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The Persian Puzzle: Deciphering the Twenty-five-Year Conflict Between the United States and Iran
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The Persian Puzzle: Deciphering the Twenty-five-Year Conflict Between the United States and Iran [Format Kindle]

Kenneth Pollack

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From Persepolis to the Pahlavis To understand the labyrinth of U.S.-Iranian relations, there are at least three things that you need to know about the seven millennia of Iranian history before the twentieth century. The first is that the land that is today Iran is the heir to a long line of remarkable predecessors. In its day, the Persian Empire was a superpower like nothing the world had ever seen—with a monotheistic religion, a vast army, a rich civilization, a new and remarkably efficient method of administration, and territory stretching from Egypt to Central Asia. All Iranians know that history well, and it is a source of enormous pride to them. It has given them a widely remarked sense of superiority over all of their neighbors, and, ironically, while Tehran now refers to the United States by the moniker “Global Arrogance,” within the Middle East a stereotypical complaint against Iranians is their own arrogant treatment of others.1

The second important aspect of Iran’s early history that still defines the Iranian state and has had a tremendous impact on U.S.-Iranian relations is that for the last five hundred years, Iran has been the only Shi’i Muslim state in the world. Though 90 percent of all Muslims are Sunni, there are a number of countries where Shi’ah make up either a majority (Bahrain, Iraq, Iran) or a significant minority (Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen). But only Iran adopted Shi’i Islam as its state religion. Although the Sunni-Shi’ah divide is not as caustic as other interreligious splits, it is not a trifle either. There are important aspects of Shi’ism that have helped shape Iranian political culture in ways that are quite different from that of other Muslim nations. What’s more, it has heightened both Iran’s sense of uniqueness and its sense of isolation. For Iranians, Shi’ism is a key element of their culture, and for many Arabs and other non-Iranians, the terms “Shi’ah” and “Persian” were long considered synonymous.

Last, for roughly a century and a half beginning in the early 1800s, a weak Iranian state became prey to powerful external actors, principally the European great powers. Iranians (Persians, as they were then still known) were accustomed to looking down on Europeans as barbarian adherents to a superseded religion and a primitive civilization. Now, suddenly, they were trouncing the shah’s armies, carving up their lands, making and unmaking governments, monopolizing their markets, and treating their land as battleground, playground, and campground with no regard for the needs or desires of the Iranians themselves. It was humiliating; it was frustrating, and it was frightening for Iranians to be so vulnerable and so constantly manipulated by these foreign powers. And it reinforced a powerful sense of xenophobia coupled with an inferiority complex among Iranians to complement their superiority complex.

Elaine Sciolino has covered Iran since the revolution and is one of the most knowledgeable journalists writing on Iran, yet even she admits in her book Persian Mirrors that “whenever I think I understand Iran, it throws me a curve.”2 Iran is a maddeningly complicated state and society, and even a cursory understanding of its motives today requires knowing a fair bit about the forces that have shaped the nation over time.

Ancient History

When the first tribes entered Iran after the last ice age, they found an inhospitable land. The territory of Iran is fenced in by three great mountain ranges—the Alborz in the north, the Zagros in the west and south, and the Mekran in the southeast. In the center is a great plateau that is itself mostly uninhabitable. Two vast deserts, the Dasht-e Kavir and the Dasht-e Lut, in the east of the central plateau, render roughly half its territory unfit for agriculture. It has few navigable rivers.3

The mountains and deserts, the poor soil, and the lack of good rivers made communications difficult in ancient Iran. As a result, the population became deeply fragmented. In those parts of the land that were fit for agriculture, secluded villages and isolated towns—with only a few big cities—became the rule. Nomadic tribes who depended on herding livestock inhabited the rest. Because of the discrete separation of so much of the population, Iran became a patchwork of ethnic, religious, tribal, and other groupings, all of whom seemed to find constant reasons for conflict with their neighbors.4

Thus, it may seem odd that so difficult a land would produce one of the world’s first great multiethnic empires. Perhaps a hard land made for hard people who could then conquer their softer neighbors? Whatever the reason, for centuries of the ancient world, the empire that emerged from ancient Iran was a superpower in a league by itself.

The first people to settle and establish a civilization in what would become Iran, however, were hardly world beaters. The Elamites lived in the far southwest of the land, close by to what was then the great civilization of Sumer—mankind’s first true civilization, the home of the biblical Garden of Eden, and the ancient precursor of modern Iraq. Elam suffered from the superior power of the Sumerians as much as it benefited from their more advanced culture and technology.

