Paul Pillar

More on Coercing Iran

Last week I posted a commentary that focused on Ken Pollack's recent article on pressuring Iran. My opening observation was that the article deserves attention, especially for clearly laying out some of the most important reasons that a military attack on Iran in the name of setting back the nuclear program would be a big mistake. I went on to make some other observations that were more critical of the article—specifically, for giving far less attention to some other aspects of trying to influence Iranian behavior than to strengthening pressures on the regime. I also commented that this disparity in attention reflected the prevailing overall discourse in the United States about policy toward Iran.

In subsequent private correspondence, Ken took strong offense at what I wrote, regarding it as a personal attack. This is disturbing, because this is most definitely not what I intended, because I count Ken Pollack as a friend and respected colleague, and because I am not in the business of personal attacks. Even when the product in question is coming from someone who is not a friend, I try to stick to the substance of the product and not to get into anything having to do with the biography of whoever produced it. Ken points to my references to “Pollack” rather than “Pollack's article” as evidence of the personal nature of what I wrote. I believe that in the context of comments that are clearly focused on a single article, that is a stylistic distinction without a difference. But obviously it did not come across that way, and for that I apologize. Ken makes the related comment that I did not refer to his other writings on Iran, which address subjects I suggested should have gotten more attention in his new article. He has indeed written extensively on Iran, producing highly regarded scholarship. (I have used his book The Persian Puzzle in a course I teach.) It would have been the more complete and more gracious approach to have made such reference, and for not doing that I apologize as well.

It would be helpful to characterize the main respect in which Ken Pollack and I differ on the subject of Iran, and how this relates to referring or not referring to someone's total corpus of analysis as opposed to the thrust of a new product. As should have been clear from my commentary, the difference concerns what most needs to be emphasized, given the current state of policy and discourse about Iran. Emphasis matters. The course of public debate on policy issues, and the political pressures that help to shape policy, depend less on whether a piece of cogent analysis has been printed somewhere and more on which themes get voiced most often, most loudly, and most recently.  I wish that were not the way discourse on public policy works, but it does.  Those who contribute to the discourse need to take account of that fact and to consider the net effect of such contributions on the climate in which policy is made.

In my first writing on this blog, I identified one of the standards I would apply to my own contributions as exactly this kind of net effect, bearing in mind what is already out there in the marketplace of ideas on any given issue. Does the contribution help to give more attention to what is not getting enough of it, while putting into perspective what is already getting too much of it? I apply the same standard to the contributions of others.

The principal question Ken Pollack addresses in his article is: What do we most need to think about in trying to improve or redirect current policy toward Iran? I took Ken's answer to that question to be the strengthening and refinement of pressures that he describes in admirable detail in his piece.  I would answer the question differently.  I believe we need to think at least as much about some of the other aspects of the Iranian problem I mentioned, including how pressures contribute to Iranian perceptions of hostile U.S. intentions. That latter is directly relevant to the sanctions and other forms of pressure that Ken discussed. And we don't just need to think about it; we need to bend the public discourse in that direction. I implicitly expanded the question somewhat by referring not just to the Obama administration's current policy but also to the wider discussion in the United States about Iran—but that is quite pertinent because the resulting political climate constrains the policy.