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The world’s foremost expert on Middle Eastern relations examines Iran’s current nuclear potential and charts America’s future course of action. How close are we to a nuclear Iran? What does it mean for American foreign policy? How did we get to this point? And what do we do now? In Unthinkable, Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst with twenty-five years of experience worki The world’s foremost expert on Middle Eastern relations examines Iran’s current nuclear potential and charts America’s future course of action. How close are we to a nuclear Iran? What does it mean for American foreign policy? How did we get to this point? And what do we do now? In Unthinkable, Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst with twenty-five years of experience working on the Middle East, explores America’s intractable problem with Iran, Tehran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, and the pro­longed clash that led us to this point. Pollack lays out key solutions to the Iran nuclear ques­tion, explaining and assessing the options for American policymakers: • Redoubling our efforts at a carrot-and-stick approach that combines negotiations and sanctions • Aiding the Iranian opposition to bring about a popular form of regime change • An Israeli military strike • The American military option • Containing a nuclear Iran Insightful, powerful, and balanced in its approach, Unthinkable is one of the most thought­ful and important books on foreign policy in the past decade.


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The world’s foremost expert on Middle Eastern relations examines Iran’s current nuclear potential and charts America’s future course of action. How close are we to a nuclear Iran? What does it mean for American foreign policy? How did we get to this point? And what do we do now? In Unthinkable, Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst with twenty-five years of experience worki The world’s foremost expert on Middle Eastern relations examines Iran’s current nuclear potential and charts America’s future course of action. How close are we to a nuclear Iran? What does it mean for American foreign policy? How did we get to this point? And what do we do now? In Unthinkable, Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst with twenty-five years of experience working on the Middle East, explores America’s intractable problem with Iran, Tehran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, and the pro­longed clash that led us to this point. Pollack lays out key solutions to the Iran nuclear ques­tion, explaining and assessing the options for American policymakers: • Redoubling our efforts at a carrot-and-stick approach that combines negotiations and sanctions • Aiding the Iranian opposition to bring about a popular form of regime change • An Israeli military strike • The American military option • Containing a nuclear Iran Insightful, powerful, and balanced in its approach, Unthinkable is one of the most thought­ful and important books on foreign policy in the past decade.

30 review for Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy

  1. 5 out of 5

    Joseph Stieb

    In some ways this book probably suffered from bad timing. PUblished just 2 years before US-Iran nuclear deal, it looks like it didn't garner a whole lot of attention. That's too bad. This is a thoughtful, level-headed, evidence-driven examination of policy options. Pollack ultimately comes down on the side of containing Iran, although his argument is a bit more multifaceted than that. Containment vis Iran shouldn't mean just letting them have NW. The United States should maintain a set of pressu In some ways this book probably suffered from bad timing. PUblished just 2 years before US-Iran nuclear deal, it looks like it didn't garner a whole lot of attention. That's too bad. This is a thoughtful, level-headed, evidence-driven examination of policy options. Pollack ultimately comes down on the side of containing Iran, although his argument is a bit more multifaceted than that. Containment vis Iran shouldn't mean just letting them have NW. The United States should maintain a set of pressures an incentives to convince Iran to give up what appears to be a pursuit of nuclear weapons and accept outside regulation and support for civilian nuclear energy. This is essentially what the United States got in the 2015 deal, and I would assume Pollack supported that deal. Probably the strongest and most interesting part of the book is Pollack's thorough refutation of a surprise strike on Iranian nuclear sites. There are just too many problems with this idea: the Iranian sites are too dispersed and hardened, so taking them out would require multiple strikes; even a successful strike would only set them back a few years; a strike would probably undermine the sanctions by breaking up the international coalition, a strike would probably help the regime by causing a nationalist backlash in Iran; because the United States can't invade Iran, we would probably end up containing Iran anyway after the strike; Iran has means of retaliation, including terrorism and possibly blocking the Straits of Hormuz. Before reading this book, I was like 5% in favor of strikes, 95% against. Now it is more like 99-1. Ultimately, this book makes a judicious case for a policy of containment as the best bad option on Iran. That being said, a book that's designed to influence the public/political debate should probably be shorter and punchier than this one. Pollack is incredibly methodical in his argumentation, and I appreciate his leveling with the author in terms of what can and cannot be known. However, I often felt like I was running over a lot of the same ground in this book, and I found myself skimming large sections. So while I didn't find anything in the argument objectionable, I'll probably end up using this book more as a reference. It needs about 50 pages consolidated down. It is therefore hard for me to recommend it unless you are studying Iran policy at the graduate level, so I guess I still don't have a pithy Iran book to recommend to people.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Doreen Petersen

