Focus U.S.A. / 'The U.S. Will Have to Confront Iran or Give Up the Middle East'

Amitai Etzioni, professor of International Relations at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., believes the only option available to contain Iran's atomic ambitions is a series of assaults on its non-nuclear facilities.

Amitai Etzioni, professor of International Relations at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., believes the only option available to contain Iran's atomic ambitions is a series of assaults on its non-nuclear facilities. He maintains that President Obama's attempts at dialogue have failed, and drastic steps must be taken to prevent the U.S. losing its Middle East dominance to Tehran.

Writing in the U.S. Army's "Military Review" journal, Etzioni lists four possible responses to Iran's nuclear program - engagement, sanctions, military strikes and deterrence. He concludes that engagement has failed, sanctions are not likely to work, military strikes on Iran's suspected nuclear sites are unlikely to be effective either and might only delay the program (Defense Secretary Robert Gates believes this would probably be by one to three years), and deterrence works with rational actors, but its a gamble to rely on it with non-rational actors. This, he hypothesizes, leaves strikes on Iranian infrastructure that is not necessarily related to its nuclear program.

Speaking to Haaretz on Wednesday, Etzioni concedes that such a move could be interpreted by Iran as a declaration of full-scale war.

Thats a fair point," he says, "but whats the alternative? The best way will be to sit at the table and solve all our problems peacefully. I was in war, I was in the Palmach [the pre-state Jewish fighting units that became the basis for the Israel Defense Forces], and I dont like shooting anybody. It comes to the declaration that there are no other alternatives. Sanctions are not going to work, everybody knows that. Assuming that if they have nuclear weapons we are going to contain them – its a very risky assumption.

This option is not mentioned in the mainstream discourse.

But it was published in the official U.S. army publication as a cover story. It says something, no? Its not simply what a professor says. I agree that the White House is far from it, but somebody considered it worth discussing. You must assume that the military option covers several options.

One of the strategic assets of Israel today vis-à-vis Iran is the fact that the Arab countries are on its side. Wouldn't that vanish in the event of such an attack?

We do not want Iran to have a nuclear weapon and there is no way you can damage nuclear sites sufficiently by attacking them. There is only one alternative left. I should hasten to add – its not a policy Israel has to follow, its a policy the U.S. can follow because there are too many missions involved. Some people say Israel should do it and then the U.S. can enter under the excuse that its its ally, and some people think coalition is better. Coalition is always better, but in this case its very unlikely that many other nations would like to join the Administration.

Whats happening in the Middle East is that the countries are assuming that the U.S. is going to fold and retreat. Its obviously going to get out of Iraq. The Pakistanis are very suspicious of the US commitments. Syria is moving toward Iran, Turkey is moving toward Iran. So the underlying text in the Middle East is that the next superpower in the Middle East is Iran. So even if you for a moment put aside the nuclear issue – to keep the U.S. credibility to protects its resources and oil, the issue will not be settled in Afghanistan and Iraq, it will finally come down to the confrontation between the U.S. and Iran. So maybe the U.S. should get out of Afghanistan, because its not the real war anymore. But if the U.S. is going to let Iran to become a nuclear power – all the other countries, including the Sunni ones, will run to it. The U.S. will have to confront Iran or give up the Middle East.

So the hope that the Iranian opposition might still bring an inner change is lost?

I think by now the tyrannical regime succeeded in suppressing the opposition. And another point - I was their guest in Iran in 2002, of the Center for Dialogue Among Civilizations. And I met many leaders in this movement. They were the first to start the nuclear program. They are against religious domination, but there is not a slightest hint that they will stop the nuclear program if they come back to power. Democracy might be wonderful, but even though they are anti-clerical, they are very nationalistic.

We have the cliché that the clock is ticking. What kind of timetable did you assume while writing this article?

I dont have any other information than everybody else has. But there is a rule in decision making – its extremely simplistic but very true – its better be safe than sorry. So if the option is to hit them one month too early or 10 days after they have a nuclear weapon – Id rather take the first option. And obviously there is not much time left.

President Obama offered to the world dialogue as a new paradigm, wouldnt it shatter this premise?

The time for engagement has run out. Obama tried it, offered to meet them any time, any place, with no conditions – and they spit in his face. So its not going anyplace, its not working. The Arab world is moving away from him, Turkey is moving away from him. The notion of engagement and turning another cheek is a wonderful idea, its just not working.

But the damage of throwing it away after a year and a half might cause more damage and erase any credibility left. Then going back to torture sounds fine as well.

Its a good point. They should never torture and of course they shouldnt go back to business as usual. But you cannot conduct international relations [on] goodwill only. And Iran is a very good test of that. Maybe 50 years from now this strategy will win, but in the short term its giving up on the Middle East. The U.S. army is exhausted and overstretched, thats why I think they should get out of Afghanistan. And second, I think its an air force job and not an army job. There should be no boots on the ground.

Thats what the Israeli high command thought at the beginning of the second war in Lebanon - that they could bomb some strategic sites and Hezbollah would fold. It didnt happen.

True, there are many studies showing that the air attacks are not as effective as people think they are. But we always come back to the question - if we might try and fail, should we not try? We are talking about the U.S. credibility as an international power. People might think: Iran is not going to attack the U.S., so let them create the bomb and if they get nasty we will drop a nuclear bomb on them. That is a logical position. But you cannot remain in the Middle East as a superpower unless you deal with Iran one way or another.