Book Review: Unthinkable: Iran, the bomb, and American Strategy

Unthinkable: Iran, the bomb, and American Strategy by Kenneth Pollack is an investigation into the American and Iranian relationship and possible plans of action. Kenneth Pollack earned a BA from Yale and a PhD from MIT. From 1988 through 1995 he was an analyst on Iraqi and Iranian military issues for the CIA. In 1999, he rejoined the National Security Council and has served as a professor at the National Defense University. Outside of the government Pollack work for the Brookings Institution and the Council of Foreign Relations. 

In the field of International Relations there are two camps: The Liberal Theory and the Realist Theory. The Liberal camp believes in cooperation among nations and if there is a problem there should be a group effort (international institutions) to solve it: Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, Roosevelt’s United Nations, even both Bush’s Iraq invasions involved coalitions of like thinking nations. The idea of working as group and improving ties helps keep peace by developing common ground and interests. Ideas of interlinked trade (and democracy) creates dependencies among nations ensuring peace and stability. The European Union and NAFTA are examples. The Realists believe the individual states are the main players in the international arena. States should act in their own interests and to ensure their own security. Relations between states is determined by their relative power. Economic, political, and military strength are the determinates of power. Self-interest and power drive the Realist Theory. Kissenger and Reagan are examples American Realists. Reagan’s unilateral attacks on Iranian oil platforms in the the Persian Gulf (1987) or the mining of Nicaraguan harbors (1984) are examples of the Realist Theory in action. 

Kenneth Pollack is a Realist and that is fairly rare in American writing. Most writing today is from the Liberal Theory. Leverett and Flynt’s Going to Tehran is an excellent excellent of Liberal Theory and Iran. Pollack book is a counter balance and presents an American-centric view of Iran rather than an international view. The differences can be readily seen in the writing. Pallack quotes Hooman Majd (The Ayatollah Begs to Differ and The Ministry of Guidance Invites You Not to Stay ) in his book. Majd writing about the Green Revolution in Iran spoke of the restraint of the Iranian government and stated the government figure of under 100 deaths in the riots. The government concentrated on mass arrests and then released most explaining that the people were caught up in a frenzy much like an angry football mob and that did not constitute treason. The Greens agreed with with the less than 100 death toll. In Tunisia, for example 338 died. Egypt 846. Yemen 2,000. Bahrain 120. Libya 30,000. Syria is approaching 100,000. Majd saw this as restraint and the only way the Iranian regime could keep power. Pollack writes “They arrested all of the opposition leaders and with thousands more; they beat up hundreds, if not thousands, and killed perhaps as many as a hundred for good measure – often at random to drive home to the revolutionaries that anyone involved with the Greens might pay the ultimate price.*” Both authors present the same facts, but their tone is very different. 

Pollack writes very well and with his experience I would have assumed that he was more than a few years older than I am, rather than three years younger. I could not help being taken back to the Cold War Era when I read his description of what you need to know to be an expert on Iran. Two phrases are all you need: “I don’t know” and “it depends”. Shades of the former Soviet Union. The similarities are are remarkable. Unthinkableis filled with relative information and an excellent example of the Realist Theory in action. It is a very worthwhile read for any wanting to understand the inner workings of foreign policy and Iran. Pollack is a refreshing change to the usual opinions of Iranian foreign affairs. He presents a wealth information and carefully backs his opinions and findings with plenty of source material. I recommend this book for anyone looking into current American foreign policy or Iran in the world. Dr. Pollack is indeed an expert in his field.

The reviewer holds a MA in International Relations with a concentration in US Security Policy from St. Mary’s University, San Antonio, TX. He is a supporter of the Liberal Theory.

*The quote is from the uncorrected galley of the book. It is being used to show the author’s tone rather than to verify specific factual information.

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