In 2002, Kenneth Pollack’s book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq helped to persuade some Americans that, sooner or later (preferably sooner), the US would have to unseat Saddam Hussein in order to safeguard its own security. Pollack put his case more cautiously, and more adroitly, than many Republican proponents of “regime change” in Iraq, but he turned out, like them, to be wrong about the threat that Saddam Hussein posed to the United States. He also failed, like them, to predict the grave repercussions of an invasion. In contrast to many hawkish members of the Bush administration, and a great many newspaper columnists and editors, Pollack had the grace to apologize for his errors. Now that the Bush administration is trying to decide how it should respond to a second hostile Middle Eastern state, Iran, which it suspects of seeking nuclear weapons, Pollack has written another long book, The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America, advising what should be done.

Although Pollack’s judgment has been found lacking, he is more qualified than most to write about US policy toward the Middle East. Besides serving as director of Persian Gulf Affairs and Near East and South Asian Affairs on Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, he has variously worked on policy toward Iran (as well as Iraq) for the CIA and for several think tanks and universities. Iran’s recent efforts to acquire advanced nuclear technology justify his argument that now is the time to devote attention to the Islamic Republic. “If we do not take advantage of this window of opportunity to deal with Iran’s nuclear program,” he says, “someday we doubtless will regret not having done so.”

The US and other nations, notably EU member states, Japan, Canada, and Australia, are alarmed by Iran’s progress toward being able both to enrich uranium and to separate plutonium, processes that can produce fuel either for civilian power reactors or for nuclear bombs. Under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Iran ratified in 1970, the Iranians are entitled to develop these technologies for civilian purposes, but the covert way that they have done so has aroused the suspicion that they intend to produce bombs, as well as energy for peaceful use. As part of its adherence to the NPT, Iran signed a “safeguards agreement” with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), allowing agency officials to monitor its activities regularly.

Beginning in the summer of 2002, however, in view of longstanding suspicions of nuclear activities that had remained hidden from inspectors, the agency brought the Iranian program under closer scrutiny. It has since established that Iran has egregiously breached the safeguards agreement which was designed to keep its nuclear activities transparent and limited to peaceful purposes. These breaches include Iran’s failure to report the purchase and development of nuclear materials, and to declare the existence of several of its nuclear sites.
Using the Iranian government’s past behavior as a guide, some of its critics expect more breaches of the agreements. They are convinced that the government is lying when it insists that its nuclear program is exclusively for civilian purposes, and they believe that it intends to develop the capacity to build a nuclear bomb on short notice. To deny Iran that capacity, they are trying to persuade it to forswear the right, provided for under the NPT, to develop a nuclear “fuel cycle,” the series of industrial processes required to produce fuel from uranium or plutonium, which can be used to produce either electricity or nuclear bombs.

Suppose for a moment that America had managed to impose stability in Iraq and installed a pro-US government there. One wonders what effect this success would have had on Pollack’s thinking about Iran and its progress toward building nuclear facilities, and whether he and other former Clinton administration officials might now be arguing for the invasion of the Islamic Republic. Perhaps the only solace to be drawn from Iraq’s current wretched condition is that such questions need not be asked.

In any event, the Pollack of The Persian Puzzle is a chastened man. His final chapter, “Toward a New Iran Policy,” contains a section called “The Case Against Invading Iran,” which draws partly on the example of Iraq. It argues that “the threat of Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons” does not justify “what would be an extremely costly and risky invasion.” Among the disincentives that Pollack cites are Iran’s considerable size and its inhospitable terrain, and the hostility that he believes the Iranians would show toward their occupiers.

