Comments on Amitai Etzioni’s analysis summarized in “Iran: Deal with the Mother Lode”

September 24, 2018

By Paul Pillar

           Anyone who wrote within the last several years about U.S. policy toward Iran and is now subjecting that analysis to hindsight-laden assessment should be cut some slack because of the major discontinuities in actual U.S. policy in the interim.  One of those departures from prior patterns was the successful negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the multilateral agreement that closed all possible paths to possible Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon and is one of the most important nonproliferation agreements reached in recent years.  Another discontinuity was the Trump administration’s reneging on U.S. obligations under the JCPOA and its efforts—as part of Trump’s broader campaign to undo whatever Barack Obama accomplished—to destroy the agreement.  Few crystal balls in existence several years ago would have been able to predict this sequence of events.

           Sometimes a clear change from one policy to another provides a good basis for assessing what works and what doesn’t.  But in this case, neither Obama’s policies nor Trump’s have had sufficient time to render final judgments on the efficacy of either, even though there are ample grounds for assessing what would have worked if given the chance or is unlikely ever to work.


Strategic Options

            Etzioni has posited three strategic options in formulating policy on Iran, the first of which is to “leave” the Middle East.  Any such typology necessarily involves simplification, but a wide range of credible policy options could involve significant reductions in U.S. costs and U.S. undertakings in the Middle East while falling far short of anything that could accurately be described as leaving the region.  None of the last several U.S. administrations has come close to leaving it, and it is the only leg of the three-legged typology (the other two being to fight proxy wars and to confront Iran) that the current administration is clearly not adopting.

            Etzioni, writing in 2011, blamed diminishing U.S. influence in the Middle East on “reduced U.S. involvement” in the region and “Iran’s expansionist policies”.  But the one conspicuous reduction in U.S. involvement at the time—amid the Obama administration’s inability to realize its hoped-for “pivot” from the Middle East—was completion of the negotiated evacuation of U.S. forces after eight and a half years of warfare in Iraq.  And it was the U.S.-launched war in Iraq, more than any other single development in the Middle East during the intervening 15 years, that expanded Iranian influence.   If that influence is the main worry, then U.S. military expeditions in the region clearly are not the way to curb it.  The history of the Iraqi-Iranian relationship over the past several decades is testimony to that.

            More recently, Etzioni has warned of wider consequences if the United States were to “abandon” the Middle East, although perhaps he has in mind forms of retrenchment that would fall should of literal abandonment.  His warning that the “Shia alliance” would “likely dominate the region, further enabling the area to serve as an incubator for transnational terrorism” is curious given the preponderance of Sunnis over Shias, as well as Arabs over Persians, in the Middle East.  Besides, transnational terrorism over the past 25 years has been far more a problem coming from the Sunni side of the Sunni-Shia divide, with its most important incubator being the extremism and intolerance of Saudi Wahhabism.  The whole history of al-Qaeda and 9/11 and the so-called Islamic State have illustrated that fact.

            Etzioni suggests that any lessening of a U.S. role of “strategic protector” of the likes of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel would diminish the standing of the United States as a global leader far beyond the Middle East and lead others to “tilt toward China and Russia”.  Historically based research, however, has shown that this is not the way governments tend to assess the priorities, commitments, and credibility of other states.[1]  The extent to which other governments believe the United States can and should function as a global leader and will stand up for its important interests does not depend on its immersion in local rivalries in which it has less of a stake than the locals do, especially where no NATO-like treaty obligation is involved.

