The Persian Puzzle: U.S.-Iran Relations

Kenneth M Pollack
Kenneth M Pollack Former Brookings Expert, Resident Scholar - AEI

January 24, 2005

Iran, between its burgeoning nuclear program, its active support for terrorism, and its reported meddling in the Iraqi elections, is headed for a showdown with the Bush administration. But what to do about it? In his new book, The Persian Puzzle, Kenneth Pollack argues that regime change is not the answer to dealing with Iran—instead, the Bush administration is going to have to flex some diplomatic muscle. It certainly won’t be easy: the U.S. and Iran have built up a lot of animosity over the past few decades, and overcoming this distrust will be difficult, requiring a series of carrots and sticks from both the United States and her allies.

Pollack, a veteran of both the CIA and the National Security Council, recently sat down with over the phone to talk about Tehran’s long, bloody relationship with the West, its nuclear program, the prospects for regime change, and most critically, the future of America’s Iran policy. Going through the history of Iran, as you do in your book, is really useful. It seems that the conflict between Iran and the U.S. isn’t so much about a geostrategic rivalry, or even necessarily about an ideological conflict per se, so much as a lot of bad blood built up between the two over the past few decades.

Kenneth Pollack: Absolutely. I think if you could remove all of the baggage—all of the ideology, the history, whatever else—and look in purely geostrategic terms, I think it’s hard to figure out why the US and Iran would necessarily be in conflict. In fact during the shah’s era, before 1979—recognizing that there were all kinds of other problems—the US and Iran worked together splendidly at the strategic level.

But the source of the problem is this history—our support for the Shah, the CIA coup in 1953—has become infused into the Iranian political discourse. The regime that came to power in 1979 during the Iranian revolution actually defined itself as anti-American, and that’s now a critical ingredient in the Iranian domestic political debate. That really is the source of our problems—the regime in Tehran continues to see itself as opposing the US. In their eyes, everything the US does is directed at them in a very malevolent way, and therefore they have to fight back against it.

View the full interview at