restricted access Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy by Kenneth M. Pollack (review)
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Reviewed by
Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy, Kenneth M. Pollack. New York: Simon & Schuster. 560 pages. $30.

On November 24, 2013, Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, i.e., the United States, Britain, China, Russia; and Germany) concluded in Geneva the Joint Plan of Action “to reach a mutually-agreed long-term comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful.”1 We are now in a different circumstance politically from even six months ago, where it was unclear if any deal whatsoever was possible. Kenneth Pollack’s book was published just after Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, took office, but was certainly written before that. [End Page 156]

Unthinkable walks readers through the recent history of nuclear policies and politics between Iran and the West as Iran progresses towards attaining nuclear weapons capability. This recent history is one in which Iran has been subject to international economic sanctions led by the United States. It is also a period marked by many failed attempts to persuade Iran to heed the various resolutions set out by the UN Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), not to mention a period in which Iran has crossed many markers in its nuclear advancement. Writing at a time where Iran is seen to be at the nuclear threshold, Pollack analyzes various options to prevent or to contain Iran’s nuclear program.

Whether to contain nuclear Iran or select the military option?

Pollack’s book analyzes all options available to neutralize Iran’s nuclear aspirations, but in the end, focuses on two choices: containing a nuclear Iran or taking military action. Pollack states that which of these two options one ultimately chooses depends on one’s risk assessment and assumptions.

Pollack is clear-eyed about Iran’s intention to get the bomb. Pollack sees containment as a strategy to prevent Iran from expanding beyond its current borders and destabilizing the Middle East through “asymmetric warfare.” He writes about supporting efforts for regime change and not equating containment with appeasement.

As Pollack correctly acknowledges, there are no good options in responding to the Iranian nuclear challenge. The interim agreement reached in Geneva is a much-needed respite on the march towards either war or containment. But it is noteworthy that the Geneva agreement, while not perfect, holds out the chance of rolling back Iran’s nuclear program. However, statements by the Iranian leadership indicate that a rollback (i.e., the dismantlement of enrichment and heavy water reactor programs) is not an option they will agree to.

There are things we do not know

As a former CIA analyst, Pollack points to the West’s limited knowledge of the inner workings and thinking of the Iranian leadership. Information attained on Iran is scattered and incomplete, and thus leads to multiple interpretations. It is also not possible to know what goes on at the highest levels of Iranian decision-making in real time. The Iranian political scene is also divided into numerous factions, which line up differently and in unpredictable ways, depending on the situation and substance at hand. To wit, one of the great challenges in understanding Iran leadership is discerning the exact role of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamenei. Pollack says that neither outsiders (nor even other Iranians) know when or if the Leader has made a decision. Therefore, it is difficult for the West to design policy options for Iran’s nuclear program, to assess their implications and estimate uncertainties associated in the process.

Why does Iran want a nuclear capability?

Since 2003, Iran has steadily progressed towards nuclear weapons capability and continues to disregard UN Security Council and IAEA resolutions. The country is subject to increasingly stringent international sanctions and censure. What we can do to persuade Iran to move away from steps that have caused its economy to deteriorate and that have increased its isolation?

Pollack explores various reasons that might explain Iran’s behavior, including the possible objectives of ensuring the regime’s survival, defending the nation, maintaining the country’s independence, becoming the regional hegemon, and spreading the Islamic Revolution...