Why One Key Iraq-War Supporter Is Hopeful About the Nuclear Deal With Iran

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In 2003, Bill Keller of the New York Times wrote, “Kenneth Pollack, the Clinton National Security Council expert whose argument for invading Iraq is surely the most influential book of this season, has provided intellectual cover for every liberal who finds himself inclining toward war but uneasy about Mr. Bush.” A decade later, Pollack, a former CIA intelligence officer and now an expert in Middle East policy for the Brookings Institution, admits he got some aspects of the war “wrong in a big way.” But it’s through those mistakes and lessons learned that he’s approaching a potential nuclear deal with Iran, and he’s cautiously optimistic.

Pollack’s new book is Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy, which couldn’t have come out at a better time. He chatted with Daily Intelligencer about what we’ve seen so far from the negotiations and the sensitive few months to follow.

Did you expect this agreement with Iran to coincide so perfectly with your latest book?
No, in the sense that I didn’t expect [the election of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani]. I like to say that I think the two people most surprised by Rouhani’s election were [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] and Rouhani. But I might’ve been third on the list.

That said, we deliberately timed the book for September because my expectation was we would have another crisis with Iran. Bibi [Netanyahu] would get up there and have to amp things up from last year, and we would have some new president in Iran. God only knows what that person would say. I assumed it’d be a hard-liner. It could be just as bad or even worse or even cleverer than Ahmadinejad. I figured there would be another crisis; I just didn’t expect this.

In a Washington Post op-ed earlier this month you concluded that "if Tehran is willing to give up all but a minimal enrichment capability, if it accepts comprehensive and intrusive inspections, and if we can be confident that the sanctions would be reimposed if Iran were ever caught cheating, such an agreement would meet our strategic needs and those of our allies. It may not be perfect, but it would be better than our other options.” Is that what we're seeing now?
I can’t imagine that we’re going to get that perfect deal. In the book, I write that we’ve got to try the diplomatic solution. It is by far the best outcome of our impasse with Iran. That deal is, I think, what we’re going to get this time around. It’s not a perfect deal, but it is perfectly adequate.

That’s where I think we’re headed. I’m reserving judgment, but I’m heartened by the interim deal because it’s a lot better than I expected it to be. It’s a lot better than anyone expected it to be. The fact that the Iranians are actually willing to convert their entire stockpile of 19.75 enriched uranium back down to an oxidized form, that’s really good! I never expected that. That’s a very important statement by the Iranians — we understand what you need us to do. It’s an interim deal, it’s very small, but symbolically important.

Where do you put the odds on a final, long-term deal?
I’m certainly hopeful. I’m not ready to bet my mortgage on it. There are big obstacles to be overcome on both sides. Just taking the Obama administration’s position and that of our other negotiating partners, where they all are, I think that the Iranian team is in the same place, but I’m not sure. Even if you can get that meeting of the minds, both sides have to sell it to their respective leaderships and their respective hard-liners.

Based on the current terms, who’s getting the better deal?
I think we are. We’re giving up $6 billion, $4 billion in cash. That’s meaningless. It’s 12 percent of their government budget over six months. That’s nothing.

What’s the worst-case scenario from here?
To me, the worst-case scenario is that everything falls apart and we’re to blame. By "we," I include the Israelis in that statement. This is what I’m really concerned about. What has held the sanctions together, what has held the international coalition together, what has put all this pressure on Iran has been the international sentiment that Iran is the problem, not the United States. The U.S. has been the country willing to go the extra mile to get a negotiated settlement, and Iran has been recalcitrant.

If what happens is that these negotiations fall apart and everyone blames the United States and Israel, you’re going to see a very severe weakening of the sanctions. I was the guy in the Clinton White House who had to hold the Iraq sanctions in place in the nineties and I saw exactly what that looked like — how fast it all unraveled when the international community decided that the sanctions were unfair and that they were hurting the Iraqi people. It was terrifying how fast that all fell apart. It was mind-boggling.

I fear the same thing will happen with Iran. One point where I do agree with the administration’s critics is that this is our point of maximum leverage with Iran. It is going to decline very quickly. But I draw the opposite conclusion about what we should do. Critics say we should just hold out for the perfect deal. My argument is if you hold out you’re going to get nothing because our leverage is going to erode. It could erode very quickly.

Photo: Courtesy of Brookings Institution

What are the lessons that you’ve taken from your work on Iraq to this situation with Iran?
There are lots of them and they’re all in my book. They run in all different directions. They don’t all confirm either the right or the left’s view of Iraq.

