Friday, March 04, 2005

The Persian Puzzle

Michael A. Ledeen, New York Sun:
Kenneth M. Pollack is a former CIA analyst, (Bill Clinton) National Security Council official, and now scholar at the Brookings Institution, in Washington D.C. He is a textbook example of the consummate Washington insider, and his book on Iran is a classic insider's text, full of anecdotes about American and Iranian leaders, and packed with sympathetic analyses of every last detail of negotiating positions, demarches, and policy options on both "sides."

The Persian Puzzle is at once too long and too short. It is too long because it often goes into unnecessary detail about things we really don't need to know, like the minutiae of the battlefield during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980's, and of the inner deliberations within the American bureaucracy about Iran policy. And it is too short because, despite lengthy digressions into the psychology of Iranians' view of America and Americans, it is disappointingly lacking in any serious discussion of Shiite Islam, and contains nothing about older, but surprisingly durable, Persian religions like Zoroastrianism, which is experiencing an unexpected revival nowadays. Finally, despite Mr. Pollack's commendable and at times eloquently painful search for a workable Iran policy, he ends by proposing one he clearly expects to fail.

There are two great strengths of The Persian Puzzle. The first is Mr. Pollack's insistence that every American effort to find a workable modus vivendi with Iran has failed, because the Iranians don't want it. He recounts the humiliating rejection of gesture after gesture during the Clinton years - culminating in Madeleine Albright's apology for past American sins, and finally comes to the realization that the mullahs don't want normal relations with us. If Mr. Pollack weren't so involved in the details of a potential deal with Iran, he might state clearly what he has actually proven: that the theocrats in Tehran are our enemies. Instead of stating the matter plainly, he takes the long way around:

"... the United States remains such a lightning rod in Iran and anti-Americanism still remains enough of a force that America's mere involvement hurts whomever it is intended to help."

Yet even Thomas Friedman has proclaimed Iran to be a "red state," and an endless stream of Western travelers, of every imaginable political hue, have come away convinced that contemporary Iranians are extremely pro-American and would welcome American support (not military action) for their freedom.

The second great strength of this book is Mr. Pollack's welcome modesty on the subject of revolution. He reminds us that revolutions are rare, that nobody has a convincing model of revolution, and that it is therefore unfair to blame Jimmy Carter, Cyrus Vance, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Stansfield Turner for failing to foresee the impending Iranian Revolution of 1979. However, he fails to note that the Israelis were quite convinced that an Iranian Revolution was about to erupt, that the shah was not up to the challenge, and that if America didn't want the lunatic Khomeini forces and their various Marxist, liberal, and bazaari allies to take power in Iran, Washington had better act.

In other words, while we may not have a unified field theory of revolutions, skilled observers with well-trained noses can sometimes smell it out. I rather think that the real problem with Mr. Carter and his people was not so much that they didn't see what was coming, as that they thought they could live with its consequences. Mr. Pollack doesn't quote, for example, the frightful remark of Andrew Young, then our ambassador to the United Nations, to the effect that the Ayatollah Khomeini couldn't be all that bad since he was, after all, "a religious man." Nor does Mr. Pollack mention that the CIA, when asked by Senator Henry Jackson about Khomeini's inflammatory writings, declared them likely Israeli forgeries. We didn't know enough about Khomeini to be able to accurately judge the real consequences.

If Mr. Pollack were consistent, he would apply the same modesty to the current situation. But he doesn't. Instead, he dismisses those of us who advocate political support of the millions of Iranians who hate the regime by proclaiming that there is no evidence of impending revolution in Iran, in part because of the effectiveness of the mullahs' repression of the people, and in part because there is no visible revolutionary leader in Iran. He categorically dismisses those of us who point to Iranian public opinion polls that show upwards of 70% of Iranians in favor of regime change, and then, in a bit of linguistic dissonance that totally abandons his scholarly tone, says that those who favor American political support for democratic revolution in Iran "need to have more compelling evidence that this would be beneficial than merely the longing of Iranian 20-somethings to be able to shop on Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive."

