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Candid Discussions: Kenneth Pollack on U.S. Policy in the Middle East



Kenneth Pollack is a former CIA intelligence analyst and currently a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Dr. Pollack’s expertise is on Middle East politics and military affairs with particular emphasis on Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Gulf States of the Persian Gulf region. He previously served in the U.S. government in a variety of positions, including twice at the White House on the staff of National Security Council. Dr. Pollack also served as the Director of National Security Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR).

Dr. Pollack is the author of many articles as well as several books on the Middle East. He is the author, most recently, of Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy. In 2011, he gathered 18 Brookings scholars to write the first comprehensive analysis of the tumultuous events of the Arab Spring: The Arab Awakening: America and the Transformation of the Middle East.

Dr. Pollack recently sat down with Reza Akhlaghi of the Foreign Policy Association for a comprehensive discussion on U.S. policy in the Middle East.


 Let’s start with Iran. You have suggested that a final deal with Iran must be “consistent with our requirements”. What are those key requirements and how optimistic are you about the ongoing negotiations?

At the simplest level, I would argue that the United States and its allies should strive for an agreement with Iran that gives us high confidence that Iran will never try to build nuclear weapons. One that will give us and our allies the maximum confidence that the Iranians will never even seriously consider reneging on the terms of the deal and either “breaking out” from an agreement to build a bomb, or trying to do so covertly while ostensibly complying with its terms. I will sketch out some of the specifics in my next answer, below.

At a broader level, however, I think it is worth pointing out that every American—let alone every Israeli, Saudi, Emirati, Kuwaiti, etc.—is going to define the requirements differently because everyone will have different levels of trust/threat. So in my sentence above, I use words like “confidence.” That is an inevitably ambiguous term, and will mean something different to everyone. I have qualified it by saying that we should “strive for” the “maximum” confidence, but the key issue is how much is enough? Again, every individual is going to answer that differently. There is simply no absolute standard for what would be enough. That’s why, in my book, Unthinkable, I spend a considerable amount of time explaining what I think is adequate and why. And I think it is critical that every American do the same because there is no absolute standard that you can fall back on. You have to ask yourself what YOUR standard of confidence is.

As for the probability of a deal, I think there is a good chance that we will have one. President Obama keeps saying it is 50-50. As a historian of the U.S.-Iran relationship, as well as someone who has participated in it from both the Intelligence and policy-making sides, I would say that the idea that there is a 50 percent chance that we could get a deal with Iran is phenomenally high given the history of the relationship. And what I hear from senior American and European officials leads me to suspect that the ideas might even be somewhat higher. The U.S. administration seems eager for a deal and none of our allies are going to have compelling grounds to stop them. The Iranians are negotiating in a similarly enthusiastic (and practical) fashion, which suggests that Rouhani is very much behind the deal, and has at least enough buy-in from Khamene’i to make many of the most basic concessions to the U.S. to make this a serious negotiation.

So we could well have a deal, although most seem to think that it won’t be within the first six-month timeline of the Joint Plan of Action (JPA), but could well be within the timeframe of the six-month extension that the JPA already includes. The terms of the deal are murkier, and to go back to my statement above, how much confidence those terms should give us is equally unclear. In addition, the deal is hardly a sure thing; even if you think that it is more like a 60 percent probability that there will be a deal, that still means that there is a 40 percent probability that there won’t be—again a high percentage by the standards of international affairs.

As part of the interim nuclear deal, the Iranians have agreed to convert their entire stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium to an oxidized form. What about their stockpile of five percent enriched uranium and their domestic enrichment that would be allowed under the IAEA?

Again, we don’t know what a final or comprehensive deal with Iran would allow. The American and European experts are arguing for an agreement in which Iran would not be allowed any uranium enriched above five percent purity, and only be allowed to keep in country uranium enriched to less than five percent purity (called low-enriched uranium, or LEU) at a level less than what it would need to build a single nuclear weapon. The Iranians appear to have signaled that this is something that they could live with, at least for the period of the agreement.

That said, I think it is very important that we NOT get caught up in the technical details of how much uranium of what level of purity, or how many centrifuges of what level of technology the Iranians are allowed to keep. Those questions are not unimportant, but as I read both the history of U.S.-Iranian relations and, of greater importance, the history of arms control agreements, those questions are of far less importance than three other ones: inspections, sanctions and durations. When you look at arms control agreements that succeeded—like the ABM treaty, SALT I, START, CFE, the Libya deal, and even what the U.N. finally accomplished with Saddam in the 1990s—and you compare them to agreements that failed—like North Korea—it is those issues that seem to be the critical ones, not the technical details.