    Very interesting book. Gives lots of food for thought. I would recommend this one.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Julian Douglass

    Reading this 4 years after this was published and 3 and 1/2 years after the Iran Nuclear deal was signed, I think that Mr. Pollack laid down a thorough and well researched position on how to deal with Iran and their nuclear weapons capability. The problem that come from this book is that some of the chapters and policy he lays out is way to long and way too repetitive.I understand that he has points that he wants to hammer home, but each chapter gives us the same ideas and the same things to try Reading this 4 years after this was published and 3 and 1/2 years after the Iran Nuclear deal was signed, I think that Mr. Pollack laid down a thorough and well researched position on how to deal with Iran and their nuclear weapons capability. The problem that come from this book is that some of the chapters and policy he lays out is way to long and way too repetitive.I understand that he has points that he wants to hammer home, but each chapter gives us the same ideas and the same things to try without any new groundbreaking ideas. I feel this book could be 250-300 pages and cover the same amount of material without boring the readers to death.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Sharon Zink

    Very clear description of the problems facing the US in regard to Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    The single biggest strength of the book is its clear and insightful analysis. Pollack takes care to frame the true nature of the Iranian nuclear problem, dispelling misconceptions and calming hyperbole at the same time. I found four insights he makes in this process particularly noteworthy. (1) Iran is operating from a weakened, defensive position: economically sanctioned, diplomatically isolated, politically divided internally, militarily threatened by Israel and the United States. (p. 65) (2) Th The single biggest strength of the book is its clear and insightful analysis. Pollack takes care to frame the true nature of the Iranian nuclear problem, dispelling misconceptions and calming hyperbole at the same time. I found four insights he makes in this process particularly noteworthy. (1) Iran is operating from a weakened, defensive position: economically sanctioned, diplomatically isolated, politically divided internally, militarily threatened by Israel and the United States. (p. 65) (2) The threat is not as ominous as it is often portrayed. The likelihood of Iran developing the capability to build a nuclear weapon, then slipping down the slope of deciding to use it, building it, and then actually using it is fairly low. (p.66-68) (3) Were Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, it wouldn’t spell immediate disaster. “The pattern of states that have acquired nuclear weapons is that their behavior does not change once they cross that threshold.” (p.81) (4) A policy of containment does not equate with a policy of appeasement, despite claims of the American right to the contrary. Containment has been very successful in American history, both against Iran and other countries. (p.280-284) It has it's weaknesses too. (1) While his argument in favor of future containment is well laid out, he leaves unexamined these past-and-gone options – how the United States employed them, why they are no longer available, and how they compared with those available to us now. (2) “If you end up agreeing with me, great... Similarly, if you end up disagreeing with me and preferring a different policy option toward Iran, that’s good, too.” (p. xix) A statement like this may seem disarming and inviting. But if Pollack is hoping to inform the policymaking debate with a persuasive analysis, this tone also appears noncommittal, deferring to personal preference rather than strength of evidence. It’s too easy – almost acceptable – to disregard a qualified expert who says ‘It’s fine if you disagree with me’ and who uses the words “likely,” “unlikely,” and “probably” 427 times to describe possible Iranian intentions and responses to American policy decisions. There are entirely too many opportunities throughout the book for a critic to ‘prefer’ to disagree with Pollack’s assumptions and conclusions for him to take such a soft tone. In the end, however, the strengths of the book outweigh the weaknesses, in my opinion. It is a balanced, approachable, and insightful analysis of policy options available to the United States for dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue. Even when the issue is settled and the specifics of the book are no longer relevant, the example of how to analyze policy options will remain.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jerome

    In this well-written volume, Pollack examines the state of US-Iranian relations and how trust has been almost completely destroyed by Iranian support for terrorism and Western rhetoric. While US and Israeli policymakers continue to mull over the possibility of a pre-emptive strike against Iranian facilities, Pollack points out that an Israeli first strike would only be possible with US support, that it would probably be only a temporary setback for Iran, and that such action may possibly start a In this well-written volume, Pollack examines the state of US-Iranian relations and how trust has been almost completely destroyed by Iranian support for terrorism and Western rhetoric. While US and Israeli policymakers continue to mull over the possibility of a pre-emptive strike against Iranian facilities, Pollack points out that an Israeli first strike would only be possible with US support, that it would probably be only a temporary setback for Iran, and that such action may possibly start a regional war. Pollack argues that negotiations are the best of several bad options, if the concessions are significant enough, and also points out the various pitfalls of this option. Pollack does not pretend to offer a perfect solution and explains thoroughly why his own preferred “solution” may be unwise in the long run, elaborating on why the Iranians are unlikely to significantly budge on the nuclear issue. Pollack argues that pre-emptive military action would lead to retaliatory terrorism by Iran, which Pollack suggests (somewhat unconvincingly) would lead to direct US military intervention; hence his preference for containment. He also argues that containment failed with Saddam’s Iraq, although this isn't really convincing either since it did arguably lead to Saddam’s abandonment of his nuclear ambitions. There are also a few minor factual errors, like the dates of the IAEA’s UN referral of Iran’s nuclear program and the rate of inspections, and confusing a 2009 deal as taking place in Vienna, when it was actually reached in Geneva. Evenhanded, informative and refreshing, if slightly tedious.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Adam Maisel