In the second millennium b.c., migratory waves from eastern Europe brought the Indo-European race of Aryans into Persia. Three groups of Aryans swept in and settled in different parts of the country: the Scythians, who conquered the far northwest from their strongholds around the Black Sea; the Medes (or Mada), who settled in a wide swath of land in the center of the country; and the Persians (or Parsa), who eventually made their home in the south, in what would eventually become Iran’s Fars (derived from “Pars”) province. Other elements of the Aryan race would spread westward from their primordial homeland into northern Europe, to constitute the Germanic and Scandinavian peoples whom the Nazis would make so much of.5

For many centuries, it was the Medes who dominated ancient Iran. They were forced to unite quickly and develop an effective society to stave off the fearsome Assyrian Empire to their west. At that time, Assyria ruled Mesopotamia and much of the Near East with a highly developed and highly brutal war machine. In constant warfare with the Assyrians, the Medes rarely fared well, but, aided by the Zagros Mountains, they were ultimately able to hold back the Assyrian incursions.

Although the term “Mede” would remain in European usage as a synonym for “Persian” for millennia, little has survived of their history or society. The era of the Mede ascendancy saw the birth of one of the world’s first monotheistic religions—Zoroastrianism. Zoroaster (“Zarathustra” in Greek) lived from roughly 628 to 551 b.c. and preached of a single great god, Ahura Mazda, of whom all other gods were simply poorly descried parts. Zoroastrianism was deeply concerned with the eternal relationship between good and evil, and many scholars believe that, even in modern Iran, Zoroaster’s focus on this permanent struggle remains an important element lurking beneath the surface of much religious and secular philosophy. Khomeini’s obsession with the struggle between good (epitomized by Islam and Iran) and evil (the West, the United States) is often described as a manifestation of this deep-seated Iranian trait. Zoroastrianism was also the first religion to preach the notion that humans would face judgment after death based on their actions in life, and that each soul would then spend eternity in either Paradise or perdition. Zoroastrianism became the chief religion of the Medes (and the Persians) and would dominate Iranian spiritual life until the Islamic conquest more than a thousand years later.6

Ultimately, most of what we know of the Medes regards their eventual displacement by the Persians. In 636 b.c., the Elamites were crushed in battle by the great Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. This defeat opened the way for the rise of the Persians. The defeat of Elam (the Persians’ neighbors to the west) created room for the Persians to expand their land and power. With their new status, the Persian kings allied themselves with the Babylonians, and together they defeated the Assyrians, sacking the Assyrian capital of Ninevah in 612 b.c. In about 559 b.c., Cyrus II (later called Cyrus the Great) took the throne of Persia. It was Cyrus who took a state that had made itself regionally important, and turned it into the vast Persian Empire. Drawing on the new power provided by the combined lands of Persia, Elam, and parts of Assyria, Cyrus turned on the Medes and conquered them. He quickly followed this victory with successful campaigns against the Parthians and Hyrcanians farther to the east, before turning west and smashing the fabulously wealthy King Croesus of Lydia (in present-day northern Turkey), and incorporating Asia Minor into his empire. After his Lydian victory, Cyrus turned south, conquering Babylon, where he freed the Jews from their captivity and permitted them to return to Palestine—thereby earning considerable praise in the Bible’s Book of Isaiah. When Cyrus finally died, he was followed by his son Cambyses II, who added Egypt to Cyrus’s colossal Persian demesne.7

In 522 b.c., when Cambyses’ son Darius ascended the throne as the king of kings of Persia, his empire was the greatest in the world. It stretched from the Aegean to Afghanistan, from the Black Sea to the Blue Nile. It was estimated to have contained 50 million people, an unimaginable population for that time. So vast an empire was difficult to govern with ancient communications and organization, and Darius’s greatest achievement was a thorough internal reform of the empire. He built roads—2,500 kilometers’ worth of them. He created a system of provinces ruled b...

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Praise for Kenneth M. Pollack and The Threatening Storm

“It is fair to say that whatever your feelings about the question of Iraq, you owe it to yourself to read Mr. Pollack’s book, which is both hawkish and judicious. . . . Mr. Pollack has written a timely book that should be read as the public debate on Iraq continues.”

