Webcast Recap

In a panel discussion about potential U.S. reactions to a nuclear Iran, three international security experts provided substantive analyses about the wisdom and effectiveness of varied responses. While the outcome of the situation is almost impossible to predict, the panelists agreed that the threat of a nuclear Iran is not systemic but marginal, considering the reality of Iran's economic and political instability.

On September 14, 2010, the Middle East Program hosted a panel discussion on "Deterring a Nuclear Iran: Can It Be Done?" with Amitai Etzioni, professor at The George Washington University and Director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies; Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations; and Robert Litwak, Vice President for Programs and Director of International Security Studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Joseph Pilat, Senior Advisor to the National Security Office of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, moderated the panel.

Etzioni began the discussion explaining the main options for the United States in its approach to a nuclear Iran. The United States may engage Iran in diplomatic exchanges, enforce sanctions against the elite of the country, or attempt a strategy of deterrence much like the United States followed during the Cold War. While Etzioni advocated an extension of sanctions in order to change the behavior of the political and military elite, he added that a context of presumed rationality must be applied to the U.S. understanding of the Iranian leadership in order for the sanctions to be effective. He also discussed the need to distinguish between the probability and the disutility of Iran using nuclear weapons within the context of perceiving Iranian leadership as rational actors. In this context, military action becomes less of a rational response on the part of the United States, and stronger diplomatic and sanction strategies become more rational.

Takeyh continued the dialogue by recommending that policymakers focus on why Iran wants nuclear weapons. The two possible answers, he explained, are for deterrence purposes from external threats or for pursuing regional interests that may include territorial expansion. If the answer to the question is the latter, which Takeyh indicated he believed more accurately reflects the situation, then the United States must establish three "red lines" that, if crossed, may necessitate a proactive response. Takeyh outlined these boundaries for Iran: (1) no transference of its nuclear technology or capabilities to other countries, (2) no conventional attacks against its neighbors, and (3) its regime should not become a diplomatic power due to its nuclear capabilities. Further, Takeyh argued, responses to Iranian actions, which include containment, military action, and diplomatic action, should be considered not as separate entities but as a holistic mechanism for dealing with Iran.

Litwak concluded the panel with a discussion of how to improve the quality and character of the debate in regard to different approaches to Iran. He argued that a more thorough debate may emerge from a commitment to accurate target-state analyses. While such analyses may be difficult to construct due to the opaque nature of Iranian leaders' decision-making patterns, Litwak indicated that the focus of the debate should be more oriented toward understanding the character of the regime and how that affects the nature of a nuclear Iran. For example, a regime whose elite buy villas in Dubai may not be as apocalyptic as it is widely perceived. This example shows that a more thorough study of the behavior, not the rhetoric, of Iran's leaders may aid policymakers and commentators in clarifying the debate about Iran in Washington.

The panelists agreed that diplomatic and sanction strategies are viable options for the United States because of the instability of Iran's leadership and that the absence of strong ties between Iran's regime and population may provide a greater catalyst for a change in the leadership.

By Margaret Albert, Middle East Program
Haleh Esfandiari, Middle East Program