    3.5 stars (4 stars for content, 3 stars for overall readability) Mr. Pollack has presented a thorough, informative and generally readable account of America's options with dealing with the Iranian nuclear program. While Mr. Pollack has a past reputation as a hawkish analyst, his book endorses the containment strategy that the Obama administration is pursuing while spelling out the advantages and disadvantages of it (as well as Israeli or American air/ground incursions). Mr. Pollack does very well 3.5 stars (4 stars for content, 3 stars for overall readability) Mr. Pollack has presented a thorough, informative and generally readable account of America's options with dealing with the Iranian nuclear program. While Mr. Pollack has a past reputation as a hawkish analyst, his book endorses the containment strategy that the Obama administration is pursuing while spelling out the advantages and disadvantages of it (as well as Israeli or American air/ground incursions). Mr. Pollack does very well to remain above the pale of some of the more rabid arguments for and against intervention that dominate the major media outlets, and though he makes very clear in the introduction which course of action he favors, he gives objective (as one possibly can) treatment to all options and outcomes. The author's arguments become redundant at times, but overall "Unthinkable" provides an important starting point for anyone seeking a more informed conversation on Iran's nuclear aspirations and what the United States should do about it.

  8. 4 out of 5

    K C

    I probably would have appreciated this book a lot more if I had read it when it came out instead of 2 years later. A lot has happened in those two years which made me question some of the authors assumptions in the first half of the book - ie Rouhani leading Iran, the fall of the Arab spring, the rise of ISIS, and now the collapse of Yemen - all instances where Iran has become a stronger, not a weaker force. However, despite this and despite the fact that I found the first half to two thirds inc I probably would have appreciated this book a lot more if I had read it when it came out instead of 2 years later. A lot has happened in those two years which made me question some of the authors assumptions in the first half of the book - ie Rouhani leading Iran, the fall of the Arab spring, the rise of ISIS, and now the collapse of Yemen - all instances where Iran has become a stronger, not a weaker force. However, despite this and despite the fact that I found the first half to two thirds incredibly repetitive and boring, making me wonder why I picked up the book in the first place, I found his conclusions and recommendations insightful, practical and in most instances, realistic (the one exception being his belief that the US can still have a successful policy of regime change). And it gave me hope that Obama's policy and the soon to be finalized Iranian agreement, may not be as cataclysmic bad as I fear.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jerome

    This book is written by in "insider" a former CIA guy and government official of a conservative bent. In other words Iran is the bad guy and the USA is the good guy. For the most part the author begins his argument against Iran with the 1979 overthrow of the Shah, who was just about as bad as Saddam Husayn as a dictator, and for the most part ignores or downplays the overthrow by the CIA and MI6 of the legitimate, if not liked, government of Mosaddeq, which was the real start of problems between This book is written by in "insider" a former CIA guy and government official of a conservative bent. In other words Iran is the bad guy and the USA is the good guy. For the most part the author begins his argument against Iran with the 1979 overthrow of the Shah, who was just about as bad as Saddam Husayn as a dictator, and for the most part ignores or downplays the overthrow by the CIA and MI6 of the legitimate, if not liked, government of Mosaddeq, which was the real start of problems between the West and Iran. I found the book to be rather repetitive about the wrongs of the Iranian government and a general whitewash of the CIA and the American governments actions. Some useful information, but should be read with a grain of salt.

  10. 5 out of 5

    GONZA

    Very interesting book that could also be used to understand the current strategy (or lack thereof) of the United States against Syria. Of course they are absolutely competent to write about any criticism of what was stated by the author, since he was a political consultant and I read lovestories. Libro molto interessante che potrebbe anche essere usato per comprendere l'attuale strategia (o assenza della stessa) degli Stati Uniti nei confronti della Siria. Naturalmente non sono assolutamente comp Very interesting book that could also be used to understand the current strategy (or lack thereof) of the United States against Syria. Of course they are absolutely competent to write about any criticism of what was stated by the author, since he was a political consultant and I read lovestories. Libro molto interessante che potrebbe anche essere usato per comprendere l'attuale strategia (o assenza della stessa) degli Stati Uniti nei confronti della Siria. Naturalmente non sono assolutamente competente per scrivere una qualsiasi critica a riguardo di quanto affermato dall'autore, considerato che lui era un consulente politico e io leggo libri d'amore. THANKS TO NETGALLEY AND SIMON&SCHUSTER FOR THE PREVIEW!

