The Persian Puzzle
Kenneth M. Pollack, a former head of the Gulf desk at the National Security Council, is best known for his 2002 book, The Gathering Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. In his newest offering he has tackled a topic as ominously controversial as Iraq was two years ago: The Islamic Republic of Iran.
Pollack has done a good job of describing the issues that make the U.S.-Iranian relationship a troubled one. He cogently summarizes the long sweep of the Iranian epic, and makes clear that as heirs of thousands of years of Persian civilization, the rulers of Tehran see themselves as a power apart from the potentates and dictators ruling over Arab states. With rare exceptions, most of the borders of the latter owe more to the misadventures of Western diplomacy than to historical precedent.
Things became difficult for America and Iran after 1945, when the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was threatened first by Russian imperialism and then by political chaos. Disorder was stirred by the demagogy of a popular politician, Mohammad Mosaddeq, who briefly drove the Shah from power but was then overthrown by the CIA in 1953.
While the decision by which the U.S. became the main power in restoring the Shah made perfect sense during the Cold War, it left a problematic legacy. In the late 1970s, the Shah's regime entered a profound crisis. The successive administrations of Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter seemed incapable of dealing with the problem, and the CIA was also caught unawares when a massive Islamist revolutionary movement emerged to challenge the Shah.
Led by the charismatic Shia Muslim Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamists took power and instituted a clerical party-state, repressive at home and provocative abroad. Above all, Khomeini was driven by a limitless hatred of America, which he called the "Great Satan" (actually, the "Big Satan," by contrast with Israel, the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, and other "Little Satans"). Khomeini went so far as to blame America for everything bad that had befallen Iran through its 2,500-year past.
The Islamic Republic under Khomeini featured the 444-day hostage crisis in which Carter was exposed as a contemptibly weak president. Then came the vicious invasion by Iraq, which led, among other complications, to the United States assisting Saddam, and the Israelis — who hated the Butcher of Baghdad much more than the Ayatollah — helping Iran. And that was followed by the Iran-Contra uproar. Iran also became deeply involved in anti-Israeli terrorism based in Lebanon.
Thus, even when reading as clear an author as Pollack, the complexity of the "puzzle" mentioned in his title is so extreme one wonders if it will ever be sorted out; Iranian geopolitics makes Iraqi issues look simple. The book concludes with an outline of policy options and suggestions that are appropriately resistant to simplification.
The convoluted nature of the Iranian situation also leads me to question some of Pollack's statements. For example, he refers to the "proven" responsibility of a shadowy Shia group called Saudi Hezbollah, allegedly controlled by Iran, for the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, in which 19 Americans were killed and almost 400 injured. But Saudi Arabia, which had no reason to protect Iran, refused to cooperate with Washington's Khobar investigation.
Pollack's sketchy explanations for this obstruction are drawn from the questionable claims of former national-security functionary Richard Clarke, and are therefore unconvincing. By contrast, Saudi dissidents claim Khobar was an early al Qaeda action, and that the Saudi authorities were anxious to deflect attention from the involvement in it of Osama bin Laden and his minions, who hate Shias even more than they do Jews and Christians.
The 9/11 Commission report earlier this year offered the following ambiguous conclusion on Khobar: "while the evidence of Iranian involvement is strong, there are also signs that al Qaeda played a role, as yet unknown."
Nevertheless, this volume contains much that is important, including explanation of the fact, largely unknown in the West, that Khomeini's scheme for political rule by mullahs had no precedent in Islam, and was thus a heresy, opposed by many of Iran's other influential ayatollahs (as well as by the Iraqi Shia clerics, who still reject it.)
The Persian Puzzle is a valuable reference as the United States seeks a solution to Iran's latest nuclear challenge.