            As for tilts toward China and Russia, lately the U.S. actions that have stimulated such tilting have had more to do with tariffs and sanctions than with policy toward disputes in the Middle East.  More fundamentally, many states shape their relations with China and Russia for a variety of reasons that have little or nothing to do with U.S. policy.  For example, since the advent of the Trump administration, the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu has enjoyed as much unquestioned support from the United States as it ever could hope for, but Netanyahu still accumulates frequent flier miles in regular trips to Moscow to coordinate policy with Vladimir Putin on Syria and other matters important to Israel.[2]

            On the second strategic option that Etzioni posits—fighting proxy wars—he quite correctly notes the option’s ineffectiveness.  The civil wars in Syria and Yemen provide ongoing evidence of that ineffectiveness, and Yemen has become a humanitarian disaster.  The reasons have to do with how the participants in such wars, and the populaces whose hearts and minds the belligerents try to win, do not think and act in terms of a contest between outside patrons.  Supposed proxies often do not act like proxies; certainly the Houthis—who captured the Yemeni capital of Sana against the advice of Iran—have not.  Fears of what might happen if one’s enemy in a civil war prevails motivates belligerents to fight on, regardless of how much outside help the other side might be getting.  This—and not only Russian and Iranian support—helps to explain how the Assad regime in Syria has clung to power.

            Etzioni’s third and preferred option is to confront Iran directly, evidently through sanctions insofar as they work.  And if they do not work, then “military interventions should be considered”.  This describes the core of the Trump administration’s current policy on Iran.  It is reasonable to argue that that policy needs time to work.  So to use one of Donald Trump’s favorite catchphrases, “we’ll see”.  But the early returns are not encouraging.  Whatever is the subject on which one might want Iranian leaders to budge, they have shown no sign of budging on anything.  To the extent that political winds in Tehran have shifted since the implementation of Trump’s hardline approach, that shift has been in the direction of Iranian hardliners, largely because Trump’s reneging on the JCPOA has discredited more pragmatic elements that favored engagement with the United States.  The economic pain that U.S. sanctions have imposed on ordinary Iranians have not translated into decisive political pressure on Iranian leaders, who are able to blame, more credibly than before, the pain on the United States.

            Missing is a fourth strategic option, which is to engage Iran and to use negotiation to pursue U.S. objectives.  Another possible way to look at this—perhaps implied by Etzioni’s three-fold typology—is that negotiation is just the desired result of the pressure involved in a policy of confrontation.  But such a viewpoint, and the typology as a whole, miss critical ingredients for negotiations to occur and to succeed.  One could say that Etzioni was correct, writing in 2007 and 2011, to recommend sanctions as a form of pressure on Iran, because reduction of sanctions certainly was part of the motivation for Iran to negotiate what became the JCPOA.  But sanctions were far from the whole story.  A nothing-but-pressure approach was tried for years, with more and more sanctions being imposed.  (And these were sanctions with broad and willing international support, unlike the Trump administration’s current efforts to coerce obeisance on a matter on which the United States is isolated.)  The Iranian response was to spin more and more centrifuges and to enrich more and more uranium.  This cycle stopped only when the United States not only was willing to negotiate but also dropped its unfeasible demand for zero enrichment and became willing to negotiate a detailed agreement that would ensure that the Iranian nuclear program stayed peaceful.

            These considerations show that engagement and negotiation deserve being conceived as a separate strategic option, not just an outcome assumed, erroneously, to follow from a policy only of pressure and confrontation.  The success of the JCPOA demonstrates that engagement and negotiation constitute the most effective option.  Success in this instance means not just the fact that the JCPOA—contrary to many expectations from skeptics—was successfully negotiated, but also that the accord continues to serve its purpose by keeping closed, as verified by international monitors, all possible pathways to an Iranian nuclear weapon.  Iran has continued to observe its obligations under the agreement, even after the Trump administration began reneging on the U.S. obligations.  It should be remembered that the specter of an Iranian nuclear weapon was by far the most frequently expressed concern about Iran before the JCPOA addressed that issue and critics of the accord shifted more to other issues. 

            That same specter also appears to have been the main concern in Etzioni’s pre-JCPOA recommendations.  In 2010 he wrote of a plan that “starts with demanding that Iran live up to its international obligations and open up its nuclear sites by a given date, to demonstrate that they are not serving a military program.”  The JCPOA accomplished, among other things, exactly that.  There was no need to go to step two of the plan, which was bombing of Iran.

