More on Coercing Iran

October 24, 2010 Topic: Public OpinionSanctionsNuclear Proliferation Region: IranIraq Blog Brand: 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.  

I also think it is important to note when even a cogent contribution by an astute and well-informed contributor, given what it emphasizes, may have the unfortunate effect of strengthening or encouraging those with more destructive intentions.  I noted in my commentary that Pollack is to be commended for his position against using military force, but that in seeming to brush aside the question of just how awful an Iranian nuke would or would not be, his article risks playing into the hands of the "must stop it at all costs" sentiment that heightens the risk of a military attack.  Again, it is a matter of emphasis, not just of what someone is on record as saying elsewhere.  I am on record as saying elsewhere that the single biggest hazard to U.S. interests over the next year or so is an Israeli military attack on Iran (for which the United States would share in the blame and repercussions, and the likelihood of which will partly be shaped by US policy).  Ken may disagree with me about that, too, but I don't think it is unfair to suggest that focusing mostly on additional ways to pressure Iran does not move in the most helpful direction a public discourse that already is overwhelmingly about pressure and devotes far too little attention to careful consideration of the danger the pressure is intended to avoid, and that a military attack ostensibly would be intended to avoid as well.

This nation has had some unfortunate experiences with cogent analysis being overwhelmed by loudly and frequently repeated themes. The Iraq War was such an experience, and this gives me an opportunity to make favorable reference to some of Ken Pollack's other work. Before the war, Ken offered estimates of the required military forces and time that they would have to be in Iraq that far exceeded and—as subsequent events would bear out—were far more realistic than the pollyannaish predictions of the war's principal neoconservative promoters, who were determined to use regime change in Iraq to realize their dream of remaking the politics and economics of the Middle East and gave little thought to costs and consequences. I believe (although this may be yet another place where Ken would disagree with me) that if his analysis on this point had been broadly heard, accepted, and absorbed, a large proportion of Americans who supported the war back then would instead have opposed it. (I remember one prewar event at which Ken was a panelist and was asked for his estimate about the required time and military forces. His response elicited audible gasps in the audience.) But such sound analysis, whether it was part of what Ken Pollack had to say or someone else was saying, was overwhelmed in the public mind by the simple theme, repeated in a drumbeat by the administration of the day, that Saddam Hussein was a sufficiently large threat that he had to be ousted.

Ken Pollack is an insightful and indefatigable scholar and an extremely knowledgeable expert on Iraq, Iran, and related subjects. His work will continue to be a very important contribution to public debate.