President Kennedy vs. the Mullahs

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

ATTA KENARE/AFP/GettyImages
ATTA KENARE/AFP/GettyImages
ATTA KENARE/AFP/GettyImages

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.

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.

John Arquilla earned his degrees in international relations from Rosary College (BA 1975) and Stanford University (MA 1989, PhD 1991). He has been teaching in the special operations program at the United States Naval Postgraduate School since 1993. He also serves as chairman of the Defense Analysis department.

Dr. Arquilla’s teaching interests revolve around the history of irregular warfare, terrorism, and the implications of the information age for society and security.

His books include: Dubious Battles: Aggression, Defeat and the International System (1992); From Troy to Entebbe: Special Operations in Ancient & Modern Times (1996), which was a featured alternate of the Military Book Club; In Athena’s Camp (1997); Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy (2001), named a notable book of the year by the American Library Association; The Reagan Imprint: Ideas in American Foreign Policy from the Collapse of Communism to the War on Terror (2006); Worst Enemy: The Reluctant Transformation of the American Military (2008), which is about defense reform; Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits: How Masters of Irregular Warfare Have Shaped Our World (2011); and Afghan Endgames: Strategy and Policy Choices for America’s Longest War (2012).

Dr. Arquilla is also the author of more than one hundred articles dealing with a wide range of topics in military and security affairs. His work has appeared in the leading academic journals and in general publications like The New York Times, Forbes, Foreign Policy Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Wired and The New Republic. He is best known for his concept of “netwar” (i.e., the distinct manner in which those organized into networks fight). His vision of “swarm tactics” was selected by The New York Times as one of the “big ideas” of 2001; and in recent years Foreign Policy Magazine has listed him among the world’s “top 100 thinkers.”

In terms of policy experience, Dr. Arquilla worked as a consultant to General Norman Schwarzkopf during Operation Desert Storm, as part of a group of RAND analysts assigned to him. During the Kosovo War, he assisted deputy secretary of defense John Hamre on a range of issues in international information strategy. Since the onset of the war on terror, Dr. Arquilla has focused on assisting special operations forces and other units on practical “field problems.” Most recently, he worked for the White House as a member of a small, nonpartisan team of outsiders asked to articulate new directions for American defense policy.

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.