In Pollack’s final chapter, he justifiably castigates European countries for allowing calculations of commercial advantage to influence their political approach to Iran. The Europeans, Pollack suggests, in the hope of better trade relations, like to offer the Iranians “carrots” such as the opportunity to enter a trade pact with the EU and strictly limited nuclear technology. On the other hand, George Bush, who in his first term included Iran in his “axis of evil,” wields a stick in the form of his administration’s hostility toward Iran, and its support for worldwide sanctions against the Islamic Republic, in addition to the trade sanctions the US now maintains. Pollack argues for a combination of the two approaches among the rich and powerful countries—a common resolve, in other words, to reward Iran if it behaves well, and to punish it if it does not. It is unfortunate that Pollack finished his book before November 14, 2004. He would have had much to say about the accord Iran signed on that date with France, Britain, and Germany.


The November agreement was designed as a first step toward allaying suspicions that Iran’s nuclear program is military in intent. Before the deal was made, France, Germany, and Britain, with the EU’s backing, had threatened to support US moves to have the Iranian program referred to the UN Security Council as violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Acceding to pressure, the Iranians accepted European demands that they suspend all activities related to enriching uranium and separating plutonium. Iran and the three European nations also agreed to start negotiations on “long-term arrangements” that would make it impossible for Iran’s program to be diverted to military uses, and they also agreed to start negotiations on “technological and economic cooperation, and firm commitments on security issues.” According to Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, the agreement may mark “a new chapter” in relations between Europe and Iran.

The odd thing is that this new chapter was supposed to be opened almost exactly a year earlier. On October 21, 2003, Iran and the same three European countries signed an almost identical agreement, aimed at allaying identical suspicions. Back then, too, the Iranians were close to having their nuclear activities referred to the Security Council. Under pressure from the US, as well as from the Europeans and the IAEA, Iran committed itself “to suspend all uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities.” This agreement would, it was hoped, prepare the way for “longer term co-operation” from which Iran would gain “easier access to modern technology and supplies in a range of areas.” The Iranians agreed to provide the IAEA with a complete accounting of their nuclear program to date. Germany’s foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, declared October 21, 2003, to be “an important day…this will stabilize the region.”

The new deal is similar, the parties are the same; but something clearly went wrong during the year that elapsed between the two accords. Although the 2003 agreement allowed the IAEA and its member states to learn a great deal about the Iranian program, it did not interrupt Iran’s progress toward a nuclear fuel cycle to anything like the extent that the Europeans had intended. The Iranians exploited ambiguities in the text—in particular, over what constituted “enrichment and processing activities”—and carried on, in the words of one US official, “kicking the can down the street.” They continued to assemble centrifuges, devices that enrich gaseous uranium by spinning it at high speeds. Later, under diplomatic pressure, they stopped assembling the centrifuges only to start again in the summer of 2004. They produced enough uranium and other “feed material” for the enrichment process to make several nuclear bombs, should they decide to do so.

The merit of the new deal is that its explicit and comprehensive definition of “enrichment related and reprocessing activities” makes it harder for the Iranians to be semantically evasive. If the Iranians produce more gaseous uranium, there is little doubt that the board of governors of the IAEA will refer their actions to the Security Council.
Many European diplomats complain that the US is obsessed with bringing Iran before the Security Council but it has not worked out what it wants to do once Iran is arraigned. These diplomats suspect that two permanent members of the Security Council, China and Russia, do not want Iran’s case to come before the Security Council, and will try to divert the US and its allies from taking action to punish the Iranians.1 As one reads between the lines of the latest report on the Iranian program by Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA’s director-general, issued on November 15, 2004, it is clear that he does not believe that there are grounds to bring Iran’s case before the Security Council.2 Before October 2003, he notes, he described Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA as being marked by “extensive concealment, misleading information and delays in access.” Since then, however, it has improved appreciably, he says.

