Book Review: Kenneth Pollack, Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy (Simon & Schuster, 2013)

Pictured above are centrifuges used to enrich uranium at an Iranian nuclear facility.

In Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy, Kenneth Pollack explains that Iran is most likely attempting to develop a nuclear weapon and may very well have it in the near future.  Having proffered that, Pollack then considers what will allow US policy makers to best respond to Iran’s nuclear ambitions in order to protect the interests of the US and its allies.  Pollack asserts that from the options available, the US will inevitably be forced to choose between declaring war to stop Iran from moving any further forward with its nuclear program or implement a policy of containment.  Pollack engages in a strenuous effort to support his belief that containment would be the best choice for the US.  However, Pollack does not limit his analysis to weighing the military option and containment.  He lays out other possible solutions to the Iranian nuclear dilemma that he poses.  Those other approaches include redoubling US efforts at a carrot-and-stick approach that combines negotiations and sanctions; aiding Iranian opposition to bring about a popular form of regime change; and, backing an Israeli military strike.

Pollack’s experience in examining Iranian security issues is extensive.  He began his career in international affairs as a Persian Gulf analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  He served twice on the staff of the National Security Council (NSC), at one time holding the position of Director for Persian Gulf Affairs.  Pollack also held positions as a senior research professor at the Department of Defense’s National Defense University, as a director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and as a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.  He currently serves as a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.  Throughout his career Pollack has interpreted facts and developed timely inferences on situations and entities in the Middle East, using large quantities of informatiuon with the goal of supporting US policy.  Pollack clearly possess what might be a granular understanding of the situation of Iran from detailed reports and assessments.  He likely retains what he learned from very enlightening classified sources during his tenure at CIA and perhaps afterward if he possesses a security clearance that would permit that.  However, Pollack’s understanding of Iran was still developed from the abstract.  Despite the eloquence of his argument, what stands out in Unthinkable is Pollack’s choice to make use of a limited range of primary sources to support his positions on the nuclear ambitions and decision making of Iranian authorities, which are central to his argument.

Pollack states in the Introduction to Unthinkable, “How we choose to fill the gaps in our knowledge is often more important than the knowledge we have.”   Claiming that there is not much known about the true intentions of the Iranian leadership, Pollack presumably felt it would be enough to write his book using research and writing techniques developed as an analyst for CIA.  Doing so certainly does not make for scandal.  However, Pollack’s apparent tact of presenting policy options as if he were still a CIA analyst at headquarters in Langley, Virginia, beset by travel restrictions, is questionable, since he is free and fully able as a private citizen and research fellow at an independent think tank to gather information and conduct interviews, including in Iran, to thoroughly investigate and assess the possibility of success for each option.  There is no evidence in Unthinkable that Pollack ventured to gain a greater understanding of issues himself by traveling to Iran or interview Iranian policy and decision makers.  To some degree, this represents a lack of commitment to the truth by Pollack.  In a world were interaction between people of the world is facilitated by electronic communication and air transport, it is difficult to understand why Pollack takes what is ostensibly an archaic tact to limit his study by denying himself access to first-hand information that is readily available.  Pollack very likely would have been welcomed in Iran.

Pollack’s self-imposed restriction on fully investigating Iran’s positions on nuclear issue seemingly caused him to reach a number of positions on the Iranian nuclear issue and US policy on Iran that were incorrect.  Most notable was Pollack’s argument against a “policy of pure engagement” or an “engagement only approach.”  While that position was not a main feature among his arguments, it has proven to be one of its greatest flaws.  Pollack based his assessment on the experience of the Europeans who attempted that tact with Iran without success in the 1990s.  Perhaps with a deeper look, Pollack would have discovered that the US and Iran had essentially decided to take a new direction on the nuclear issue.  While Pollack was arguing against initiatives to pull back on sanctions as a prelude to a grand bargain, the US and Iran were on the threshold of establishing a new dialogue.  Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed strong interest in establishing a dialogue with the West, and it was manifested with both his September 2013 telephone conversation with US President Barack Obama and the formal meeting in New York between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry the same week in 2013.  Months before contacts, there were back channel negotiations underway to set-up an official dialogue between the US and Iran.  Those efforts coalesced, resulted in the announcement of bilateral negotiations between the US and Iran and a Geneva negotiations process between representatives from Iran and the P5+1 (US, Britain, France, Russia and China, plus Germany).  Those negotiations, which Pollack had taken a stand against, have resulted, to some degree, in an improvement in US-Iran relations, and an interim agreement signed by all parties on January 12, 2014.  That deal curtailed the Iranian nuclear program, focusing on two separate methods of developing a bomb: one involving uranium and, the other plutonium.   It allows time to negotiate a more ambitious deal that would require the Iranians to dismantle much of their nuclear infrastructure.  In return, the Iranians would receive relief from sanctions and the ability to sell oil around the world again.

The P5+1 Talks in Geneva have also borne fruits beyond the agreement.  They provided a unique opportunity for US officials and their Iranian counterparts, through close contact, to acquire a better understanding of various aspects of one another’s thinking.  Much of what has been learned since contradicts Pollack’s assessments of thinking within Iran.  Indeed, for officials in all countries involved in the negotiation process, close contact through the Geneva process have given them a chance to look into each other’s eyes and sense one another’s feelings.  Everything the other says or how the other reacts to statements is important to know.  Every inflexion, tone, and change in the others voice provides some insight as to what might be on an official’s mind.  For the US and Iran, the understanding of positions was further strengthened by back channel talks, some conducted by officials from the NSC.  Those talks also allowed very senior officials to “clear the air” regarding any personal concerns and relations between the two countries.  The new dialogue has built confidence, eliminated many ambiguities about positions, and lessened the guessing over actions, intentions, and motives. 