Well, tens of thousands of Iranians have been killed for demonstrating their desire to be free, and thousands of others are now being tortured in the regime's dreadful prisons. Mr. Pollack knows this (although there is precious little in this book about the mass murders, public executions, stoning of adulterers, summary trials, and executions of political opponents that have characterized the Islamic Republic since its creation). But he doesn't much talk about it. And his failure to talk about it clashes with his admirable insistence that America outspokenly criticize the regime for its human rights violations. Would that he had been able to convince Mr. Clinton and Ms. Albright to do that, instead of appeasing the mullahs.

The last section of The Persian Puzzle is a complicated three-step diplomatic dance to achieve some sort of rapprochement with Iran. I don't think Mr. Pollack really believes any such scheme will work, and I certainly don't. Unfortunately, one can't "solve" the problem of enmity by diplomatic means. The Iranians have long since declared war on us, but Mr. Pollack doesn't want to admit it. He even insists that the Iranians have not fueled the terrorist war against us in Iraq, in the face of a mountain of evidence to the contrary, including the confessions of Iranian military and intelligence officials caught en flagrante paying, training, and arming terrorists in Iraq. And he buys into the myth that the Iranians arrested Al Qaeda terrorists, rather than noticing that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of the most important terrorist leaders in Iraq, long operated out of Tehran.

So for all its detail and its imposing documentation, The Persian Puzzle doesn't get us very far, either in understanding the fanatical beliefs that drive the Iranian tyrants, or in devising a policy that might yet liberate Iran, and enable a new generation, by all accounts free of religious madness and devoted to Western values, to assume its rightful control of its destiny.

David Harris' book about the Iranian crisis, from the Revolution through Mr. Carter's long hostage ordeal, really doesn't belong alongside Mr. Pollack's. Mr. Harris isn't interested in policy, he wants to tell a story, and the story he tells is the sort that modern journalism excels at: thumbnail sketches of personalities, lots of anecdotes, quotations from interviews long after the fact, and colorful scenes of personal melodrama and mass action. It certainly isn't hard reading, but it falls well short of a full explication, even of the limited events Mr. Harris treats. Here again, there is really no insight into the ruthless fanaticism, endless deception, and brutal methods of Khomeini and his henchmen. Harris gets very chummy with his actors, and many of them are referred to by their first names or even their nicknames, even some of the Iranians.

There's a lot missing in Mr. Harris's account of the shah's final days. He well understands the important role of Iranian Ambassador Ardeshir Zahedi, but he never even mentions the important mission of General "Dutch" Huyser to Tehran (Mr. Pollack does, but only tells us half the story),which I think tells us most everything we need to know about Mr. Carter's dithering policy. Huyser went to Tehran at the height of the crisis with two sets of instructions. Vance ordered him to prevent a military coup at all costs, while Brzezinski instructed him to encourage the generals to take action to save the monarchy. Rarely has a single mission so thoroughly incarnated the indecisiveness and paralysis of a government as this one, and Mr. Harris has all the skills necessary to have told it well. Pity he missed it.

Mr. Harris takes us through month after dreary month (and sometimes hour after dismal hour) of the Carter team's endless negotiations with the Khomeini regime for the release of the American hostages. If you are fascinated by that sort of thing, you're not likely to find a more dramatic account, but his evaluation of some of the players is a bit odd. He finds the Iranian president, Bani Sadr, a reliable and intelligent person, which doesn't jibe with the hysterical, fantasy-riddled books and articles by the ex-leader, now in Paris.

So, not a great book, and certainly not an important book, but it's fun, and it well captures the moment.

Kenneth M. Pollack, The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America (Random House, New York, 539 pp. $26.95).

David Harris, The Crisis; The President, the Prophet, and the Shah - 1979 and the Coming of Militant Islam (Little Brown, New York, 470 pp. $26.95).

Michael A. Ledeen is the Freedom Scholar at AEI