ElBaradei’s apparently sanguine view contrasts with the mood of pessimism expressed by Iran’s most trenchant critics, and this contradiction reflects the subtly different approaches of the IAEA officials on the one hand and its members on the other. Whatever his private thoughts on the matter, ElBaradei is in no position to demand publicly that Iran give up its fuel cycle; under the NPT, a covenant that it is ElBaradei’s job to uphold, Iran is entitled to develop such a cycle. Furthermore, Iran signed its 2003 agreement not with the IAEA but with Germany, France, and Britain, and so its violation of the spirit of that agreement does not necessarily amount to a violation of the safeguards accord. During the past year, ElBaradei makes clear in his November report, the IAEA has resolved most of its doubts concerning the scope of Iran’s declared nuclear program. Iran has made, in his words, “good progress” toward correcting earlier breaches of its safeguards agreement. ElBaradei believes that the NPT needs to be amended to make it harder for countries to achieve fuel cycles. Until that happens, he can hardly demand that Iran abandon a goal to which it is legally entitled.


Within the frame of its accord with the IAEA, Iran is behaving better than before. In practice, Iranian intentions are more distrusted than ever.3 Because of its subversion of the 2003 deal with the Europeans, Iran’s critics on the IAEA governing board are even more convinced that the Iranians are determined to abuse their right to a fuel cycle, and to divert the fuel that it produces to military use. The critics’ failure to expose Iran’s recent breaches of the safeguards agreement has not lessened their suspicion that Iran is engaged in clandestine nuclear activities, or that, once it attains a fuel cycle, it may effectively be classified as a nuclear-armed state.

With the 2004 deal, gloomy European diplomats concede, the outside world gained time, if nothing else. Exactly how much time is not clear. The agreement is open-ended, but Iranian officials contend that the deal will not last very long—six months at the most, according to some estimates. Furthermore, Iran and its European interlocutors entered into the accord with different goals. To the Europeans, it is a first step toward the dismantling of Iran’s fuel cycle facilities. To the Iranians, it is a first step toward convincing the Europeans to allow these facilities to become operational. On October 27, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, Iran’s conservative supreme leader, who has the final say on all policy issues, denounced as “illogical” any speculation that uranium enrichment will be suspended in the long term. He warned that Iran would “review” its current cooperation if the Europeans indulged in “illogical” threats. Shortly after the recent accord, the moderate president, Muhammad Khatami, described it as

a guarantee for a guarantee. We guarantee that we will not be diverted toward nuclear weapons and, in return, they guarantee that …we will have a fuel cycle.

Within the frame of the November 14 deal, the EU trio and the Iranians have set up three working groups to discuss economic and technological, nuclear and security cooperation. In exchange for granting Iran trade and other advantages, the Europeans, I was told, want Iran to suspend its nuclear fuel cycle activities permanently—requiring it to obtain any fuel it needs for civilian reactors from abroad—although they may not insist on a public announcement to that effect. Mindful of the fact that it is easier to obtain weapons-grade plutonium from heavy water reactors than from light water reactors, they will offer to sell Iran a light water reactor if it abandons its current heavy water reactor program. They will offer Iran a steady supply of nuclear fuel, suitable for light water reactors, to be returned to the countries that supply it after use, provided that Iran abandons its own uranium enrichment plans and sticks to the development of nuclear energy for peaceful use.
As incentives, the Europeans offer to support Iran’s pending application to join the World Trade Organization, and the EU and Iran will restart talks, suspended last year, on striking a trade and cooperation agreement. The EU will reiterate its current contention that the People’s Mujahideen, an Iranian opposition group that is based in Iraq, is a dangerous terrorist organization, and the Iranians will do the same with regard to al-Qaeda.

A European diplomat said that his efforts to persuade the Iranians to accept these terms was like “selling the same carpet twice.” Europe has long supported Iran’s WTO application, but it has been consistently vetoed by the US. In December, the Americans brushed aside European objections and once again prevented the WTO from starting accession talks with Iran. The EU as a whole, along with some European states individually, has already declared the People’s Mujahideen, a once-popular left-wing Muslim organization hostile to Iran, to be a terrorist organization. The Iranians seek the extradition of Mujahideen members that are currently being held by the Americans in a camp in eastern Iraq. In 2003, the US turned down an Iranian offer to exchange some of these Mujahideen members in return for suspected al-Qaeda operatives who are in Iranian hands. There is no sign that the American position has changed since then.