“Pollack manages to eschew the cant, stupidity, and obfuscation which are the common currency of much of the current public debate over Iraq policy and has produced one of the key books–probably the key book–for anyone trying to grapple with the Iraq question.”
–JOSHUA MICAH MARSHALL, The Washington Monthly

The Threatening Storm is both a primer on Iraq and a fascinating insider’s view of American attempts to meet the threat it poses.”
–ASLA AYDINTASBAS, The Wall Street Journal

“Knowledgeable, convincingly argued, well documented.”
–DOUGLAS PORCH, The Washington Post Book World

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  • Nombre de pages de l'édition imprimée : 576 pages
  • Editeur : Random House (2 novembre 2004)
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18 internautes sur 23 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Former Marine off Iran in 1980 3 mars 2005
Par J. Bancroft - Publié sur
I am halfway through this book and find it quite fascinating. The history of how Iran was abused through the ages is unheard of in our hemisphere.

Knowing how England and Russia played games with Iran helps understand the paranoia that Iran had thinking that we were pulling the strings of the Shah: Iranians had a right to be paranoid.

I just wish we were as powerful as they thought, we would have either propped up the Shah or brought down Khomeni.

This book is an easy read, well written, filled with facts and quotes from the time periods mentioned.

It is a scholarly book, not one for a sunny day unless you want to sit down and study it, it is a serious history, not a novel.

7 internautes sur 8 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Simply Excellent 29 novembre 2005
Par J. Robinson - Publié sur
I approached this book not knowing really what to expect, i.e.: does the book try to justify past US policies or is it a rational discussion. It is the latter. The author tries to clear the political air in the introduction and set the record straight on why we have problems with Iran. He uses a direct quote from the Iranians regarding a speech from Secretary Albright who acknowledges the over 25 years of US interference in the politics and leadership of Iran starting with the shah in 1953 and ending with the aid to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq conflict in the 1980's. This of course is contrary to public posture at home that our actions are about promoting democracy abroad. It is clear that past actions against Iran were to promote US commercial, trade, and strategic defense interests at the expense of the Iranians. So that admission up front is refreshing. Many Iranians had expected help from the US, not a new imperial power to replace Britain and Russia that had dominated Iran for most of the 19th century and half of the 20th century. So the question now is simply this: can we build a new relationship, especially with that 200 history of mistrust with Russia, Britain, and America?

The book is somewhat long and can be described as comprehensive; it is well written suitable for the average reader and it is a fairly quick and light read. The pages seem to whiz by like a Jack London novel. It has about 428 pages of main text with five maps, and is followed by 60 pages of notes and a bibliography approximately 25 pages in length. It covers 13 subjects including a history of Iran, the shah, the rise of US influence in Iran, the hostage crisis, the Iran-Iraq war, and the post 1980 political developments in Iran.

The first chapter - about 30 pages long - presents a short history of Iran including the dealings between Iran and Britain and Russia. That takes the reader to approximately the year 1900 - 1914. After that there are two chapters that lead us through the events surrounding the ousting of the Iranian leader Mosaddeq by royalist troops in 1953. The author thinks that a certain myth has developed about the coup that overstate the American-British role and, in Iranian mind's at least, to exaggerate the role of the CIA. In the next 70 to 80 pages the author takes us through the 25 year reign of the shah, his spending, his use of terror, and the inequities in Iranian society which finally trigger the fall of the shah. The Iranians tend to equate America with the reign of the shah, and the failure of the US to apply human rights standards to that country while espousing them at home, especially by Carter.

The next 200 pages describe the developments related to Iran from 1980 going forward including many details on the primary Iranian political figures, the long and exhausting war with Iraq, the current and past Iranian views of the US in the 1990's, Islamic fundamentalism, supporting terrorism against mainly Israel, Iranian designs on controlling the Gulf region, suport of some Al Qaeda members by Iran, the Karine A incident, Hamas, the Geneva working group on Afghanistan, the Axis of Evil speech, Iranian nuclear weapons, etc.

Finally we have perhaps the most interesting chapter, a chapter on developing future US strategies. That is in fact the reason for the title of the book, The Persian Puzzle. Can we do anything to solve the problems short of a war? It is a puzzle that can be solved by either attacking Iran or more rationally attempting to develop a long term relationship with Iran, possibly following many paths in parallel. In the final analysis short of war it will be a decision to be made by Iran.

