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 fifteen years do not support Etzioni’s claim that a credible threat of a military strike is most likely to make Iran want to negotiate. What Iran halted in 2003 was work on the design and development of nuclear weapons—and it has stayed halted ever since. It never halted its larger nuclear program and especially the enrichment of uranium. Iran continued to expand its capacity for enrichment until the first preliminary agreement that emerged in 2013 from the negotiations that would culminate in the JCPOA. 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. 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.
A critical consideration is how nuclear weapons are the ultimate deterrent against attack by a militarily superior foreign power. Iranian leaders have taken careful notice of the different fates of Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, who gave up his unconventional weapons, and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, who has not. 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.
Etzioni lucidly explains why an aspiration for regime change in Iran, as a centerpiece of U.S. policy, is folly. It is fair to ask, however, how much difference there really would be between what he envisions and a policy of using military force to achieve regime change. How exactly is the 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, say, 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 the war dragged on for another six years.
Paul R. Pillar is a contributing editor at the National Interest and the author of Why America Misunderstands the World .
Image: Iran's President Hassan Rouhani attends a news conference at the Chancellery in Vienna, Austria July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner