From the AICGS Bookshelf: Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy

Just as we confront the sudden current challenges in Ukraine, an analysis of the ongoing confrontation with Iran over its nuclear strategies appears to highlight both the possibilities and limits of negotiations in crisis.

Kenneth Pollack’s new book, Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy (Simon and Schuster, 2013), points at both the dilemmas and the options confronting the United States and its allies in dealing with a country intent on pursuing a goal that America has declared it should not reach. Pollack lays out the stark choice—to contain a nuclear Iran or go to war to prevent one from happening. He chooses containment.

He argues that Iran is looking primarily for a breakout capability to manufacture a nuclear weapon—if not securing the weapon itself. He also paints pictures of the competing scenarios beyond containment including the military options and declares three dimensions containment are more promising: containing nuclear capacity, restraining the ability to weaponize, and facilitating domestic attitudinal changes toward the United States. Pollack argues that with a coordinated approach—meaning with other partners—Iran can be steered away from igniting a proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region.

Pollack identifies the containment policy of the Cold War period as much more challenging than what would be needed with contemporary Iran and argues that Iran has far less capability to project power beyond its borders than the Soviet Union did. That said, Iran already has the capacity to help destabilize other countries in the region—even without nuclear weapons.

Pollack believes Iran’s nuclear capacity can be contained below weaponization levels, that Israel can be reassured it is secure, and that other countries in the region will not need their own nuclear arsenals. This course of action will require enormous U.S. investment, including maintaining a strong presence in the region as well as keeping deterrent tools ready.

It will also require an orchestration of policy with Europe and countries in the Middle East. Pollack does not delineate how that can be achieved. In fact, he devoted very few paragraphs to the EU’s role in this effort even though the United States will need to engage its closest allies if it is to be successful. Perhaps he is skeptical of that resource. But, it is important for Washington to know who it can rely on in the critical negotiations ahead, and Germany is one of those partners.

He also admits that his recipe may not work, but at the end, he argues that containment has worked well in the past several decades and that it should be given a chance now. Despite the aspersions cast at the concept of containment as equal to appeasement, Pollack believes it is more advantageous than other alternatives. He also draws occasionally on the experiences the United States had in Iraq, which he says “should make us more humble when contemplating our actions toward Iran.”

In connection with other crises around the globe, Pollack suggests the Cold War reminded us that “allowing highly unlikely and catastrophically bad scenarios to drive our planning, spending, and decision-making was ruinously wasteful, and dangerously distorted policy made us all less safe rather than more.”

Dealing with Iran—or now with an equally dangerous Putin in Moscow—will require that we face decisions that keep all our policy choices open but are also clear about their consequences, whatever they may be.

The book underscores the dilemma of policymakers who need to choose—and can draw only somewhat from the ideas and experiences that informed their predecessors—for better or for worse.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Jackson Janes

President of AICGS

Jackson Janes is the President of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, where he has been affiliated since 1989.

Dr. Janes has been engaged in German-American affairs in numerous capacities over many years. He has studied and taught in German universities in Freiburg, Giessen and Tübingen. He was the Director of the German-American Institute in Tübingen (1977-1980) and then directed the European office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Bonn (1980-1985). Before joining AICGS, he served as Director of Program Development at the University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh (1986-1988). He was also Chair of the German Speaking Areas in Europe Program at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, DC, from 1999-2000 and President of the International Association for the Study of German Politics from 2005-2010.

Dr. Janes is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Atlantic Council of the United States. He serves on the advisory boards of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee , Beirat der Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik (ZfAS), the Robert Bosch Foundation Alumni Association, and the American Bundestag Intern Network (ABIN) in Washington, DC. He is a member of the Board of the German American Fulbright Commission and serves on the Selection Committee for the Bundeskanzler Fellowships for the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. He is a member of the Cosmos Club in Washington DC.

Dr. Janes has lectured throughout Europe and the United States and has published extensively on issues dealing with Germany, German-American relations, and transatlantic affairs. In addition to regular commentary given to European and American news radio, he has appeared on CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, PBS, CBC, and is a frequent commentator on German television. Dr. Janes is listed in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in Education.

In 2005, Dr. Janes was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, Germany’s highest civilian award.

Ph.D., International Relations, Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, California
M.A., Divinity School, University of Chicago
B.A., Sociology, Colgate University

Transatlantic relations, German-American relations, domestic German politics, German-EU relations, transatlantic affairs.