Book Review: Containment May Be the Best Strategy When It Comes to Iran

Reviewed by Barbara Slavin

Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb,and American Strategy
By Kenneth Pollack
Simon & Schuster, 2013, 560 pp.

Kenneth M. Pollack is nothing if not thorough. In previous exhaustive books, he has dissected the history of the United States and Iran (The Persian Puzzle) and made what seemed at the time the definitive case for invading Iraq (The Threatening Storm).

In his new book, Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb and American Strategy, the former CIA analyst, National Security Council staffer, and more recently Brookings Institution scholar makes a case for something that is not unthinkable at all: continuing the status quo policy of containment of Iran.

In arguing for this approach to Iran, Pollack appears to be offering a mea culpa for his Iraq book, which convinced some liberal interventionists who otherwise opposed President George W. Bush’s policies to support the 2003 U.S. invasion of that country. That said, Pollack performs a major public service by exhaustively laying out all the options on Iran and concluding that the United States and Israel should avoid attacking Iran’s nuclear installations if at all possible. Although Pollack does not explicitly take the military option off the table, he lists so many downsides to it that he effectively does.

First, he dismantles the argument that Israel could strike Iran on its own and achieve enough success to make the risks of such a strike worth taking. Pollack suggests that Israel has already missed its chance to significantly degrade the Iranian program, which has become increasingly hardened and dispersed. He recalls the warnings of former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in 2011 about Iran entering a “zone of immunity” if it completed the underground facility at Fordow.[1] That facility, buried 260 feet inside a mountain, has been operational for more than two years and would be very difficult to destroy.

Pollack notes the challenges Israel would face in terms of distance, the size of its air force, and refueling capability. “The problems of airspace and distance mean, at best, Israel would get one strike during one night, with no more than 125 tactical strike aircraft,” Pollack writes. “Various factors starting with refueling could reduce that number significantly.” The best description of Israel’s military dilemma comes from the mouth of an unnamed Israeli fighter squadron commander quoted by Pollack: “We can’t do it. We don’t have the horses. If someone is going to destroy the Iranian nuclear program, it is going to have to be [the United States].”

The United States obviously has a much more robust capability to hit Iran and wreak significant damage. Yet, Pollack does not seem enthusiastic about that option either. When he lists all the uncertainties and downsides of the U.S. military option, beginning with a lack of clarity about how long U.S. strikes would retard Iran’s program, it is clear that he is more dove than hawk on Iran.

He says a major concern is that the international community would not support any U.S. strike unless it was in response to a clear provocation. The absence of a UN Security Council resolution or other wide multinational backing “could cripple the sanctions, inspections and other measures currently hamstringing Iran’s nuclear progress, all of which would be crucial after a strike to impede or prevent Iran from rebuilding,” he writes. According to Pollack, containment would be even more necessary after striking Iran than before.

Pollack also notes the possibility that Iran would retaliate asymmetrically through terrorism against the United States and its allies. Furthermore, airstrikes could convince Iran to quit the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, kick out inspectors, and actually build bombs, forcing the United States to decide whether to accept a nuclear Iran or escalate the war, he writes.

Far better, he says, to use other means to try to limit Iran to “a theoretical breakout capability.” He defines this as a situation in which Iran continues to enrich limited amounts of uranium to a low level under tough scrutiny by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Pollack’s description of the end state looks much like the potential compromise that could emerge from current negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. Pollack says, “The two sides might be able to reach agreement that would give Iran the right to enrich, allow it a small stockpile of LEU [low-enriched uranium] and limited numbers of centrifuges, the right to manufacture fuel for its civilian reactors and a lifting of sanctions in return for a renewed Iranian commitment not to weaponize, agreement not to enrich beyond those terms and an acceptance of a highly intrusive and comprehensive monitoring and inspections program.”

If no settlement is forthcoming and even if Iran develops nuclear weapons, Pollack would still opt for containment, the policy the United States has followed toward Iran since the 1979 revolution. The most serious drawback, Pollack writes, is the damage a nuclear Iran would do to U.S. credibility after all that the United States has “invested in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.” Nevertheless, it will be far easier to contain Iran than it was to contain the old Soviet Union, he says. After four decades of increasing isolation and economic pressure, “Iran is weak, isolated, internally divided and externally embattled.”