Whether you agree with everything the author presents in the book, or do not, one will find the book to be informative and stimulating. Easily 5 stars.
6 internautes sur 7 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Essential 31 juillet 2006
Par Osman Din - Publié sur
Just finished reading it -- great book!

The author's analysis is objective & professional. Probably 50% of policy books today have some kind of serious bias, but I found Mr Pollack's assumptions to be fair & his conclusions to be well-reasoned. He seems to have a good command on different sociological, psychological, political and religious aspects of the Iranian society, and he presents his case without relying on guess work or unsubstainted/dishonest assertions.

I do think, however, that Mr. Pollack should have included more material on the role of Sunni-Shiite tension within the Islamic world, and its effect on Iran's policies. In addition, the author could have focused more on the perceptions Muslims in other countries have about the US & Israel. After all, while devising a strategy for relations with Iran, it is imperative that such basic complexities are considered.
22 internautes sur 30 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 A standard for foreign policy books 5 janvier 2006
Par Alejandro Contreras - Publié sur
Format:Relié|Achat vérifié
Kenneth Pollack worked for 7 years as a Persian Gulf military analyst at the CIA and for 3 years as Director for Gulf affairs at the National Security Council official.

As the reader may know, Pollack's previous work was "The Threatening Storm". In it, he provided a historical perspective to the relations between Iraq and the U.S., and thoroughly analyzed alternatives for engagement based on the information available.

With "The Persian Puzzle", Pollack sets again the standard in foreign policy books. He offers a technical and non-partisan perspective to the history of Iran, its relation with other countries (especially the UK, the USSR/Russia, the US and its Middle Eastern neighbors) and its internal political struggles and infighting. This takes almost 90% of the text. The remaining 10% (around 50 pages) is invested to detailing alternatives for future engagement with Iran. Different than with Iraq, Pollack suggest a combination of approaches might be the the best option to deal with Iran from an American standpoint.

I have found this a truly top-notch work. Here is why:

- Historical perspective: Pollack provides a historical background to Iran, starting with the Elamites (the first people to civilize what is Iran today, more than 1000 BC), and including the chaos brought by Gengis Khan, the ascendence of Shi'ism, the difficult relation with Russia and Great Britain in the first half of the XX century, Reza Khan and his son the Shah, the involvement of the US (positive and negative) starting mainly from World War II, Khomeini's revolution and the Embassy incident, the Rafsanjani, Khatami administrations and how they interacted with the US (and viceversa).

- Non-biased, non-partisan view: Pollack acknowledges what now in hindsight were mistakes of US policy regarding Iraq, but does not seem to put the blame on a party, administration or person in particular. He also provides a context and tries to come with a rational explanation for them. In addition, he does not try either to put Iran or its government (or its people) as culprits or bad-intentioned. He goes the extra mile to understand their world view.

- Structure: this is a well thought book. It was not written in a rush. And the author has a clearly structured mind. The flow is very easy. There is a good sense of purpose for everything. The story is built in such a way that makes sense. The history of Iran comes first, with more intensity and details as the text brings us to the present.

- Rationality: it does not seem that Pollack wants to "prove us a point" and has written a book to "sell us his plan". He thoroughly analyzes the issue and presents all its details, complexities and paradoxes. Yes, he comes with a proposed solution, but it is not the main point of the book; it just comes as a final chapter and as his personal tack on how to solve a very difficult problem.

Notwithstanding the above, my only concern with this work is the content of Pollack's suggested proposal. Its somehow convoluted and has many "ifs". I realize this is not completely his fault. Actually, it reflects the complexity of the Iranian situation and how difficult it is in this case to find a clear-cut solution. This concern of mine does not, however, affects in any way my conclusion that this book is truly a most for anybody interested in learning more about the true facts of Iran.

In short, if the reader has a strong view about Iran and its relation with the world and wants to find a "confirmation" to his/her opinions, this book probably is not for him/her. However, if the reader is open to learning more about the topic and is willing to see the issue with all of its complexity and gray zones, this book is definitively for him/her.
61 internautes sur 86 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
2.0 étoiles sur 5 Read with caution 23 décembre 2004
Par Mark H. Gaffney - Publié sur
I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand it represents an enormous amount of research. Parts of it are well written and constitute an important resource for anyone who wants to better understand the US-Iran relationship. But the reader should be aware that it's also a flawed book. The author can't seem to make up his mind if he's a progressive or a conservative. He supported the US invasion of Iraq -- and continually attempts to justify that failed policy in this, his latest opus. The reader therefore needs to be alert.

