For the Record: Iran: Deal with the Mother Lode

September 27, 2018

For the Record: Iran: Deal with the Mother Lode

Amitai Etzioni has outlined three main strategic options the United States faces in its approach to Iran.

I.                    Leave Middle East

  • Etzioni noted in 2011 that US influence in the Middle East was diminishing. This decline was caused by reduced US involvement in the region, by Iran’s expansionist policies, and by the shift of countries’ alignments toward Iran and away from the US.[1]
  • In 2016, Etzioni warned that if the United States abandons the Middle East, the Shia alliance is likely dominate the region, further enabling the area to serve as an incubator for transnational terrorism.[2] Additionally, US allies in Asia, witnessing the US abandoning its Middle East allies—which include Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel—are not going to trust it as their strategic protector and will tilt toward China and Russia. The US will thus lose its role as a global leader.[3]

II.                 Fight four proxy wars

  • In 2016, Etzioni pointed out that some hold that an indirect way to counter Iran’s drive to take over the Middle East is for the US and its allies to confront Iran by intervening in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon.[4]  However, he noted, “The United States clearly has not found a way to get the Iraqi government to follow the course it sees as essential for stabilizing the regime and countering Iran’s growing influence.”[5] In Yemen, “Despite numerous bombing missions, and a great number of civilian casualties, little progress has been made.”[6] In Syria, “Iran is not only a major source of financial and logistical support to Assad’s regime, but also sends some of its troops to fight the rebels. The United States’ policy in Syria so far has been to minimize the U.S. role. It surely has found no way to limit Iran’s role in that country.”[7] “Lebanon is, in effect, dominated by Hezbollah, which has a very powerful military, armed with 140,000 missiles and considerable combat experience, acquired in part in Syria.”[8]  In short, at least so far, all the proxy wars failed to stop the growing influence of Iran in the Middle East.[9]

III.              Confront Iran

  • According to Etzioni, the preferred option entails directly confronting Iran. If sanctions do not work, military interventions should be considered.[10] In 2007, Etzioni emphasized that the military option should only be used if all other options have been exhausted.[11]

In response to detractors of the U.S. strategy to confront Iran, Amitai Etzioni has articulated the following three positions.

I.                    “No more land wars in Asia”

  • Foreign policy experts point to the great human and economic costs and limited gain the US faced in the prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and before that in Vietnam) to argue that the United States should not engage in another land war in Asia. Etzioni argues that their “thinking is based on a gross misunderstanding of the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq.”[12] Military victories in the two countries were quick and low-cost operations. “Only 12 US soldiers died during the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, where the fighting was largely carried out by locals of the Northern Alliance. The Department of Defense spent only $39.8bn in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002, while the total cost of security-related aid in 2002–03 was only $535m. Most of the casualties (and the hundreds of billions of dollars wasted) in these countries came after the initial military victories, during attempts to build stable, liberal democracies there despite the fact that the sociological conditions for democratisation were not in place and could not be imported.”[13]
  • “The 2003 invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam’s regime were carried out swiftly, with few casualties and low costs. Only $56 billion had been appropriated for Iraq operations by the time President Bush declared ‘Mission Accomplished’ on May 1, 2003, and 172 coalition servicemen had died. But the nation-building phase that followed was a different story. After May 2003, more than four thousand Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died, and the cost of US operations in the country exceeded $650 billion.”[14]
  • The attempts to build stable, liberal democracies had high human and economic costs. Hence Etzioni concluded that “future military interventions, including the deployment of American troops, should not be seen as taboo; however, they should not be coupled with a sure-to-fail democratisation mission.”[15]
  • In 2010, Etzioni wrote “a military option should not be off of the table” but “bombing Iran’s nuclear sites might not be the most effective one.”[16] Etzioni outlined a plan to confront Iran: “It 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.”[17] If Iran does not comply, he proposed first bombing nonnuclear military assets, then dual-use assets, and then imposing a no-fly zone. The goal is not to destroy Iran’s nuclear weapons—indeed, as critics have pointed out, there are considerable risks involved in bombing nuclear sites—but rather to compel Iran to change its behavior.  That is, give up on its expansionist forays, support of transnational terrorism, and the military nuclear program.