There is no clear reason to suppose that a further round of talks over Iran’s nuclear capacity will be successful. Earlier talks floundered over Iran’s failure to change policies that the Europeans find objectionable, particularly in the fields of human rights and foreign affairs. Since then, Iran has become, if anything, more intransigent. Its commitment to democracy was further compromised by the parliamentary election in February 2004, in which more than two thousand reformist candidates were disqualified from running for office. Its commitment to free trade has been called into question by the isolationist tendencies of the hard-liners who won that election. Notwithstanding the demands of Europeans, Iran has not improved its record on human rights or reduced its support for militant groups that oppose peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Of all the European incentives, the most tempting may be the offer of a light water reactor. Iran has one such reactor, which has almost been completed by Russian contractors at the Persian Gulf port of Bushehr. Iran would like more, but other countries are reluctant to incur US wrath by supplying them. It is far from certain, however, that the Iranians are willing to abandon their heavy water reactor program in return for the chance to purchase light water reactors that would provide a significant boost to their civilian power programs.
What is clear is that the US, not Europe, can offer the incentives that are most attractive to Iran. The Americans have the Mujahideen in their custody and can approve Iran’s entry into the WTO. US sanctions against trade with Iran have had a debilitating effect on the Iranian economy, and the Iranians would like that policy reversed. Most important of all, the Europeans cannot offer Iran the security guarantees that it seeks. The US can.
Iran’s evasions and ambiguous responses concerning its nuclear programs are often portrayed as aggressive in design, but I infer from conversations I have had with officials that the Iranians see their tactics as a deterrent—against both Israel, their nuclear-armed regional rival, and the US, a hostile superpower that has invaded two of their neighbors over the past three years. The Iranians do not seem to have given up on their ambitions to have a fuel cycle. If Iran’s leaders are to change definitively their policies, and abandon their efforts to have a fuel cycle, they must be convinced that their own security, and the future of the Islamic Republic, will be better protected as a result. But the Bush administration, which loathes the Islamic Republic and wants it to fall, has not absorbed this unpalatable truth.

That much was underlined over the course of a few days in January, when Bush pointedly did not rule out the possibility of using force against Iran and Condoleezza Rice refused in the Senate to discuss the possibility of dealing with Iran even if it changes its nuclear policy. Seymour Hersh claimed, in The New Yorker of January 24, that the US “has been conducting reconnaissance missions inside Iran at least since last summer,” with a view to identifying dozens of nuclear sites that “could be destroyed by precision strikes and short-term commando raids.”

The Pentagon dismissed much of Hersh’s report. Equally predictably, Iranian officials sounded insouciant; whatever the truth of Hersh’s assertions, they would not willingly admit that a violation of their borders had taken place. It is possible that Iranian unease at such reports will help the Europeans extract concessions during their negotiations. In the long term, however, they will only entrench the EU’s gloomy conviction that the US, having effectively sabotaged the talks by refusing to join them, intends to use their failure as a pretext to increase pressure against the Islamic Republic.