Let me just say a quick word about each of these items:

  • Inspections: The more intrusive the inspections, the greater the confidence we can have in catching Iranian cheating. That’s obvious. The Iranians have agreed to the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but have never implemented it. And the truth is, that is not enough because it does not provide for comprehensive coverage of the country and no-notice inspections wherever the inspectors want to go. THAT is what we really need to give us the greatest confidence. And we need to keep one lesson in mind from Iraq: what we learned about inspections after the fall of Baghdad is that the inspections do NOT have to be so good that they catch every instance of Iranian cheating. They only have to be good enough so that the Iranians have a high expectation that SOME aspect of cheating will be discovered, and that this discovery will entail a very high probability that they will suffer meaningful punishment.
  • Sanctions: That’s where the sanctions come back in. I think it is impossible to dispute that it was the sanctions that ultimately brought Iran to the negotiating table, no matter how much the Supreme Leader tries to insist on the contrary. That is what they want lifted and that is what they constantly complain about. The key to an agreement is to ensure that the Iranians believe (and that is all that matters) that if they are caught cheating, it is very likely that the sanctions will come back into force quickly and surely.The problem is that if we lift all of the sanctions, as the JPA foolishly states, that will be very hard. It required enormous diplomatic lifting on the part of the United States coupled with jaw-droppingly obtuse Iranian behavior to get the sanctions in the first place. The experiences with Iraq and North Korea further demonstrate that securing a UNSC vote to impose sanctions in the face of what will invariably be ambiguous and disputed evidence of Iranian non-compliance will be really hard. So a key piece of any agreement with Iran should be a “snap-back” mechanism that would re-impose the sanctions very quickly, without the need for a new UNSC (or EU) resolution to do so. It is why I have proposed suspending the sanctions rather than lifting them. In both the UNSC and EU, you simply pass a resolution saying that the sanctions are suspended for six months, renewable indefinitely as long as Iran abides by its side of the agreement. Then, if intelligence ever emerges that Iran is cheating, all it takes is a single American, French, or British veto of the next such resolution to ensure that the sanctions snap back into place. It is much easier, probably faster, and obviates the need to secure Chinese and Russian agreement or abstention.
  • Duration: I actually have a great deal of confidence that President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif, and most other Iranians would have no intention of cheating on an agreement if they sign one. I don’t have the same confidence about other members of the Iranian regime, and I certainly do not know who is going to follow Rouhani as president.Let’s remember that the reformer Khatami was succeeded by the lunatic Ahmedinejad. So even though I might be willing to trust Iran with Rouhani as president, I do not know who will follow him. To my mind, that argues for an agreement meant to endure for a considerable length of time—several decades at least, permanently in an ideal world. Obviously, the Iranians are going to object to that. It’s why I think any agreement with Iran needs to make provisions to start easing the impact of the sanctions quickly and completely.

As I noted above, I oppose the literal lifting of sanctions. I think that would be a strategic mistake, I think it is unnecessary, and what’s more I think it is exceptionally difficult to imagine that the U.S. Congress will agree to lifting of our unilateral sanctions if only because those are tied to Iranian actions on terrorism, human rights and other matters in addition to nuclear weapons—matters that a comprehensive deal with Iran will not (and should not) address. But I think that we can start removing the impact of sanctions by suspending them, quickly and completely and that should be a meaningful incentive for Tehran to agree to have the terms in effect for a much longer period of time.

That’s kind of my bottom line about the terms of the agreement. If the Iranians are prepared to be pragmatic, and to focus on the practicalities of what they want (particularly ending the impact of the sanctions and their isolation) and make compromises on the principles, then I think an agreement is entirely feasible for both sides. And it is noteworthy that that is how Iran approached the JPA and why we got the JPA. Tehran set aside the principles and focused on what it needed as a practical matter and the deal was done in roughly two months. If the Iranians insist on principle at the expense of practicalities—the diplomatic equivalent of cutting off their noses to spite their faces—then we probably won’t get a deal, or we won’t get a deal that will be as good as we should want it to be.


Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy; Simon & Schuster, September 2013; 560 pages,

For how much longer can sanctions against Iran be continued without becoming unraveled? What could the process of sanctions removal look like?

No one knows. As I warn in Unthinkable, it is a big mistake to assume that the sanctions can be held in place indefinitely. What the experience of Iraq should teach us is that painful sanctions inevitably unravel, and the stronger the sanctions the sooner they unravel. Even more so when the targeted state has massive oil reserves that are a huge enticement for other countries and, therefore, a great source of leverage for the targeted state. There were signs of strain on the sanctions even before Rouhani’s election, although I think those were relatively minor and probably could have been addressed.