II.                Iran war weary

  • Etzioni holds  that Iran would be quick to negotiate once it faced a military threat. He described seeing shrines across Iran to those who died in the Iran-Iraq War. “Pointing to these shrines, my hosts bemoaned their losses the way Germans talk about WWII and the Nazi era: as traumatic experiences that have shaped their psyche and whose repetition they are keen to avoid at almost any cost,”[18] wrote Etzioni. “The Iranians I met—granted, a few years back, in 2002—were very war allergic.”[19]
  • Etzioni pointed out that when Iran previously felt threatened by the US, it was keen to negotiate a settlement, putting everything on the table, including the military nuclear program.[20] He notes that in May 2003—when the US military dispensed with Saddam with great ease, and after President Bush named Iran as a member of the Axis of Evil—Iran proposed giving up its nuclear program in exchange for a non-aggression treaty with the US. “The Bush administration rejected the proposal. The president believed that negotiating would give credibility to what he considered a fundamentally illegitimate regime, and he wanted to pursue a policy of regime change. The administration’s official response was to criticize the Swiss ambassador (who had acted as the intermediary in passing the Iranian proposal to Washington) for overstepping his authority. U.S. intelligence, however, shows that Iran nevertheless halted its nuclear program later in 2003 and kept it on ice until 2005, when the United States’ mounting troubles in Iraq re-emboldened Iran.”[21]
  • In short, “Nothing is more likely to bring Iran to the negotiating table, not to win time but for a true give-and-take, than if the United States and its allies seem willing to make good on their repeated declarations that all options are on the table—that is, if serious preparations for a military strike take place.”[22]
  • In 2016 Etzioni wrote “The hypothesis that Iran is willing to retract its tentacles and offer further nuclear-deal concessions could be easily tested if the United States were to assemble a military force in the region—and responded appropriately next time the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps harasses the U.S. Navy.”[23]

III.              Seek behavior change, not regime change

  • Etzioni has repeatedly pointed out that leaders are unlikely to engage in negotiations if they are likely to lose power in the process. In Syria “Various international-relations experts have suggested that some kind of settlement should be worked out between the government and the rebels, but true to the democratic illusion, the US insists, as a precondition for any peace deal, that President Bashar al-Assad not play any role in a transitional government. This position not only allows the atrocities to continue, but ignores the overwhelming likelihood that Syria will be subject to ongoing authoritarianism regardless of whether Assad stays or goes. The US should remove the requirement that Assad be ousted, and allow the various groups to work out whatever settlement they can.”[24] In short, seeking limited behavior change is much more likely to succeed than insisting on regime change.[25]
  • In 2006, Etzioni suggested that the US should offer Iran a deal:  “No Iranian nukes, no American-induced regime change.”[26] In 2007, he added “If Iran is willing to give up its support of terrorism in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere, and to fold its military nuclear weapons programs, we should agree to respect its borders and let its people bring about whatever regime they favor, in their own way at their own pace.”[27] This is what he considers a “Security First” strategy.[28]
  • In 2018, Etzioni noted that regime change was again becoming popular in political rhetoric. “Unfortunately, a familiar bad idea is again raising its ugly head. Major U.S. administration figures are calling for regime change rather than behavior change.”[29] A policy of regime change is impractical for multiple reasons, Etzioni argues. Changing the regime through intervention is inadvisable given the United States’ track record in this area, and the other option, relying on the Iranian people to overthrow the regime, could take quite some time. Furthermore, regime change is no guarantee that Iran’s behavior will change.[30]
  • The reformers Etzioni spoke with during a visit to Iran “indicated that while they are anticlerical, they consider themselves Iranian patriots and will keep the nuclear program going if and when they are in change [sic] of the government. Ergo, counting on the protest movements to win (not likely) and end the military nuclear program (very unlikely) is not a realistic course.”[31]

[1] Amitai Etzioni, “Shifting Sands,” Journal of International Security Affairs 20 (2011).

[2] Amitai Etzioni, “How America Can Cut Off Iran's Poisonous Tentacles,” The National Interest, December 8, 2016,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Etzioni, “How America Can Cut Off Iran's Poisonous Tentacles.”

[5] Etzioni, “How America Can Cut Off Iran's Poisonous Tentacles.”

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Amitai Etzioni, “The Coming Test of U.S. Credibility” Military Review (March-April 2011): 10.

[10] Etzioni, “Shifting Sands.”

[11] Amitai Etzioni, “Security First Forum: Plan B for Iran,” The National Interest, November 20, 2007,

[12] Amitai Etzioni, “The Democratisation Mirage,” Survival 57, no. 4 (2015): 143.

[13] Ibid., 143-144.

[14] Amitai Etzioni, “No More Land Wars?,” Small Wars Journal (2014).

[15] Ibid., 144-145.

[16] Amitai Etzioni, “Can a Nuclear-Armed Iran Be Deterred?,” Military Review (May-June 2010): 125.

[17] Ibid.

[18] [18] Amitai Etzioni, “A New Approach to Tehran,” The National Interest, February 29, 2012,

[19] Ibid.

[20] Etzioni, “The Coming Test of U.S. Credibility.”

[21] Etzioni, “A New Approach to Tehran.”

[22] Etzioni, “A New Approach to Tehran.”

[23] Etzioni, “How America Can Cut Off Iran's Poisonous Tentacles.”

[24] Etzioni, “The Democratisation Mirage,” 150.

[25] Etzioni, “A New Approach to Tehran.”

[26] Amitai Etzioni, “Time to Make a Deal with Iran,” USA Today, 2006, available at

[27] Etzioni, “Security First Forum: Plan B for Iran.”

[28] Amitai Etzioni, Security First (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 12.

[29] Etzioni, “What America Wants from Iran Can't Be Achieved by Regime Change,” The National Interest, July 1, 2018,

[30] Ibid.

[31] Etzioni, “A New Approach to Tehran.”