Even if US officials at the Geneva Talks determined their Iranian counterparts were not being forthright or simply being deceptive, it could be best confirmed through talks, certainly not through the speculation that Pollack offers.  The understanding that US and Iranian leaders have of the others thinking as a result of Geneva would greatly inform the chief executive’s own assessment and eventual response to the crisis.  Frequent meetings between the US and Iranian officials allows for the development of a “fresh” understanding of each other, and enhances prospects for fence mending.

Part of Pollack’s rationale behind Unthinkable was to provide options for US policy makers in the event of a downturn in US-Iran relations.  As such, his discussion still merits consideration.  Regarding military action, to degrade Iran’s nuclear capability, Pollack, who again admits lacking information argues that a strategic bombing campaign might not inflict enough damage to prevent the Iranians from resurrecting their program.  If that occurs, Pollack believes US decision makers would turn to a ground invasion that would inevitably be more complex than the Iraq War.  However, in spite of his thorough examination of the issue, and his experience at CIA and the NSC, it is difficult to accept Pollack’s ideas on how senior US military planners would approach the Iranian nuclear program.  Pollack proffered similar analyses on Iraq, before Operation Iraqi Freedom. (See Kenneth Pollack, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq (Random House, 2002).)  Pollack encouraged military action in Iraq despite not fully understanding: whether the premise for the attack being presented by the administration of US President George W. Bush—Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction—was  accurate; how the Iraqis would respond to the attack and subsequent occupation; what securing and reconstructing Iraq would require; and, how decision makers in the Bush administration understood the situation at the time and what their likely approach to the intervention would be.  Pollack now recognizes that the Bush administration was in willful denial of the enormity of the undertaking.  Preparing good military plan to meet the goals of political leadership that will result in a favorable, attainable outcome, requires dominant knowledge of the prospective battle space and excellent “situational awareness.”  In recommending a military plan to political leaders, senior military leaders must possess a necessary level of “political awareness,” bearing in mind to what degree their plans might be politicized as a result of expedience, making desired outcomes less likely. 

US military planners, using their expertise based on careers in their respective branches of the armed forces, that included continuous military education and training and considerable experience in war fighting, are responsible for developing plans for military action for political leaders.  They know the capabilities of specific individuals and units, the effectiveness of their weapons systems, and what the real possibility for success of any given operation would be.  Policy makers and analysts, regardless of their level of understanding of military theory or strategy, are outmatched by the degree of understanding senior military commanders possess for the planning and execution of an attack on Iran.  If ordered by the president to present a plan for such an attack, senior military planners will more than likely produce something that displays a high level of acumen and creativity, utilizing advanced technologies in a manner that neither analysts nor the potential opponent could foresee.

While Pollack may believe that attacking Iran is not a viable option because the costs for the US are too high, circumstances in the future may not permit a policy based on convenience.  Whether faced with war-weariness over Iraq and Afghanistan or isolationism following World War I, if military action is the most effective option, it must be taken.  Decision makers must operate within circumstances that exist, not the circumstance they like to have.  Perhaps Pollack, as a result of personal reflections on mistakes made concerning Iraq has become adverse to risk and now seeks to avoid military action.  However, that mindset typically will result in the search for alternate approaches that, in a less than perfect world, do not exist.

Interestingly, Pollack’s argument that military action in Iran would be too costly weakens the case for containment which is his preferred option.  A containment effort of any kind requires the existence of the credible threat of force.  Nevertheless, Pollack recommends establishing red lines to deter an Iran with nuclear weapons from threatening US interests and allies.  He suggested the further use of coercive diplomacy in the form of economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and ideological warfare with the hope it will modify Iran’s behavior and allow structural flaws in its political system to bring an end to the regime itself.  To enhance the possibility that containment would succeed, Pollack suggested supporting anti-regime elements to foment revolution in Iran.  Despite the questionable nature of such groups, Pollack explains “Any imaginable change of regime in Tehran would benefit the United States, if only because it is hard to imagine a regime more anti-American than the one in place today.”   Surely, this belief would be modified after a discussion in Iran with ordinary citizens about groups such as the People’s Mujahedeen.

Despite questions raised in this review on Pollack’s approach to the Iranian nuclear issue, Unthinkable should still pique the interest of policy scholars and academics interested in appraising some very, well-researched arguments on the future of US relations with Iran.  Pollack is a good researcher and great writer.  Business leaders and policy aficionados would find Unthinkable of interest because it provides insight into how similar arguments of US foreign policy issues are formulated by think tank scholars.  There is much for students of international affairs to learn from his work.  Undoubtedly, Unthinkable has been read and briefed in Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.  It might be interesting enough for them, as well as readers from governments of other countries, to view the book as an opportunity to review the methodology for research and analysis used by a skilled former US intelligence analyst.  However, as mentioned, The Iranians would most likely feel they have much more to learn from their first-hand interactions with US officials in Geneva.

Unthinkable was highly recommended in many reviews when published in September 2013.  Many of the book’s arguments may soon be overcome by events in Geneva.  Yet, there are still some things to be learned from it.   As greatcharlie.com appreciates books that can enhance the understanding of its audience of foreign and defense policy makers, to business and political leaders, and policy aficionados on international affairs, we recommends Unthinkable to them.

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