Thinking the Unthinkable: How One New Book Explores the Iran Question

By David Browne, J.D., Program Chair of Security Studies

CTU Homeland Security Degree - The Iran QuestionOn October 23, 2013, in front of a packed audience at Chicago’s Union League Club, Middle East and Persian Gulf expert Dr. Kenneth M. Pollack met to discuss his recent book, “Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy.” Pollack is a former CIA analyst with a tremendous amount of experience in the history and politics of the region, and he is currently a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. 

The Possibilities 

Pollack outlined the possibilities in an engaging and logical manner and described his latest book as an opportunity to think through our options. He reasons that, despite the difficult relationship the United States has had with Iran, and despite the protests of other nations, diplomatic negotiations are a necessary step in the process to war, truce or peace. Pollack went on to discuss how, should negotiations fail, the options available include military action or containment. 

Military Action vs. Containment

While Pollack believes military action is a legitimate foreign-policy tool, he favors containment as the best option. Pollack, in his analysis of the military option, believes that military people are smart and know the situation better than most. He described the situation in Iraq before the invasion, when the U.S. military bombed Iraqi nuclear sites and, upon invading, still found 14 previously unknown facilities, several of them quite large. Pollack believes that Iran will surely have large and capable facilities that we will not be able to disable, and may not discover without a ground invasion. He further believes that air strikes would most likely increase the efforts of the Iranians, as it did in Iraq. Pollack also pointed to Iran as the No. 1 supporter of state-sponsored terrorism, saying that Iran and Hezbollah are the “varsity” team of terror. Pollack reasons that an attack on Iran would exert great pressure on the United States and on a presidential administration, as Iran would surely mount terror attacks on U.S. targets at home and abroad. 

Pollack discusses containment as complicated and difficult but says that the United States is good at it, pointing to Russia, North Korea and Cuba as good examples. Despite the difficulty of containing a country as large and volatile as Iran, he argues that ultimately containment is cheaper and still leaves the option of war on the table. 


Pollack took questions from the audience and described what a legitimate inspection and nuclear program would look like, stating that the program would need to be reduced in size, and the Iranians would need to submit to highly intrusive inspections. He convinced many in the audience of his strategy, while some still questioned the Iranian government, especially given the fact that it has not yet confirmed the purpose of its nuclear program. As the discussion closed, it was clear that Pollack’s book and the discussion it inspired achieved his ultimate goal, “to think the matter through.”

David Browne, J.D., spent more than 14 years as a special agent in the FBI and was most recently a crime analyst at the University of Chicago for six years. He earned a J.D. degree from Case Western Reserve University and a Bachelor of Psychology from the University of Michigan. He is currently the program chair of Security Studies at Colorado Technical University. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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