During his first term, Bill Clinton tried to isolate Iran with tougher sanctions and with diplomatic efforts, only partially successful, that were aimed at stopping it from buying nuclear technology. In 1996, as Pollack recounts, the two countries nearly went to war after the bombing of a US military housing complex in Saudi Arabia by agents that were believed to be backed by Iran. Shortly after the attack, Congress passed the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which gave the president the authority to impose secondary sanctions on companies in third-world countries that invest in Iran’s energy sector. The following year, the unexpected election of the reformist Iranian president Muhammad Khatami seemed to indicate the possibility of a new Islamic Republic, relatively moderate and less vehemently opposed to US interests. Clinton spent the rest of his term modifying his policy in the Iranians’ favor. Pollack describes how Clinton encouraged “people to people” contacts, relaxed some bilateral sanctions against trade, and let it be known that he would not invoke the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, passed in 1996. He also allowed Madeleine Albright to apologize for America’s history of meddling in Iran’s internal politics.
Clinton’s concessions, as Pollack recalls, were designed to coax Khatami into making overtures of his own, but the Iranian president was losing a struggle for influence against a conservative establishment that felt threatened by his attempts to promote democracy and his softer tone toward the US. By the end of the Clinton presidency, it was clear that Iran’s hard-liners were in the ascendant. Still, following al-Qaeda’s attacks of September 11, 2001, Iran enthusiastically contributed to George Bush’s efforts to defeat its loathed eastern neighbor, the Taliban government. State Department officials began talking to the Iranians about a broader détente. But early in 2002, the Israelis intercepted a ship carrying arms that were widely thought to have been obtained from Iran and intended for the Palestinian Authority, allegedly in violation of accords between the Palestinians and Israel. The situation was transformed.
A few weeks later, Bush included Iran in the “axis of evil” along with Iraq and North Korea. Since the invasion of Iraq he has been trying to pressure North Korea to dismantle its nuclear installations, but his approach to Iran is so far opaque. By refusing diplomatic and economic relations, the US government makes it clear that it does not consider the Islamic Republic a legitimate country. At the same time, the US demands that Iran cooperate in its efforts to stabilize Iraq and oppose the insurgency there.

The Islamic Republic, for its part, would like a stable Iraq. Democratic elections in Iraq will ensure that power is held by their Shiite coreligionists. On the other hand, they do not want Iraq to be a US client, or for Iraq to become a model for ideologues in Washington who think that pro-US democracies should be installed throughout the Middle East. The Iranians have long sought guarantees that if they adjust their foreign policies to America’s advantage, their security will not be imperiled, but the Bush administration has rejected these overtures.4 As a result in Iraq, the Iranians are helping the Americans in some ways and hindering them in others. The Iranians have encouraged their Shiite allies in Iraq to compete in elections that are expected to be held early this year. At the same time, the Americans and the British say that Iranian agents using arms and money have cultivated many Iraqi groups, not all of them Shiite, including several that are active in the Sunni Triangle. No one doubts that Iran is capable of creating more chaos in Iraq—in retaliation, say, for an Israeli or American assault on its nuclear facilities.


Pollack’s starting point in The Persian Puzzle is his belief that Iran’s leaders are obsessed with America for historical reasons, and that “the history of US-Iranian relations holds many lessons for the future conduct of American policy.” Pollack spends some 140 pages summarizing the history of Iran and of US–Iran relations up to the revolution of 1979. He pays particular attention to the CIA-organized coup that toppled Muhammad Mossadegh, Iran’s nationalist prime minister, in 1953, and to the widespread Iranian perception of the Shah as an instrument of American policy. Pollack believes that the wrongs, real and perceived, committed by America in Iran before the Islamic revolution have had an enduring influence on Iranian policy, and he attributes much of the Iranians’ subsequent hostility to the national desire to avenge them.
Pollack’s historical survey is often inaccurate5 and he sometimes writes awkwardly. In his account, actions do not elicit reactions; they “solicit” them. The Iranians were able to “ingratiate themselves quickly into Lebanese society.” Concerning the Iran–Iraq War of the 1980s, in which the US gave considerable support to Iraq, Pollack speaks not of the resumption of aerial bombardment, but of its “iteration.” Pollack took just three months to write his book, and it shows.
In his final chapter, “Toward a New Iran Policy,” Pollack lists the Iranian policies that the US finds most abhorrent:

its support of…international terrorism, its violent opposition to forging a just peace between Arabs and Israelis, its pursuit of nuclear weapons of mass destruction…and its poor record of human rights.

