Rational Security

President Kennedy vs. the Mullahs

What the Cuban Missile Crisis can teach us about stopping Iran.


With the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis looming, it is a good time to think about how the same sort of deal that saved the world from atomic war in October 1962 might work today with Tehran. Back then, the Russians sent nuclear-tipped missiles to Cuba with the two-fold purpose of trying to deter any use of force aimed at toppling Fidel Castro and countering American Jupiter missile emplacements in Italy and Turkey. Moscow’s risky move — which also entailed giving commanders in Cuba some authority to launch their missiles in the event of an American attack — led to a 13-day brinksmanship crisis that came all too close to ending in Armageddon.

Things turned out well only because of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s willingness to remove his weapons from Cuba in return for a public American pledge never again to try to overthrow Castro by force (the U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion had occurred just the previous year). Also, President John F. Kennedy secretly acceded to a Russian request to remove the intermediate-range Jupiters from sites within striking range of Moscow. For half a century, both sides have lived up to the terms of the bargain. The durable success of the solution to this earlier showdown should thus suggest how we might resolve the festering nuclear crisis with Iran.

At its core, the current dispute arises from these irreconcilable concerns: the fear in many capitals that Iran might send a nuclear device "downstream" to a terrorist network; the possibility that "crazy" mullahs might not react coolly in a major crisis; and reasonable worry in Tehran that, absent a deterrent capability of its own, a military intervention aimed at regime change — i.e., the fate that befell Saddam Hussein — might be mounted. On this last point, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad put the matter quite succinctly at Iran’s National Defense Industry Day in August, when he spoke of the goal of having capabilities that would "reach a point where they will serve as a deterrent to all bullying and arrogant powers." Ahmadinejad is no doubt implicitly referring to the United States, but Israeli-Iranian antipathy is surely an accelerant in this matter as well. Still, the heart of the dispute lies in mutual fear — as can be seen even in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s high-school-style poster presentation at the United Nations last week.

There are just two problems with a "Cuban solution." The first is that Tehran might turn down the offer of a no-invasion pledge from the United States (n.b., Israel poses no practical threat of occupation and regime change). The second is that it might accept. But if they declined this peace offer, the mullahs would further undermine their already shaky support with significant slices of Iranian society, and the international community would firm up its unified economic and military opposition. If the offer were accepted, there would be the worry that Iran would become more adventurous in world affairs, since it now had a "safety net." At best, though, more adventurism would simply be a change at the margin, easily coped with through skillful diplomacy, as well as by special operations and other counter-terrorist forces from many nations.

To the objection that Iran might accept a no-invasion pledge, agree to cease any nuclear weapons efforts, then secretly continue to build a bomb, there are two responses. The first is that Tehran would have to submit to rigorous United Nations monitoring that would make cheating very hard. Second, the cost of getting caught would be quite high, leading to the imposition of even stricter sanctions and providing a clear rationale for the use of force against the regime.

The deal is simply too good for Tehran to say no. And realistically, there is no way for an American president to make such a deal and then go back on it. Ten U.S. presidents have honored the 1962 accord with Cuba. Ten more will honor an agreement of this sort if one is made with Tehran.

The attractiveness of the deal to the Iranians, and the way in which it binds those making it, means that the most serious impediment to proceeding is likely to be opposition by the United States and Israel. American reluctance to negotiate will continue to be driven by the poisoned relations that have persisted since the 1979 hostage-taking at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Israeli resistance to such a solution will be fueled by understandable anger with a regime that routinely calls for Israel’s destruction. Nevertheless, it is time for the leaders of both countries to calculate costs, risks, and benefits most carefully. On balance, there is far more to gain than to lose.

Yes, a Cuban-style deal might shore up the regime and allow Iran to punch above its weight in world affairs. Fidel Castro surely benefited in these ways from the negotiated solution to the Missile Crisis. And so might the mullahs now. But the sheer gain of keeping Iran — a state that many consider an international rogue — from becoming a nuclear-armed power must be seen as outweighing these other manageable concerns about its behavior in the wake of a pact.

The other great gain to be had, by all three principal protagonists, would be better relations with the world. Iran’s isolation would diminish, and the images of both Israel and the United States would be much improved. This at the same time that the security of all three would be enhanced. Not bad for the seemingly zero-sum world of power politics, where anybody’s gain is supposed to be someone else’s loss.

The only question now is whether some leader will come forth to make the proposal officially. Thucydides, who noted that pride and fear were prime movers on the path to war, would probably recommend that a neutral third party should come forward, as the disputants themselves would be unlikely to grab at this chance for peace. He was surely right when it came to ancient Athens and Sparta; and is probably still correct when it comes to America, Israel, and Iran today.

But Thucydides’ rule should not be seen as iron-clad. John F. Kennedy proved able to see past pride and fear when he made the courageous choice to negotiate an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis half a century ago. And a similar path to peace is there to be seen today. All that is needed now is someone of vision, and courage, to take the first step.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola