"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
For critics of the invasion of Iraq, the name Kenneth Pollack conjures bad memories of the boneheaded intelligence that got us into the disastrous sand trap. In his 2002 book, “The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq,” Pollack, a former CIA analyst who had served as the National Security Council’s director of Persian Gulf affairs under Bill Clinton, concluded that Saddam Hussein was in all likelihood developing a nuclear weapon. Bush administration hawks were quick to seize on his work as they built their case for invasion, but Pollack was far from a neocon zealot. In his new book, “The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America,” Pollack arrives at a far more dovish conclusion. He argues that coordinated pressure from the United States and Europe is the best strategy to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear program.
Benefiting from the author’s background in intelligence, “The Persian Puzzle” is a meticulous and important analysis of how American-Iranian relations have failed consistently since 1953, the year the CIA stumbled into Iran’s postcolonial mess and engineered a coup. Salon spoke with Pollack by phone from his office at the Brookings Institute in Washington.
You were a main figure in Persian Gulf intelligence operations in the 1990s. How did we get Iraq’s intentions and capabilities so wrong?
Well, I wouldn’t say we got anything wrong on the intention side. I think we got it absolutely right. I look back at the chapters I wrote in “The Threatening Storm” about what Saddam was thinking and I think everything we’ve seen since the invasion confirms Saddam’s intentions. If he ever got a nuclear weapon, we’d be in a great deal of trouble — that was a game we simply didn’t want to play.
The problem was, we got his capabilities absolutely wrong. One reason for that was that the intelligence community had gotten Iraq’s nuclear problem wrong in 1991. In the ’80s, we believed Iraq’s nuclear program was really primitive. We only found out after the Persian Gulf War that the Iraqis were much closer to acquiring a nuclear weapon than anyone ever thought. That created a mindset in the intelligence community that the Iraqis are hell-bent on developing these weapons, they are very good at covering their tracks, and every time we catch them, they’re further along than we expect. And that was reinforced between 1994 and 1996, when a number of high-ranking Iraqi officials defected and we suddenly learn the Iraqis were cheating.
Another issue was Saddam’s bizarre behavior. In the 1997-1998 time frame, he had given up most of his WMD program and he’d destroyed his stockpiles. He expected that this would get the sanctions lifted. Well, if you want the sanctions lifted, genius, when you destroy your WMD, tell everyone! But instead, he became even more aggressive in resisting the inspections.
Would we have caught these mistakes if we hadn’t rushed into war?
Look, I was all for going slower, and I said that at the time. I never thought we needed to go to war in 2003. Of course, I wanted to wait longer for a whole variety of other reasons, diplomatic, economic, political, all those other reasons that are coming home to haunt us. But I think we might have gotten a better intelligence picture had we not rushed to war.
Of course, the neocons wanted to go to war for a whole variety of reasons, and as Paul Wolfowitz said, they just latched on to the WMD threat because it was the one thing that everyone agreed on. It’s hard to imagine how you could have derailed that train — after Afghanistan, they absolutely believed you could fight wars quickly and cheaply without much effort in the reconstruction phase. They believed Saddam was the source of all evil in the Middle East, and they really did believe that he was in bed with al-Qaida even though there was no evidence of that. They just believed these things.
I’m not convinced that a perfectly accurate picture of Iraqi WMD would have changed the march to war at all. Certainly it would have convinced me; and a lot of other people in my category probably would have fallen off. But do you honestly believe that me and Joe Biden and David Remnick could have stopped President Bush from going to war with Iraq? I don’t.
When word first got around that Ken Pollack was writing a book on Iran, a lot of people responded, “Uh-oh, time to strap on the combat boots again.” But you’re advocating a very different approach. Why?
If I thought invasion was the best answer for Iran, I would recommend it in a heartbeat. But there are very important differences between Iran and Iraq. The first of them is intention: Saddam Hussein wanted nuclear weapons, as best as we understand it, to enable aggression. He willfully disregarded deterrent threats and information that should have caused him to pause. He did everything that would make you think that he would be hard, if not impossible, to deter.
The Iranians aren’t like that. Since the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini, they’ve been aggressive and nasty and anti-American, but they’re not irrational, and they’re not as reckless as Saddam Hussein was. They recognize deterrent threats and they pull back when confronted with superior force. That’s not to say it’s a good idea for them to have a nuclear weapon, but the threat is of a different category than Saddam’s Iraq or North Korea.
With Iraq, we’d thought the combination of sanctions and inspections weren’t stopping the progress of the Iraqis’ nuclear program. With Iran, we haven’t tried sanctions and inspections yet, and there’s a lot of evidence that if we did employ a multilateral diplomatic approach to Iran, it would have real benefits. You always go for the diplomatic options before you reach for the sword.
Also, in Iran, the military options don’t look very good. Against Iraq, it was entirely conceivable for us to invade the country and rebuild it properly. We didn’t rebuild it properly; instead we decided we’d listen to Ahmed Chalabi and fuck things up. Iran would be a very difficult country both to occupy and rebuild. We could invade it, but that would be a lot harder than Iraq. It’s a much bigger country, with much bigger problems in many ways. And there may be a better way to handle this.
“The Persian Puzzle” is largely a history of Iran in the 20th century that points out errors repeated by both sides. What have we gotten wrong about Iranian politics, and what have they gotten wrong about our foreign policy?
Iranians, by and large, are steeped in history, or their version of it. They blamed the United States for the 1953 coup — which they’re right to do — but also for the oppression they felt during the Shah’s era, which they believed we were behind. And so the leaders who came to power during the revolution defined themselves as being anti-American. Today, their support for Syria, their support for terrorism, a lot of their opposition to Israel, stems from that. There’s nothing particularly incompatible about our current strategic positions, but so much bad blood has been institutionalized within Iranian domestic politics.
Iranians can’t get past their history, and Americans mostly don’t know that history. There is an imbalance of attention, for lack of a better term. Iranians are very focused on the United States, even obsessed, and they think that the United States is obsessed with them. In point of fact, it’s exactly the opposite. A lot of our mistakes have come from trying to pretend that Iran can mind its own business. We’re constantly being bitten in the ass when we try to do that.
Despite that, the Iranians believe that we’re determined to manipulate their politics?
And that we do so constantly. To this day, Iranians will kind of cozy up to you and say, “All right, tell me the truth: Why did the CIA put Khomeini in charge?” And of course, of all the things the CIA might have wanted to do, putting Khomeini in charge was not one of them.
When it comes to the current regime, what do we actually know about them? Do we even know who’s in charge?
It’s difficult to say. We have what we think is a decent picture of the bare bones of Iranian decision making. But in terms of when Iran decides to do something, who made the decision and why, it’s often like reading tea leaves. Iran has a vibrant political culture, and though I’m purposefully steering away from the term “freedom of the press,” there are a lot of different viewpoints heard. But although we have more of a window into Iran’s political debate than into many other countries, it’s very difficult to know where different players within the Iranian political system are lining up. Iran has 10,000 different key players, and on every issue, they line up differently. So it’s very hard to know on any given issue who’s siding with whom, who’s making which arguments, who believes what.
You reveal that during the Clinton administration, our diplomats couldn’t get a two-sentence message through Iranian security to Iran’s reformist president, Khatani. Do we currently have the resources and connections inside Iran to boost democracy there?
I think that our ability to do so is exceedingly limited. But there aren’t particularly compelling reasons not to try. It’s important, but mostly for the sake of the United States being able to say, “We have a consistent position on democratization.” I’m deeply dubious that pursuing regime change is going to solve our problems there. The historical pattern is that every time that the United States has tried to reach out and help a group within Iran, it has backfired on us. Typically, it’s caused harm to the group we were trying to help.
I do think that regime change is coming to Iran and there’s no doubt that the vast majority of the Iranian people want a different kind of Iran. But I suspect it’s going to be a very long time. The Iranians have demonstrated that they’re willing to use enormous amounts of force to hold on to power. They’ve stumbled on the China model of liberalizing the social and economic sphere while clamping down on the political sphere — focusing the energies of their young generation on economics and hedonism, for lack of a better term.
There’s another reason why I think regime change is not the answer for us: Our problems with Iran are ultimately very short term. Terrorism is an immediate problem. The nuclear issue is immediate too, not because Iran is about to get a weapon — the estimates out there are three to 10 years — but because right now there’s a window to use diplomatic means to solve it. We have short-term problems that require short-term solutions. Regime change is at best a very long-term fix.
How has having 150,000 troops in the country next door affected our relationship with Iran?
Well, right after the fall of Baghdad, the Iranians were very concerned that we would make Iran next — the famous “right turn at Tikrit” — where the 3rd Armored was going to turn right and drive into Iran. They were nervous about that for quite some time.
But now, paradoxically, the Iranians see America’s involvement in Iraq as a tremendous source of weakness, and they’re really strutting their stuff. I believe one of the reasons they’ve been so brazen about their nuclear enrichment program is that they believe the United States is so completely bogged down in Iraq that we don’t have the military capacity to come after them, even if we wanted to do so. You hear this regularly from Iranian officials.
But there are also other layers. A really big one is that Iraq has now become a common interest of those two countries, just like Afghanistan is a common interest. Neither Iran nor the United States wants to see chaos there, and both countries seem to believe that the best outcome for both of them, as well as for the Iraqis, is to have a stable, pluralistic system in Iraq that will allow the Shia majority to have political clout equivalent to their demographic clout.
The Iranians aren’t under the illusion that the Iraqi Shia are going to be their puppets — they remember the Iran-Iraq war, when Iraq’s Shia fought them tooth and nail. But the Iranians are deeply afraid of chaos in Iraq spilling over into Iran and they recognize having a pluralist Iraq where the Shia are in the ascendancy is an Iraq they could live with. That would be such a nice change for them. As a result, we’ve seen a great deal of tacit cooperation between Iran and the United States over Iraq.
Now, obviously there are also Revolutionary Guards running around Iraq doing nasty things.
So some Iranian agents are blowing things up in Iraq, and others are trying to keep the peace?
Exactly. That’s always the case with Iran, because Iran doesn’t have a fully coherent government. There are multiple governments, and some of these elements freelance.
Are you saying that we need to defer to Iran to keep the peace?
I would never say that we should simply accommodate Iran, but we need to keep their interests in mind. If we’re going to make any move against Iran, whether it’s in Iraq or elsewhere, I think we need to keep in mind that they have the ability to retaliate against us in Iraq. They’re not omnipotent, by any stretch of the imagination, but they have a great deal of influence and a lot of personnel who are a great deal more capable than the Iraqi insurgents.
If the Iranians ever declared war on us in Iraq, they could make Iraq a hellish place. Remember what they did in Lebanon, and keep in mind that there they had a very small contingent of Revolutionary Guards, it was very far away, and they cared much less. So I think we need to be careful of how we handle Iran because we’re vulnerable to them in Iraq.
Your book argues that our best hope for convincing Iran to end its nuclear program is to work with the Europeans to develop a unified “carrot and stick” approach. What do we need to do to make this happen?
A lot really depends on whether the Europeans are serious about Iran. I think that there is reason to believe that they are now, though during the 1990s, when I talked with European diplomats, they would do anything to pretend that the Iranians weren’t supporting terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. They were desperate to look the other way.
Why was that?
The answer isn’t as easy as people think, but I believe it comes down to economics. Germany’s trade with Iran is $5 billion, and that’s not a lot of money in the context of the German economy, but the money is very concentrated in a few very big German firms that have a great deal of political clout. And while $5 billion may not be a lot of money to Germany, it is a lot of money to Siemens. But I’m hopeful that the Europeans have seen the light and will put security interests ahead of crass commercial interests. The real issue here is whether the Europeans are serious, and whether our administration can get its head out of the sand to strike the deal with them.
You book mentions that the decision to include Iran in the “Axis of Evil” speech was made entirely by Bush’s speechwriting team. Do we have a coherent policy toward Iran, or did I just answer my own question?
To some extent you did. I always bristle when somebody says, “The administration doesn’t have a policy toward X, Y or Z.” Because usually that means the person either doesn’t like the policy or just doesn’t understand it.
But in the case of Iran in the second Bush administration, it’s actually true. The principals have never sat down and met and decided on an Iran policy. Senior administration officials will tell you that their policy is to refer the problem to the Security Council, but that’s not a policy. They know damn well that the Chinese will veto any measure directed against Iran in the Security Council. So at best, they’re kind of kicking the can down the road.
I think that this is a huge mistake. I think there’s a real shot at influencing Iran’s decision making over the next couple of years, and I don’t think we’re going to have this shot for very long. If we work with the Europeans and present the Iranians with a fundamental choice about what kind of a country they want, and what they want their country’s role in the world to be, I think there’s a very good likelihood that they’ll be forced to make the choice we want them to. But the Europeans aren’t going to stick with this policy forever if the United States doesn’t come around, and at some point, the Iranians are going to become self-sufficient in terms of acquiring a nuclear weapon. Once that happens, our ability to shape their decision making goes out the window. We’ll wind up being forced to choose among a bunch of really bad options, air strikes, or invasion, or just trying to live with Iran.
You wrote that “living with a nuclear Iran will not be easy, but it will not be impossible, either.” If Iran becomes a nuclear state in the next four years, do you think the Bush administration would reach the same conclusion?
In a perverse sense, I think the administration agrees with that sentence of mine. When you hear from even the most hawkish senior administration officials, they don’t believe that invasion is a good option. I’ve had a couple of fairly senior neocons outside of the government tell me that at the end of the day Iran’s going to get nuclear weapons, and there’s no way to stop them. The only difference between our policies, they say to me, is that you’re going to make concessions to them and we won’t.
Jeff Horwitz, a former Salon editorial fellow, writes for the Washington City Paper.More Jeff Horwitz.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)