Pollack’s list is reasonable, except that it conflates Iran’s ambiguity about its strategic nuclear ambitions—in other words, to remain within the NPT, while protecting its ability to make nuclear weapons on short notice should it want to—with the actual production of the weapons themselves. (Pollack observes that the two amount to the same thing in strategic terms; in legal terms, of course, they are worlds apart.) Pollack’s subtitle is “The Conflict Between Iran and America,” not “The Problems that America Has with Iran.” But he does not provide a similar, Iranian, list of complaints. Such a list might read as follows:

US support for Israel’s brutal suppression of Palestinian demands for a viable state; the US failure to pressure Israel to declare and give up the nuclear weapons that it is known to have; the killing by American soldiers of many thousands of Iraqi noncombatants and (as illustrated at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere) its shameful record on human rights.

Pollack is right that Iran’s leaders are obsessed with America, but history is not the main, or even a major, reason why. If its history were an important determinant of Iran’s policy, the Islamic Republic would not have tolerable relations with Britain, its former neo-imperial tormentor, or good relations with Russia, another Great Power that tried to control Persia. The dispute between Iran and the US is over America’s efforts to determine the future of the Middle East and to promote its own policy there, and the threat that this poses to a revolutionary state that was founded on principles that are antithetical to those of the US. No Western country pursues its own interests more vigorously in the Middle East than America; naturally, Iran regards America as its biggest threat. Iran’s enmity for Israel is mainly based on its view that Israel is an American proxy. It is inconceivable, Iranian officials believe, that Israel would commit its atrocities against the Palestinians without American approval.

A clue to Pollack’s thinking is his statement that “it has largely…been Iran that has set the tone and direction of the relationship” between Iran and the US. It is odd, and perhaps an expression of hubris or just a blind spot, that Pollack does not seem to regard America’s large and active presence throughout the Middle East as having much influence on the “tone and direction” of its relations with Iran. After all, it is widely recognized that the Iranians had no part in the attack of September 11, 2001, and Bush’s “strategic vision” has involved invading Iraq and supporting Ariel Sharon. Iran is no longer strong or confident enough to try to export its revolution. Its behavior, good and bad, is almost completely reactive.

It may be helpful to think of Iranian tactics, of which Iran’s pursuit of nuclear ambiguity is an example—no matter how aggressive they are in themselves—as the underpinning of an essentially defensive strategy. The Islamic Republic is on the defensive in several ways: against a disenchanted population at home; against a hostile America on its eastern and western borders. The US has established new military bases close to Iran, in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, in addition to its forces stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. To most knowledgeable outsiders, it is clear that Iran’s leaders are trying to stem the tide of history, which tends, sooner or later, to submerge inflexible ideologies and their autocratic proponents.
When he is describing the situation in Iran, Pollack can be astute. He is right to warn US policymakers not to count on the generally pro-American feelings among many Iranians and he is right to see these feelings partly as a reaction to the vitriolic anti-American sentiment of their unloved rulers. As a member of Clinton’s NSC, he was right to identify President Khatami as a sincere proponent of reform. Although they came to nothing, his efforts to encourage Khatami were honorable ones. I found his account of these efforts the most interesting part of the book.

Pollack believes that Iran’s leaders “can convince the Iranian people to endure heavy sacrifices in the pursuit of abstract notions such as ‘resisting foreign influence,'” but a few days in Tehran would probably convince him otherwise. Iran’s leaders know that the abstract notions they promote in Friday sermons now enjoy little popular support. They fear that a period of economic hardship will provoke people to express their unhappiness in unpredictable ways. Iranian politicians, particularly those who control the nation’s finances, are wasting Iran’s oil surplus on populist spending sprees. They have fostered a culture of consumerism that contradicts the egalitarian values that they claim to uphold. They are unwilling to risk higher unemployment in order to reform their astonishingly inefficient economy, which is dominated by a corrupt state sector, protected from competition. Iran is a state that, for all its apparent stability, is unsure of its people.
If Iran attains not only a fuel cycle for peaceful purposes but the ability to make nuclear bombs quickly, it may feel more secure, but it is unlikely to reactivate its old, highly combative foreign policy. If, on the other hand, it begins to assassinate opponents abroad, striking directly at Western targets, Iran will certainly force America and its allies—even the Europeans, who are likely to be primarily concerned about their interests—to take strong action. Iran is vulnerable to moves to isolate it still further. Sanctions by the EU, its main trading partner, or even the threat of sanctions, could have an acutely destabilizing effect.