I think a bigger question that Americans need to face is how sustainable the sanctions will prove if the negotiations fail. Obviously, if the world concludes that the negotiations failed because the Iranians were being unreasonable (and the Americans were the reasonable party) that will strengthen the sanctions. The failure of the negotiations will be further evidence that Iran is a rogue state bent on aggression and destabilizing the Middle East and so cannot be trusted with a nuclear program. The problem is if the opposite happens and international opinion concludes that it was the U.S. that was being unreasonable and Washington refused to take “yes” for an answer, then you could see a very rapid unraveling of the sanctions, along the lines of what we saw with the unraveling of the Iraq sanctions after 1998. People forget that by 2000, the French, Russians, Chinese, Egyptians and dozens of other countries were blatantly disregarding U.N. sanctions on Iraq enacted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter—exactly what we have with Iran. And that was with Saddam Hussein in charge of Iraq, one of the worst dictators, serial aggressors and human rights abusers of the past century. Compared to Saddam, the Iranian leadership looks like a bunch of pacifists.

As for how sanctions might be removed, you have my answer above. I will only add that no one should assume the removal of the American unilateral sanctions. There are so many, and tied to so many Iranian activities—and you have a Congress that is deeply skeptical of any deal with Iran—that no one should assume that is going to be easy.

Is the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) suffering from discordant policies by its member states? Do Arab leaders of the Gulf think they need to reformulate a set of new and coordinated regional policies including a new policy toward Iran?

Hmmm. “Suffering” is an interesting word here. Certainly there are discordant policies within the GCC, including on Iran, and it is annoying to them, but it is hard to say that they are “suffering.” They are all doing really well right now, thank you very much.

Obviously, you do have some important differences. The big one is between Qatar and everyone else. The Qataris back the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in Syria, the other GCC states hate and fear the Ikhwan [the Brotherhood]. The Qataris back al-Jazeera which harshly criticizes all of the other regional governments, except Qatar. The Qataris (and the Omanis) prefer a more balanced approach to Iran, whereas the other Gulf states prefer a very confrontational approach.

Those differences do matter. It means they back different groups in Syria, groups that often fight each other rather than fighting the Alawi regime. It means that they send mixed signals on Iran. It means that the other GCC states are furious because they believe that Doha uses al-Jazeera as a mouthpiece to attack their governments. And it has resulted in the Qataris (and Omanis) refusing to join the GCC union the Saudis have proposed. But again, it is hard to make the case that even these effects are really hurting the GCC. They strike me more as annoyances than threats.

I would certainly encourage (and have encouraged) the GCC states to take a somewhat different perspective on Iran. In particular, I think it is a mistake for them (and the Israelis) to try to kill a nuclear deal with Iran. Instead, I would prefer to see them working more constructively both on what a deal should entail as well as how we build a stronger U.S.-GCC relationship in the aftermath of such a deal.

I want to end my answer to this question, but I would expand on that last point slightly. It is critical for Americans to understand that a nuclear deal with Iran cannot and should not be the end of America’s involvement in the Middle East. A nuclear deal will not end the Iranian antagonism or the Iranian threat to our allies in the region. Remember, the Iranian threat is NOT that Tehran will lob nuclear bombs at any of these countries, but that Iran supports terrorism, insurgency, and subversion against them to try to destabilize them from the inside out. That may well continue after a nuclear deal. Certainly the GCC states will fear it. And if we do not remain engaged in the region and committed to their security, we are likely to see the GCC states try to balance Iran on their own, and in some very aggressive and dangerous ways. Ways that will ultimately be dangerous to American interests, because they will jeopardize the stability of the GCC states and their oil production. Sorry to be crass, but that is what it is all about for the United States and I think it is important to be blunt in pointing that out.

In March Oman signed a $1 billion gas deal with Iran under which Muscat would import natural gas from Tehran. Does Oman think of itself as a unique player that should detach itself form a Saudi-driven regional agenda? What impact could this natural gas deal with Iran have on the GCC? 

This goes back to my answer above on GCC politics. Oman has always taken a different approach to Iran from the rest of the GCC. The Omanis do feel threatened by the Iranians, but not as much as some of their GCC brothers, and at least under Sultan Qaboos, have seen it in their interests to have decent relations with Iran. I think the Sultan sees it as economically beneficial, and I suspect he also believes that it burnishes Muscat’s image in Tehran and so makes the Iranians less interested in trying to subvert his government.

That said, I think it is a mistake to see Oman’s more low-key approach to Iran as constituting a key break with the GCC—or as potentially leading to one. Oman is very comfortable in the GCC, although it clearly does not want a more integrated GCC as the Saudis have proposed. Sultan Qaboos seems to like the status quo, he does not want to change it, but he also wants to do the least possible to preserve it. I think that’s the best way to see Oman’s foreign policy.

Where is Syria headed to? Could we expect a new Syria policy by the U.S. over the next few months?