            It also should be remembered what the alternative to the laboriously negotiated JCPOA is and always has been, which is no agreement at all and thus no restrictions on, or monitoring of, the Iranian nuclear program beyond the minimal obligations on Iran as a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.  Continuing criticisms, by the Trump administration and others, of the JCPOA, lose sight of this fact.  The very grounds on which the agreement is most commonly criticized are ones in which it is superior to the alternative.  The record of diplomacy and of Iranian policy, both before and after negotiation of the JCPOA, have demonstrated that a mythical “better deal” always has been a delusion.


Iranian Responses to Military Force

            Etzioni argues that Iran would be highly responsive to a threat of military force from the United States.  He points out how much Iranians bemoan their very heavy losses in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.  Iran did indeed suffer extremely heavy losses in that war, and Iranian leaders today are highly conscious of the costs of war.  They do not seek a war today, and during the past year or so have seemed especially cautious in their military deployments in the Persian Gulf to avoid incidents that might give a hostile Trump administration a rationale for striking Iran with force.  But if the issue is using the threat of attack to get Iran to bow to some U.S. list of demands, Etzioni’s analysis falls short in two respects.

            One concerns the difference between shunning war in the abstract and bowing to some other state’s demands to avoid threatened attack.  For every nation there are many issues too unimportant to risk a military altercation.  But for all nations except the weakest and meekest, there are other matters so important that they are willing to take that risk.  In short, the specific issues and demands matter.  It is not supportable to say simply and generally that Iran bows to threatened force.

            Etzioni recalls that in 2003, about the same time that the United States had toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, Iran proposed negotiations, which the Bush administration rejected, that would address Iran’s nuclear program and other issues.  Quite possibly the events next door in Iraq had something to do with the timing of Tehran’s offer; we don’t know for sure.  But the nuclear program that Iran was putting on the table was far less advanced than it would be later.  Tehran was willing in 2003 to negotiate that program down to a level lower than what they agreed to in the JCPOA, or would agree to today, because there was much less to give up.  As such, 2003 was indeed a missed opportunity for the United States.  After that, Iran’s nuclear program grew physically and in popular support.  Sword-brandishing by the United States or anyone else will not induce the Iranians to give up the program totally.

            The other shortcoming concerns the way in which nations generally, including Iran, have responded to threats as a matter of human nature as well as the need to save face and maintain public support and prestige.  The tendencies are most apparent when threats become actual attacks.  Many Americans in the 1930s and into the 1940s opposed involvement in another foreign war, but the attack on Pearl Harbor energized the nation into bearing enormous costs and sacrifices over the subsequent four years.  Similarly, as of early 2001 there was insufficient public support for the United States to make war in Afghanistan (let alone Iraq), but the 9/11 attacks instantly erased such reluctance.  The proud Iranian nation is no more inclined than others to fold rather than fight in response to armed threats from foreigners.

            Events of the past 15 years do not support Etzioni’s claim that “nothing is more likely to bring Iran to the negotiating table, not to win time but for a true give-and-take” than a credible threat of a military strike.  He wrote in 2012 that Iran “halted its nuclear program later in 2003 and kept it on ice until 2005, when the United States’ mounting troubles in Iraq emboldened Iran.”  In fact, what was halted in 2003 was work on the design and development of nuclear weapons.  Based on everything we (and international inspectors) know now, that work has remained halted ever since.  The larger nuclear program, and especially the enrichment of uranium, was never halted or put on ice.  Iran continued to expand its capacity for enrichment throughout this period and right up until the first preliminary agreement that emerged in 2013 from the negotiations that would lead to the JCPOA.

            No evidence suggests that when Iran sat down for negotiations that involved plenty of give-and-take and culminated in severe restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program and the most intrusive international inspection arrangement that any state has voluntarily accepted, a threat of military attack was what made the difference.  The Obama administration, which entered office in 2009, was even less inclined than the bogged-down-in-Iraq Bush administration to center its policy toward Iran on threats of military attack and trying to make such threats credible.  To the contrary, a theme of Obama’s Middle East policy was a striving for less, not more, U.S. warfare in the region.  As noted above, what made the difference—and broke the cycle of ever-increasing sanctions leading only to ever-increasing uranium enrichment—was U.S. willingness to engage in true give-and-take to negotiate a workable agreement rather than merely insisting that Iran bow to maximal U.S. demands. 