After the 2003 agreement between the Europeans and Iran, I rashly predicted in these pages that Iran would hold to its new commitments.6 But the Iranians flouted their spirit. During subsequent talks, Iran’s negotiators infuriated their foreign partners by making unexpected demands at key moments in negotiations—as happened at the end of November 2003, while the resolution on Iran’s nuclear program was being drafted by the IAEA’s governing board. Eventually, in return for withdrawing the demand that they be allowed to experiment with twenty centrifuges, the Iranians secured wording that, in their view, would make it easier for them to restart their enrichment and reprocessing activity in the future.

In the absence of reliable opinion polls, many foreign observers believe that most Iranians would support Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. They reasonably assume that Iranians resent the fact that neighbors and near neighbors such as Pakistan, India, and Israel have nuclear weapons, and they do not. It is not surprising that Iranians should question the motives of nuclear-armed states that guard sensitive technologies. But foreign observers also seem to assume that, to some degree, large numbers of Iranians identify with their leaders and the decisions they take. This may not be the case.

Over the past year, I have visited the scenes of two Iranian disasters. The first was at the southeastern town of Bam, where an earthquake killed more than 26,000 people last winter. The second was Pakdasht, a poor neighborhood outside Tehran, where a man was recently sentenced to hang for the murder (and, in many cases, rape) of twenty people, mostly young boys. Delayed by incompetence, departmental infighting, and alleged corruption, Bam’s “reconstruction” is a national disgrace. So is the response to Pakdasht, where, over a period of more than a year, the local authorities showed apparent indifference as, one by one, the children of ordinary people disappeared. I found that the inhabitants of these places abandoned Iranians’ customary reluctance to curse the authorities in front of strangers. They are so fed up with the state, so distrustful of its motives and dismissive of its claims to competence, that they no longer regard it as their own.

These are extreme examples of the bad relations between rulers and ruled that are reflected in urban Iranians’ growing skepticism about politics. (Voter turnout in February’s flawed elections was barely 30 percent in many big cities, including Tehran.) The impassioned Iranian newspaper editorials that have been written in favor of the nuclear program do not reflect a national “debate” on the subject but the rhetoric of competing groups within the country. The program is domestically important only for a small group of politicians who score points off one another. (On November 16, for instance, Iran’s parliamentarians, who have no say in formulating foreign policy, summoned Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and castigated him for the agreement with the Europeans, which, they said, required too many concessions by Iran.) But for most Iranians, the price of food, and the government’s failure to lower it, are more important.
Iran’s nuclear programs, and whether they are pursued, have become central to the Islamic Republic’s wider ambition in foreign affairs. It is unlikely that Hersh’s report will shake the belief of most Iranian officials that the Israelis or the US do not intend to launch an attack on their nuclear installations.7 But they, and the Europeans, know that the November 2004 agreement will amount to little unless the Americans join the negotiations, offering advantages such as security guarantees, a deal on Iranian assets in the US, and the prospect of normal economic relations. The Americans are wary of committing themselves to such policies unless the Europeans and others, especially Russia and China, consent to taking punitive action if Iran progresses further toward a fuel cycle that could produce nuclear weapons. What is needed to deal with Iran and its nuclear ambitions is the formation of an international coalition including the US, and that is not George Bush’s strong point.

—January 27, 2005

This Issue

February 24, 2005