  11. 4 out of 5

    Ryan

    I received this book through Goodreads First Reads. Before reading this, my knowledge of Iran and the situation in the Middle East concerning nuclear weapons was minimal at best. Pollack's book clarified and explained explicitly the situation and the American options to deal with the situation. He mentions the hysteria that surrounds the Middle East and that surrounds our possible approaches. I was impressed to find that he does not engage in any of such hysteria. All his points are relatively u I received this book through Goodreads First Reads. Before reading this, my knowledge of Iran and the situation in the Middle East concerning nuclear weapons was minimal at best. Pollack's book clarified and explained explicitly the situation and the American options to deal with the situation. He mentions the hysteria that surrounds the Middle East and that surrounds our possible approaches. I was impressed to find that he does not engage in any of such hysteria. All his points are relatively unbiased and clearly and concisely written. If you are interested in educating yourself in Middle Eastern affairs, especially concerning nuclear proliferation, I would definitely suggest this book.

  12. 5 out of 5

    David Quinn

    4 stars based mainly on the quality of the author’s analysis of American options and the historical sections of the book. (The primary factor in my ratings is typically how much I enjoyed reading a book.) There were a few times I read a page or two and was completely blank on what I had just read. And re-reading didn’t help. As the days and weeks pass I’m sure I’ll recall very little about the book’s particulars but I’ll remember the author as a first-rate analyst (and be comforted by the thought 4 stars based mainly on the quality of the author’s analysis of American options and the historical sections of the book. (The primary factor in my ratings is typically how much I enjoyed reading a book.) There were a few times I read a page or two and was completely blank on what I had just read. And re-reading didn’t help. As the days and weeks pass I’m sure I’ll recall very little about the book’s particulars but I’ll remember the author as a first-rate analyst (and be comforted by the thought that the federal government employs such bright, competent people).

  13. 4 out of 5

    Alexa

    Great read...really good primer on the pros and cons of various arguments for dealing with a nuclear Iran. Pollack, a former professor of mine, does a thorough job of objectively analyzing each option before then making a cogent argument of his own. Although I naturally do not agree with everything, this book has helped to challenge some of my own thinking on the issue and has prompted me to reconsider other perspectives. I am interested to read Pollack's thoughts on the latest nuclear developme Great read...really good primer on the pros and cons of various arguments for dealing with a nuclear Iran. Pollack, a former professor of mine, does a thorough job of objectively analyzing each option before then making a cogent argument of his own. Although I naturally do not agree with everything, this book has helped to challenge some of my own thinking on the issue and has prompted me to reconsider other perspectives. I am interested to read Pollack's thoughts on the latest nuclear developments, as, regrettably, his book was published only a short time before the latest nuclear deal.

  14. 4 out of 5

    UChicagoLaw

    "An analysis of Iran's foreign policy with special reference to its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability. Written by a Middle Eastern expert, Kenneth Pollack, who has extensive governmental experience in Middle East Affairs and a long record as a scholar writing on Middle Eastern Affairs." - Kenneth W. Dam "An analysis of Iran's foreign policy with special reference to its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability. Written by a Middle Eastern expert, Kenneth Pollack, who has extensive governmental experience in Middle East Affairs and a long record as a scholar writing on Middle Eastern Affairs." - Kenneth W. Dam

  15. 4 out of 5

    Alex Bohl

    I recieved a copy of this book through Goodreads Giveaways. I give it 4 stars because it is very well written, and his arguments always had facts to back it up. Very good book for people interested in foreign politics.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Sonny Kushwaha

    Serious and objective analysis. Thoroughly explains his arguments and his underlying premises.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Megan

    Impressive and thorough, but ultimately repetitive. I appreciated Pollack's effort to present other view points fairly.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Stephen Boiko

    Another intreging work by Mr Pollack.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Justin

  20. 4 out of 5

    Philip Lillies

  21. 5 out of 5

    Will Pittinos

  22. 5 out of 5

    Stebėtojas

  23. 4 out of 5

    John

  24. 5 out of 5

    Jeff Conheady

  25. 5 out of 5

    Brendan Gawlowski

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jared Dmello

  27. 4 out of 5

    B.J. Marshall

  28. 4 out of 5

    Paul

  29. 4 out of 5

    Bryon

  30. 5 out of 5

    Dan

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