Iran and the Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis

With Iran we are locked in a classic case of brinkmanship, as both sides tighten the screw until the weaker party blinks.
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In the last decade, Iran's nuclear program has rapidly moved from the shadows of speculative espionage to the limelight of the world's top security agenda. As we inch closer to potential confrontation, it is imperative for policy-makers to draw valuable lessons from key events in recent history, namely the "Cuban missile crisis."

Rising tensions over Tehran's nuclear ambitions represent a baffling conundrum, which is rapidly exhausting the political will and diplomatic imagination of Western leaders. Growing frustrations are contributing to a worrying climate of mutual-hostility and brinkmanship, raising the possibility of a large-scale conflagration in an already turbulent region. The so-called 'Iran Premium' - the growing risk of oil-supply disruptions in the Persian Gulf - has repeatedly sent energy markets into tailspin, deepening uncertainty and punishing a fragile global economy by higher oil prices. An actual conflict could send oil prices above the $200 threshold and/or lead to the collapse of the free-market mechanism, as panicky consumers scramble for dwindling supply.

Recognizing the deleterious impact of the Iranian nuclear crisis, one should expect a vigorous international effort at peaceful diplomatic resolution. Yet, the current situation is far from pretty, as belligerent nations edge closer to ultimate abyss.

Unable to extract unilateral compromise from the Iranians, the West has chosen a cocktail of sticks and threats, hoping to bring Tehran down to its knees. Short of declaring actual war, the West's preferable option is to impose economic siege on Iran by preventing it from exporting its economic mainstay, oil. To press its advantage, and prevent Iran from retaliating against a glaring act of economic warfare, the West has been hedging its bets by utilizing 'gunboat diplomacy': deploying an armada of Western naval forces to Iran's southern shores -- complementing more than 40 American bases already surrounding the Iranian regime. A proud and defiant Tehran has responded in kind by simultaneously expanding its enrichment capacity and increasing naval maneuvers in the Persian Gulf.

In short, we are locked in a classic case of brinkmanship, as both sides tighten the screw until the weaker party blinks. The problem is neither the lack of Western threats (as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Washington friends tend to argue), nor the absence of flexibility on the part of the Iranians. What lies at the root of the ongoing crisis is the glaring absence of substantive and sustained diplomacy.

Fifty years ago, when two superpowers squared off over the fate of Cuba's nuclear ambitions, the whole humanity came dangerously close to annihilation. After 13 days of tense brinkmanship between President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev, cooler heads eventually prevailed and the Soviet Union agreed to withdraw its nuclear missiles' shipment to Cuba. Owing to its outsized significance and sheer terror, the whole crisis would serve as a 'formative experience' for generations of policy-makers and leaders, who would come to steer America's foreign policy well into the 21st century.

Unfortunately, the complex drama of the crisis was boiled down to a simplistic narrative, both by the popular media as well as the politicians. The (artificially-constructed and heavily-reproduced) image of a 'tough and unyielding America overwhelming a namby-pamby adversary' dominated the popular political imagination -- influencing America's very posturing in international affairs.

A careful examination of the Cuban crisis reveals the extend to which mutual-compromise, quiet diplomacy, and constant use of clear communications channels in fact prevented a nuclear war and facilitated a peaceful resolution of one of the most nerve-wracking crises in human history. Besides saving the human species from nuclear extinction, both sides were able to 'save face' and avoid domestic blowback. In exchange for Soviet's withdrawal of missile shipments to Castro, America agreed to scrap the Jupiter intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Turkey and scale-back any invasion plans against Cuba.

In his thought-provoking Foreign Policy article, "The Lie that Screwed Up 50 Years of U.S. Foreign Policy", Leslie Gelb eloquently exposes the deleterious impact of this mythical interpretation. For him, the myth "deified military power and willpower and denigrated the give-and-take of diplomacy. It set a standard for toughness and risky dueling with bad guys that could not be matched -- because it never happened in the first place." From Vietnam in the 1960s to Afghanistan and Iraq in the 21st century, varying U.S. administrations have mistakenly relied on a combination of overwhelming military force and unyielding negotiating position to intimidate adversaries and accomplish intended strategic goals - to no avail.

In many respects, the West's approach towards Iran reflects the same counterproductive predisposition. Graham Allison, one of the world's foremost experts on the Cuban missile crisis, recently described the Iranian situation as "The Cuban missile crisis in slow-motion". For him, we are approaching, "...a confrontation at which an American president is going to have to choose between attacking Iran to prevent it becoming a nuclear weapons state or acquiescing and then confronting a nuclear weapons state." Of course, as the Chinese legendary strategist Suz Tzu would put it, the best way to win a war is not to fight it at all.

For almost three decades, Iran and the U.S. have been locked in a bitter ideological and strategic conflict over competing visions of the Middle East. History also offers no reprieve: while the Iranians acidly recall America's assistance in the downfall of their first democratic government back in 1953, the Americans can't get the 1979 hostage crisis off their minds. Also, in absence of direct communications channels, a culture of mistrust has complicated efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis.

As eloquently captured by the State Department's former top negotiator, Nicholas Burns, "The United States should aim for the sustained and substantive talks it has not had in the three decades since American diplomats were taken hostage in Iran... To attack a country before we have had our first meaningful discussions since 1979 would be shortsighted, to say the least."

After all, both sides share common interests: avoiding war in the short-run over the nuclear question and stabilizing unwieldy conflicts across the region in the medium- to long-run.

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