The level of concern about Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism has risen as a result of the German high-court ruling that the Iranian government had a direct hand in the 1992 assassination of three Iranian Kurds and their translator at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin. Possible Iranian complicity in the Al Khobar bombing in Dhahran and potential U.S. responses also have become major topics of argument for policy makers and Iran watchers. The outcome has important policy ramifications for the United States as well as its friends, particularly with a new national-security team in place in the Clinton administration.
Since the Islamic revolution of 1979, Iranian activities have been little understood, even by experts. Scare stories that Iran is exporting its revolution and posing a threat to its neighbors have caused the country to be labeled a rogue state, and the Islamic Republic invites demonization by resorting to vile rhetoric and reprehensible activities. On the other hand, apologists for the regime are calling for a reduced level of invective and more benign treatment of Iran.
In Iran: Dilemmas of Dual Containment, Anthony H. Cordesman and Ahmed S. Hashim walk a fine line between the two extremes, depicting Iran more objectively than usual. This volume should help crystallize the debate for policy makers, government analysts, academics and media pundits. It is strongly recommended to anyone seeking a deeper understanding of Iran and the problems it poses for U.S. policy.
While one may disagree with some or all of their conclusions and recommendations, Cordesman and Hashim have managed to identify the key issues and elucidate the Iranian political scene. The book is framed as a net assessment. It purports to bring together the full range of political, economic, military, social, geographical and psychological factors, assessing them as a comprehensive entity and then making predictions about Iran's likely courses of action. In the aggregate, Cordesman and Hashim have achieved their goal.
The authors have amassed a wealth of information, arrayed in fourteen chapters. Throughout the text are well-constructed illustrations consisting of impressive numbers of tables (16), charts (46), and maps (5). The volume bears Cordesman's stamp as a skilled proponent of integrating graphics and massive amounts of data to make and support his points. The authors also provide background that permits conclusions about threats and capabilities that are based on more than just "bean counts."
The mass of data is complemented by fine analysis that portrays Iran's place in the world and how it has earned its rogue status. Included are excellent discussions of the internal dynamics of the regime, the various pressures from demographics and ethnicity, and how economics and oil condition Iran's future. Each of Iran's military services and internal-security forces and the potential threat they pose is treated in individual chapters, as are Iran's support for terrorism and its development of weapons of mass destruction.
The authors contend that "while there has been some moderation of rhetoric since Ayatollah Khomeini's death, it still remains disturbing, and there is no clear trend toward pragmatism and moderation." They also note that even if the United States and its allies alter policy toward Iran, there is no assurance that Iran will modify its own behavior. However, they conclude that economic ties with the West could lead Tehran to act less egregiously, "out of pragmatic selfinterest. Conversely, it is hard to see how efforts to create more deterioration of Iran's economy are likely to lead to moderation."
Perhaps the book's most significant contribution is its treatment of Iran's military threat. This is a direct reflection of net-assessment analysis. Details are provided of the scope of Iran's military build-up and its efforts to attain weapons of mass destruction as well as an enhanced terrorist capability. The authors devote nine of fourteen chapters to these concerns. Noteworthy is the discussion of how to deal with the threats and "non-threats" from Iran laid out in the last chapter, which concludes that Iran's military and other security-related capabilities are growing. Cordesman and Hashim contend "it is unclear that it [Iran] will aggressively use such capabilities or that they will necessarily lead to war." In sum, they do not deny that Iran is attempting to achieve a degree of military hegemony in the region. However, they argue rather forcefully that there are strong factors that detract from its ability to accomplish its goals.
Cordesman and Hashim do not have complete answers to how Washington should cope with Iran. They suggest that military containment must remain a cardinal ingredient of any prudent policy and that power-projection and war-fighting capabilities such as those of the United States in the region pose the best deterrent against Iranian action. The authors argue further that this sort of military containment differs from dual containment as practiced, in which demonization of Iran reduces U.S. effectiveness by blocking real understanding of the threat. They advocate instead a blend of "carrots and sticks," including dialogue, with a focus on halting Tehran's ability to obtain weapons of mass destruction and limiting its conventional military build-up. Current policy has inflicted harsh economic measures on the Iranian people without changing regime politics.
The authors suggest three other components of an effective policy toward Iran. First, unless there are stringent, intrusive inspections as in Iraq, arms-control agreements are unlikely to be effective. Second, regional collective-security measures need to be tightened. Third, Western power projection, including readiness and force availability, must be kept at high levels. If and when action is necessary, it should be decisive and provide no question about the superiority of the United States and its regional allies.
Although the overall quality of this volume is very high, the massive amounts of data often detract from the analysis. Sometimes the minutiae overwhelm the reader. There are also instances where multiple-page graphics interrupt the flow of thought. Finally, many of the excellent illustrations would be more effective as appendices at the end of chapters or at the end of the book. This would keep attention focused on the points being made. Another major concern is the book's price. The hardback is exorbitant, and even the paperback is too expensive for the wide audience it deserves.
Cordesman and Hashim have produced a laudable, objective book with conclusions based on facts and tightly reasoned analysis. This has been accomplished despite the many unknowns and the difficulties of divining the intentions of Iran's leaders. Thus, this volume provides superb insights into an enormously complicated series of issues. What is significant about this book is not the conclusions or the recommendations, but the combination of its over-arching methodology and the process of strong analysis infused with healthy doses of data.