The Catholic University of America

Iran: The Mideast Kaleidoscope

Americans are used to understanding their politics as the tug-of-war between two basic camps: left vs. right, conservative vs. liberal, Republican vs. Democrat.

This tendency leaves them ill-equipped to understand, much less respond intelligently to the indecipherable puzzle of Iranian politics, divided into a thousand camps, each with competing visions and agendas.

“Iran is an unbelievably difficult political situation to understand. No Westerner gets more than about 10 percent of it right,” observed Dr. Kenneth Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute.

Pollack’s take on current U.S. policy toward Iran was titled “Which Path to Persia? Options for a New American Strategy toward Iran,” and was delivered on Oct. 7 at the invitation of the Interdisciplinary Program in Law and Religion and The Middle East Religious Dialogue Program.

Pollack, an expert in national security, military affairs and the Persian Gulf, said it’s clear that Islamic fundamentalist forces seized unchallenged control of Iran over the summer of 2009 and are more firmly in the driver’s seat than at any time since 1981.

“It was a fairly decisive victory for the worst elements of the regime,” he said.

The reality paints an unsettling picture. Iran makes little pretense about its nuclear weapons ambitions, and Pollack said he is pessimistic about a negotiated, non-confrontational settlement of the issue.

“I am increasingly suspicious that negotiations will go nowhere and sanctions will prove meaningless,” said Pollack, who also spent seven years in the CIA as a Persian Gulf military analyst.

Should the U.S. simply get up and leave the negotiating table? No, said Pollack, recommending instead that the Obama Administration “play out its hand” and see where things lead. But based on the political picture right now, he said he fears U.S. policy toward Iran is inevitably drifting toward containment, not rapprochement.