News & Publications

September 23, 2010

Experts Debate Whether a Nuclear Iran Could Be Deterred

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.

Litwak concluded Washington policymakers and commentators would be better off studying the behavior of Iran’s leaders, rather than their rhetoric.

All three panelists argued military action is currently not necessary. Takeyh said he believed that it is possible for Iran’s “breakout” can be prevented diplomatically, without the use of force. Etzioni said that the “the international community is very likely to condemn the United States were it to use military force against Iran” preemptively. Litwak agreed and also noted the considerable risk of escalation, adding that “you can’t bomb knowledge.”



Back to top