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The standoff with the Islamic Republic of Iran has frustrated each of the last five U.S. presidents, going back to Jimmy Carter, as one U.S. initiative after another has failed. One recurring problem has been that Washington's reaching out to Iranian figures thought of as moderates or pragmatists then boomerangs. This pattern surfaced when national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski met in November 1980 with Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, which days later led to the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran; the Iran-contra affair offers another example.

Pollack presents a fascinating 130-page account of this same U.S. effort to reach out to reputed Iranian moderates, but during the Clinton administration, when he worked on Iran at the National Security Council. After a detailed description of these efforts, he concludes, "I was wrong in [the] assessment ... that we had come very close to making a major breakthrough ... [E]verything that truly mattered was in the hand of people who were not ready or interested in improving ties with the United States."

Unfortunately, Pollack buries his interesting material about Clinton's Iran policy at the end of 245 forgettable pages on Iranian history drawn almost entirely from U.S. sources, ignoring excellent materials available from other Western scholars (including some in English) as well as a rich historiography in Persian. His account, therefore, reflects the strengths and weaknesses of American scholarship on Iranian history—exaggerating the sins of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, for instance, while overlooking his accomplishments. Thus does Pollack write at length about the failures of the Iranian economy under the shah when in fact Iran's economic growth in 1953-78 was the fastest in the world.

In his final fifty pages, Pollack makes recommendations for future U.S policy toward Iran, most of which can be described as the triumph of hope over experience: once again, he says, Washington should reach out to Iranian pragmatists and try to arrive at a bargain. If Tehran continues with its nuclear program, he does propose to prepare to take firmer action against Iran, including, in the extreme, taking a "hard look" at military action. Unfortunately, he devotes little attention to helping democratic tendencies inside Iran although the country's transformation away from an Islamic dictatorship offers the only means to ensure good and lasting U.S.-Iran relations.