One of my feelings is that containment ultimately failed in Iraq because we lost international support for the sanctions and inspections. That’s something we have to remember for Iran. But it’s also the case that the combination of highly intrusive inspections coupled with the threat of very severe sanctions can ultimately convince even Saddam Hussein to give up his weapons of mass destruction. That’s a very important lesson which seems to run counter to the first lesson, but both were true and we’ve got to learn from both of them.

If we can get a highly intrusive inspection regime in Iran, coupled with the ongoing threat of painful sanctions, we ought to have a great deal of confidence that that can hold in place an arms-control agreement. But we have to recognize that while our sanctions are having a big impact now, they’re not going to last forever.

Do you feel some sense of personal redemption after Iraq, now that you’re back in a position of authority on Iran and things seem to be happening as you’ve said they might?
Oh, wow, redemption. No, I would never describe that. My sentiment is, I do the analysis and I make my calls based on the analysis. I’ve got a very good track record, but I’ve certainly got some things wrong. In at least one case I’ve gotten it wrong in a big way. It was something that virtually everybody else got wrong, but I got it wrong, too, and I was a lot louder than everybody else about that. I try to learn from that. I do the same analysis, but I try to learn from the mistakes I made last time around.

I look at Iran and I’m doing the same kind of analysis as I did in Iraq, but I see it as being a very different case. That’s why I’m coming out in a different place.I’m glad we got the interim deal, I’m glad I supported it, I’m glad it’s better than I expected. But we’re a long way from resolution.

I am quite concerned about what that final agreement would look like. In that final deal, I want to include the suspension of sanctions but not the actual lifting of the UN sanctions, at least. If the deal calls for the lifting of sanctions completely then I’m going to find myself in opposition to the administration again. I’m not a partisan guy. I don’t make my decisions based on Democrats or Republicans. I’m an analyst and I make my decisions based on where my analysis tells me the right answer is. That’s the role that I play in Washington.

Did you learn personals lessons from Iraq that have resulted in presenting your analysis in a different way this time around?
Oh, sure. My analytic process is the same, but the inputs to the process have obviously been refined, shall we say, by my Iraq experience. There’s no question that I’ve learned lessons. Some are about the substance; they are lessons like, actually if you get a very intrusive inspections and sanctions, they can work, even on Saddam Hussein. Honestly, that’s not something that I’d believed beforehand. There was no historical evidence. Now we’ve got it.

Another one for me is, going into the Iraq War, I had a lot of reservations about how the Bush administration was handling making the case for war. I had a lot of reservations about the absence of any plan for post-conflict reconstruction. I was very concerned about the rush for war. I tried to say that as best I could, where I could. But I learned that I needed to say it even louder.

I was on with Oprah Winfrey three times. What a crazy world that was. But one of my appearances, I kept saying to her that it’s important to discuss post-conflict reconstruction, because that’s the hardest and most important part. The country has to recognize that the debate about war can’t be all about WMDs and Al Qaeda. What are we going to do after we topple Saddam? Oprah, at one point in the show, said, We’ve gotta go to a break but I know Ken wants to talk about the importance of rebuilding Iraq. After the break we’ll talk about that. We never did!

At the time I felt like it was Oprah’s world and we all just live in it. I feel like if I had it to do all over again, I would’ve said that I really wanted to talk about reconstruction. It’s not that I didn’t have the concern or that I didn’t try to tell people. I just feel like I should’ve done more.

Where do the latest developments leave the so-called “hawks” on Iran?
It’s a little bit too soon to tell. I think they’re making the arguments they can make, and I don’t find them terribly persuasive. They’re being made by people I like and respect and think very highly of, but I don’t know how the rest of the country and Congress is ultimately going to react. It’s still early.

You have a lot of people in Congress who don’t quite understand the deal. They are leery of it and they are hearing the objections from the Israelis and the Saudis and that’s making them wonder.

This goes back to lessons learned from Iraq: It’s something I knew before the Iraq War — I wrote it in my book, but it bears repeating — there are unintended consequences of particular wars.

The administration is trying to paint it like it’s war or this deal. I think you can make a more nuanced case than calling people warmongers, I don’t think is an effective way to make this case. I don’t like the other side calling the administration appeasers and calling President Obama Neville Chamberlain either. It’s equally distasteful.

But one of the issues the right is going to have to deal with is, What are you proposing instead? Are you proposing we go to war? Some of the people on the right actually do want to go to war. They aren’t saying it out loud but I know from my private conversations. But we’ve seen the unintended consequences in Afghanistan and Iraq. Why are you telling us this makes sense in Iran? Why are you telling us we’re not going to face worse unintended consequences?