Experts Debate Whether a Nuclear Iran Could Be Deterred
Three prominent experts discussed the limitations of military options in stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons at the Woodrow Wilson Center last week.
Washington, DC - “The notion that you can have a clean, neat surgical war in which only the bad people will be hurt and nobody else will be touched is a dangerous illusion,” said Professor Amitai Etzioni at the Woodrow Wilson Center last Tuesday. Therefore, the US “should avoid war by all means,” Etzioni argued.
Etzioni was joined by Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations and Dr. Robert Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson Center, who agreed that diplomatic and sanctions strategies are the best viable option for the United States in its approach towards Iran. Although Etzioni said that the military option should not be taken off the table, he suggested sanctions as the best policy approach. “Sanctions are supposed to inflict pain on the other country, ideally on the elites and not on the people… to make them change behavior,” he said, conceding that sanctions often do affect the people as well.
Takeyh noted that containment, military force, and diplomacy are not separate entities. “In reality,” he said, “they’re concentric and they’re all related. A containment policy… will entail an enormous degree of diplomacy. Namely, the two powers will have to embark on a course of regular and systematic dialogue. That’s diplomacy.”
Takeyh also described three acute redlines that the US should draw, which if crossed, would then require a proactive response. Namely, there will be no transference of Iran’s nuclear technology or capabilities to other countries, no conventional attacks against its neighbors, and the Iranian government should not become a diplomatic power because of its nuclear capabilities. The last redline, while amorphous, is still important so that Iran does not “use its nuclear resources… as a means of gaining diplomatic or political leverage in the region and enhancing its support for its terrorist clients,” Takeyh argued.
Litwak stressed the
importance of clearly communicating U.S. policies, such as redlines, to reduce
risk that either side would make a major miscalculation that could lead to
greater conflict. Litwak also
emphasized the importance of policymakers having an accurate understanding of
Iran, and argued that the wars in Vietnam and Iraq occurred because they did
not. However, he stated the current
debate about Iran reveals policymakers hold key assumptions which are “often
unstated, or reflect an ideological predilection or some vain hope” and are
thus faulty. For example, “the
underlying premise of some advocates [of a military strike option] is that the
regime is a messianic, apocalyptic cult that is undeterrable,” pointed out
Litwak. However, he continued, a regime whose “leaders steal the people blind and buy villas in Dubai” may not be
as apocalyptic as these advocates would like to portray it to be.