There are numerous problems with the book. Here are some:

*The author contradicts himself on the second page of his introduction when he arrogantly states "I will say very bluntly that I don't think the US needs Iran..." The author then spends the better part of the next 500 pages presenting powerful evidence that the US in fact does need Iran, very much. For how in heaven's name will we ever succeed in resolving the matter of Iran's nuclear ambitions, what the author refers to as the "problem from hell" without the cooperation -- if not the good will -- of Iran? Answer: we won't.

*The author seriously underestimates the figure of Mossadegh, the vastly popular Prime Minister of Iran overthrown by the US CIA in 1953. Pollack refers to him as reckless and thinks he was an extremist -- not true. The reader would do better to check out Stephen Kinzer's excellent book All the Shah's Men for a clearer look at Mossadegh. In fact he was the Iranian Gandhi, and while he made mistakes he was never the tyrant or dictator described by Pollack. Nor was he inept as a lawyer, which Pollack also implies. Mossadegh was capable enough to plead his case against the Anglo-Persian oil company in the world court -- and to win it in grand fashion. Not bad. Pollack just can't seem to grasp the essential fact that Iran had every right to control its own oil. Mossadegh's biggest mistake was in trusting the treacherous Americans.

*The author continually understates or ignores altogether Israel's role in perpetuating the horrible US-Iran relations. Pollack never mentions the war of words in the Israeli Hebrew press, which started immediately after the 1991 Gulf War (see Israel Shahak, Open Secrets), when Israel began preparing its people for a future war against Iran, the new nemesis, and also began pressing the Americans for regime change. Sharon called for it in the fall of 2002, then Daniel Ayalon the Israeli ambassador to the US repeated the call in April 2003 as the Iraq invasion was winding down. The point is that so far the Israelis have had it their way. They wanted the war against Iraq and now they want a war against Iran. These are facts that Pollack seems never to have heard. His naivete regarding Israel undermines his credibility as a serious scholar.

*The case of the Karine A is another similar example. This was the boat load of Iranian arms headed to Gaza intercepted early in 2002 by Israel. The incident became the smoking gun and supposed proof of Iran's support for terrorism -- and it killed the Iran-US talks that blossomed after 911 and held such promise for improved relations. But Pollack never mentions that at this time the Palestinians were facing a holocaust -- daily bloody incursions by the IDF, targeted assassinations, curfews, checkpoints, Apache rocket attacks, and the destruction of the infrastructure built up during the Oslo peace process. Israel reduced much of the W Bank to smoking rubble during this time, and Pollack completely misses the obvious point: that the Palestinians had every right to arm and defend themselves. The incident should never have been allowed to destroy the US-Iran talks. The case only shows that US talk about freedom is a cruel lie. The truth is that the US does not support the right of the oppressed to fight for their freedom. And in this regard Pollack just doesn't get it.

*The author rambles on about Iran's nuke program, which he correctly identifies as the most serious issue. Yet it never occurs to him that the real solution would require the US to press Israel also to give up its nukes. The only way the US will lead the region is via example, and the matter of Israel -- not just iran -- is the stumbling block. The author also fails to mention one of the principal dangers should the situation go south, for example, if Israel decides to pre empt and surgically hit Iran's nuclear sites. And this vacuole is weird, because Pollack does mention, in his closing remarks, about Iran's great interest in anti-ship missiles. But again, he doesn't get it. If we or Israel hit Iran they will respond by attacking our Navy sitting like ducks in the Gulf. In that case, the entire Gulf will become a killing field, and will run red with the blood of US sailors. This is why we must work for a peaceful resolution!

There are other flaws. But this should be enough to make the reader appropriately chary.
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the nations traditional xenophobiabred from a climate that fostered isolationhad been aggravated by the relentless foreign intervention and the humiliation that Iranians felt in not being able to do anything about it. This long century of weakness and dominance by foreign machinations had a traumatic impact on Iranian political culture and has reverberated throughout Iranian history to this day. &quote;
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for the last five hundred years, Iran has been the only Shii Muslim state in the world. &quote;
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The emergence of the mujtahids and the concept of the marja-e taqlid at the peak of it all gave rise to a fairly elaborate religious hierarchy within Shiism that is not matched by Sunni Islam. &quote;
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