That’s a short question that really requires an incredibly long answer. To keep it brief, I will say that Syria is headed nowhere. I think protracted civil war and stalemate is the most likely scenario. A near-term opposition victory is unimaginable absent a major increase in external assistance to them, and I see no evidence that the Obama Administration is thinking seriously about that. I suspect they will continue to wring their hands while claiming that there is nothing they can do short of an invasion. By the way, I don’t think that’s fully accurate, although I do agree with them that intervention would be a lot harder and require a lot more from the U.S. than many of the advocates of American intervention seem willing to allow.

Certainly, there is now the prospect of a regime victory, but I think that is less likely than is the common wisdom. And if it does happen, I suspect it will take a lot longer than the alarmist claims currently circulating suggest. The Russians appear to have stepped up their provision of military supplies to the regime and that, far more than support from Iran, has allowed the regime to make important gains all across the front in western Syria. Let’s be clear, the increase in Russian aid appears to have been the quid pro quo for Assad’s agreement to give up his chemical warfare arsenal, not any response to the Ukraine crisis which came much later. But the Syrian army was never very good, the remnants of the regime commands are quite small, they are plagued by logistical and leadership problems, and the opposition is large and very popular across the two-thirds of Syria dominated by Sunni Arabs. It would take a LOT more for the regime to build the military capacity to quickly break the opposition and reoccupy all of Syria.

Instead, it is the history of these kinds of civil wars that at different times one group or another gains an advantage, but that can change from year to year and, absent massive external assistance, victory tends to be slow and very, very bloody.

Would the future of U.S.—Saudi relationship be impacted by the succession dynamics? Do you expect changes in the nature of the relationship?

I think that we are seeing a gradual shift in the U.S.-Saudi relationship that is likely to continue on into the future, and could be exacerbated/accelerated by the Iran issue. I would put it this way, the Saudis have now watched two American administrations (Bush 43 and Obama) completely screw up the Middle East, as they see it. Bush by trying to do too much (and to do it with too little) and Obama by not trying to do anything. They are pissed. And they appear to have decided that this reflects an America that it increasingly unreliable to them. I think that what they see from Obama was more worrying than what they saw from Bush, because they view Obama as reflecting a more general American desire to be rid of the Middle East. They worry that the pattern of neglect under Obama is going to become permanent.

In response, the Saudis have increasingly taken a more independent line. Having said that, some caveats are immediately in order. First, King Abdallah has argued for such an independent line for decades—long before he became king. So this reflects his long-held preference too. Second, the Saudis are not thinking of abandoning the U.S.-Saudi relationship anytime soon. They know that it is still the case that the U.S. military is the only thing that can defend the kingdom against conventional attack. And the U.S. and Saudis continue to have the same interests in preserving the status quo, and ensuring that the oil keeps flowing.

But there are increasing disagreements over how to do that. Whether the Arab Spring was good or bad for the long-term stability of the region. Whether a nuclear deal with Iran will increase or decrease the threat to the GCC. And, of course, whether the U.S. is trying to use a nuclear deal with Iran to abandon the GCC and go back to our pre-revolution alliance with Iran, which many Gulfies ardently but incorrectly believe.

So the Saudis are trying to rely on themselves a bit more, and that meshes with King Abdallah’s emphasis on reform, educational improvement, diversifying Saudi sources of weaponry, etc. It also means that they are looking harder at what the Chinese can do for them. It’s not that they are going to throw us for the Chinese, that’s not even feasible, even if it were desirable. Only that they want to see where the Chinese can help them in ways that they used to look to us for help. And they are also looking at how they can better organize and galvanize the Sunni Arab states to work in tandem, to generate more power and leverage that way.

So my sense is that Riyadh is looking at a 21st Century foreign policy of four different pillars: building up the Kingdom’s own strength; maintaining the relationship with the U.S. but at a less intense/exclusive level; developing a relationship with China; and using its leadership role in the Sunni Arab world to better coordinate Arab foreign policy. Taken together, this suggests less Saudi reliance on the U.S. and a more independent foreign policy, but nothing like a total break in the relationship.

How would you describe the U.S. policy in the Middle East during Hillary Clinton’s tenure and how different do you think it has been since John Kerry took over the job?

I served in the U.S. government for 11 years in a variety of positions, including twice at the White House on the NSC staff. That experience has made me VERY wary of drawing big conclusions about the role of different people. It is often the case that those on the outside have absolutely no idea why things were done and who argued for what, with what impact.

What I will say is that I have the sense that both Secretaries Clinton and Kerry have had a very difficult problem. They face a White House—and a President—who is very focused on his domestic agenda, very desirous of minimizing his exposure to foreign policy, uninterested in committing resources to foreign policy efforts, and who keeps the tightest rein on foreign policy I have ever seen. The White House does not seem to have given either of its secretaries of state a whole lot of freedom of action to implement, let alone make, foreign policy. When we finally get a better sense of how policy was made in this Administration, if that perspective is borne out, then I think you will have to judge both Clinton and Kerry against that standard in those circumstances.