that there’s a lot of common ground to work with between the U.S. and Iran over Iraq—that both want a stable Iraq. But what if this isn’t true? There’s a lot of reporting out there indicating that the adherents of Khomeini are afraid of the Iraqi Shia school in Najaf emerging to challenge the Iranian model of clerical rule. Is it possible that Iran might see some benefits in a relatively unstable and weak Iraq?

KP: Well, yes and no. I do not think they want a completely destabilized Iraq. Yes, I hear Americans talking about how the Iranians don’t want Najaf to rival the Iranian clergy in Qom. But I’ve never heard an Iraqi or an Iranian suggest that as being something meaningful to them. In fact, if you were Khamane’i, it would be quite good for you to have Najaf eclipse Qom. The clerics in Qom are all against Khamene’i, they think he’s completely illegitimate and untrained. So I don’t think this is a factor.

That said, it is true that the Iranians are wary of us building too strong an Iraq, especially an Iraq that’s very pro-Aemrican. But I don’t think the Iranians are very afraid of that right now, because that doesn’t seem to be terribly likely. More pressingly, the senior leadership in Iran is very concerned about chaos in Iraq. In their heart of hearts they would probably love to have an Iraq that’s completely subservient to Tehran, but they know that’s not going to happen. The experience of the Iran-Iraq war demonstrated that—Khomeini invaded Iraq in 1982 because he thought the Iraqi Shia would rise up against Saddam and join him, and they didn’t. Instead they fought Iran tooth and nail. So the Iranians are under no illusions that the Iraqi Shia will be subservient to them. So they’ll settle for a stable, pluralistic Iraq, dominated by Shi’a—they can live with that.

However, the problem is that some elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard are wild-eyed ideologues, some of whom really do believe in spreading the revolution, others of whom simply want to fight the United States. Those groups are in Iraq, trying to stir up trouble. But so far Tehran has mostly kept the yahoos under control, under a tight leash. By and large, most of what’s going on in Iraq from the Iranian side is still good for us—they continue to tell SCIRI and Da’wa and other pro-Iranian groups to go along with the Americans. Are they trying to influence the elections? Of course they are—it’s the Middle East. What did we expect? Are they doing it more than the Syrians or the Saudis? I doubt it. To some extent they have more influence so they might be doing it better, but this isn’t somehow unique to Iran or uniquely dangerous. So what about reports that Iran is behind Sunni insurgent groups like Ansar al-Islam, or behind the al-Sadr insurgency?

KP: Yeah, I think that was wildly overblown. Again, this is a problem we’ve got—the neo-conservatives in the administration are doing with the Iran intelligence what they did in Iraq—cherry-picking. We’re talking to all these Iraqis, who will tell us whatever they think we want to hear. For many Iraqis, it’s very convenient to blame all of the insurgency problems on Iran, because they don’t want to admit they have a problem with the Sunnis. Now your contention is that there are pragmatic elements of the Iranian leadership—Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’I and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani especially—but that they’re limited by the radical elements in the regime. Doesn’t it seem, though, that the hardliners are increasing their control in the government, and there’s not much room for engagement any more?

KP: Well, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. Iranians are going to have a big decision to make in 2005 when they elect a new president. This time around Mohammed Khatami is not going to be a candidate, the reformist movement has effectively been completely disqualified, and so Iranians are going to have to choose among different brands of hardliners. But the differences between hardliners matters. We’re all expecting that Khamene’i is going to pick the candidate who will likely win the election. So who will he pick? You’ve got everyone from Rafsanjani—who is the ultimate technocratic pragmatist, though completely unscrupulous of course—all the way to people like Ali Larijani or Ahmad Janati, who are basically Iranian versions of the neocons. So who Khamene’i picks I think will give us a good sense of where he wants to take the country. Even if the Iranians do come around, what about the Bush administration? Thus far, they seem to be wholly focused on regime change, and have shown no interest in negotiating. Is that going to change anytime soon?

KP: Yeah, I agree. My sense is that they remain so committed to regime change, even though I think they recognize that there is very little likelihood that it will succeed anytime soon. So they’re unwilling to participate in the carrot and stick approach that I’ve outlined, because they believe that that will mean compromising on regime change. They may well be right about that. But to my way of thinking, it’s foolish, making perfect the enemy of the good. What is important right now is stop Iran’s nuclear program, their support for terrorism, their opposition to Middle East peace process. And there’s a likelihood that we can do so. I wouldn’t squander that very real chance to pursue what is something of a will-o-wisp.


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2020 demands.

payment methods


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2020 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.