            Whenever nuclear weapons are an issue, a critical consideration is how such weapons are seen as the ultimate, and perhaps irreplaceable, deterrent against attack by a militarily superior foreign power.  The North Korean regime took explicit notice of what happened to Muammar Qadhafi at the hands of NATO after he had negotiated an end to Libya’s nuclear and other unconventional weapons programs.  The North Koreans have said they will not repeat what they regard as a big mistake by Qadhafi, and they undoubtedly believe, with good reason, that their nuclear weapons are their greatest guarantee against foreign attack.  Iranian leaders have taken careful notice of what has happened in both Libya and North Korea.  Nothing is more likely to sway internal debates in Tehran in favor of hardliners who would like to reinstate a nuclear weapons program than a heightened threat of foreign military attack.  Deterrence works, and the more threatening the environment, the more essential a nuclear deterrent will appear.  With the Trump administration having reneged on the JCPOA and using economic warfare to try to defeat efforts by the other parties to maintain the agreement, and with Iranian hardliners having already gained influence as a result, such a scenario is unfortunately all too realistic.


Regime Change

            Etzioni lucidly explains why an aspiration for regime change in Iran, as a centerpiece of U.S. policy, is folly.  The basic principle involved, as he correctly notes, is that leaders are unlikely to engage in negotiations or to make concessions if they face the prospect of losing power anyway.  We should share his lament, regarding the idea of regime change, that as of 2018 under the Trump administration, “Unfortunately, a familiar bad idea is again raising its ugly head.”

            Given what appears to be Etzioni’s continued interest, however, in using military force or the threat of it to achieve “behavior change”, and given the aforementioned reasons that threats alone are unlikely to lead Iran to bow to U.S. demands, it is fair to ask how much difference there really would be between what he envisions and a policy of using military force to achieve regime change.  This is an especially pertinent question given the vague, sweeping, and undefinable nature of such notions of behavioral change as Iran “giving up on its expansionist forays”.

            Etzioni has correctly observed that the U.S. military expeditions in Afghanistan and Iraq were quick and relatively low-cost in achieving their initial objectives.  The big costs and big troubles came in later nation-building efforts.  So he advises the United States to eschew efforts to build liberal democracies where the sociological conditions for democratization are absent.  Good advice, but easier said than done once the United States gets involved in a military intervention—as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate.  Afghanistan is especially instructive, given that the U.S. intervention there began with a specific counterterrorist mission, in response to a terrorist attack.  Why should we think that finding an intervention off-ramp, which the United States failed to do in Afghanistan, would be any easier if enmeshed in an armed conflict in Iran?

            And how exactly is this behavior-change-in-response-to-military-attack business supposed to work, if threats alone prove insufficient—as they likely will—and if we are trying to stay below the level of a war for regime change?  Do we occupy Khorramshahr until Iran pulls Revolutionary Guard personnel out of Syria?  Do we bombard Abadan until Iran stops aiding Lebanese Hezbollah?  (And how would the Iranians prove a negative and demonstrate that they have stopped?)  Not only is there no apparent practical scenario, but the whole idea runs contrary to the way Iran and most other nations respond to armed attack on their homelands.

            Herein lies one of the most relevant lessons from the Iran-Iraq War.  Two years into the war, the aggressor Saddam Hussein offered a cease-fire with withdrawal of all Iraqi forces from Iranian territory.  The Iranian regime—despite the huge costs Iran already had sustained—refused, and Ayatollah Khomeini vowed to carry the war into Iraqi territory and to fight on until the regime in Baghdad was toppled.  The war dragged on for another six years.


[1] See, e.g., Daryl G. Press, Calculating Credibility: How Leaders Assess Military Threats (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005). 

[2] Herb Keinon, “Netanyahu Off to Moscow for 9th Meeting with Putin in Three Years,” Jerusalem Post, July 11, 2018,