Countering what he calls the “hysteria” of those who see Iran as an undeterrable hegemon, Pollack writes that Tehran is “no threat to the territorial integrity of any other country and its unconventional warfare campaigns have tended to be lethal nuisances” rather than significant threats. Although he would expect an Iran with nuclear weapons to be more aggressive than one without such weapons, Pollack says that is not “a compelling argument in favor of going to war with Iran.”

Pollack credits many of Washington’s best-known Iran specialists with helping him write this book, but unfortunately, there are several errors that should have been caught before publication.

  • Pollack refers to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as “the most anti-establishment figure among the six candidates” who were on the ballot in June 2013. Rouhani might have been the most moderate sounding, but he is not anti-establishment. Indeed, he recalls the Woody Allen movie character Zelig in having been involved in most of the major foreign policy decisions of the Iranian government since 1979. A longtime close associate and representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Rouhani has served on all the government’s most important national security bodies and would not have been allowed to run for president or win the election if he were anti-establishment.
  • Pollack writes that the IAEA referred Iran’s nuclear program to the UN Security Council in June 2004 when the actual referral came in February 2006.
  • According to Pollack, IAEA inspectors “travel to Iran every two months” and inspect Iran’s nuclear facilities every six to eight weeks. In fact, they are in the country 365 days a year and visit declared Iranian enrichment sites on average once a week. That does not mean Iran cannot kick the inspectors out and race for a bomb, but it does mean that, currently, outside knowledge of Iran’s program is pretty good. Under a new agreement with the IAEA signed on November 11, inspectors’ access to previously poorly monitored sites such as a heavy-water production plant at Arak should improve.
  • Pollack says that the United States and Iran achieved a tentative accord on a confidence-building deal in 2009 in Vienna. The agreement, which would have sent out most of Iran’s LEU stockpile but subsequently fell apart under domestic Iranian political pressure, was reached in Geneva.

Such errors aside, the book should be required reading for the policy community and, in particular, members of Congress and their staffs. Creative in finding draconian new sanctions to impose on Iran, Congress has been far less imaginative in considering incentives that might convince Iran to resolve the crisis.

Pollack suggests that sweeter carrots could play an important role in convincing Iran to limit its nuclear infrastructure. He mentions several possible inducements, including more loans from international financial institutions; lifting U.S. and international sanctions; providing trade credits and investment guarantees to U.S. companies returning to the Iranian market; offering development assistance for Iran’s agriculture, energy, and environmental sectors; and including Iran in a new security architecture for the Persian Gulf.

Pollack warns that piling on more sanctions is not a good idea at this time, an argument that Obama administration officials have also been making. Sanctions already in place have helped bring Iran back to the negotiating table, but new ones could be counterproductive, he says. “There comes a point when [sanctions] do no more good and can do great harm, both to the people of Iran and to the strategy they are meant to enforce,” Pollack writes. If Iran can be persuaded to stop at a “theoretical” breakout capability, Pollack says, this would show that it was pursuing the program only to deter an attack on its territory “since that is all such a breakout capability is good for.” If Iran goes all the way to nuclear weapons, however, containment is still the right strategy, Pollack says.

He argues that containment is not appeasement, as it has sometimes been portrayed, but an active set of policies that includes sanctions, extended deterrence for U.S. allies, covert actions such as cyberattacks, and support for Iranian dissident groups.

Although a diplomatic agreement with Iran is the best solution, containing Iran is the best of the other alternatives. Eventually, like the old Soviet Union, Iran will change its ways, if not its government, and containment can bring about that outcome more effectively than war.



Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, where she directs a task force on Iran. The author of Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation (2007), she is also the Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor, a website devoted to news from and about the Middle East.




1. “ Fareed Zakaria GPS: New Phase of Global Geopolitics; Interview With Ehud Barak; Interview With Bruce Bueno de Mesquita; A Look at Europe’s Far Right,” CNN, November 20, 2011,