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50 Years Later, Time for the Kennedy Doctrine on Iran

February 24, 2012

Back in 2007, Bush press secretary Dana Perino famously admitted her total ignorance of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Now as they ratchet up their rhetoric towards Iran, Perino's conservative allies seem to have forgotten the lessons of that critical Cold War confrontation.
Then as now, many voices across the political spectrum proclaimed that war was the least, worst option for the United States. But President Kennedy faced down his critics and defused the crisis through deft diplomacy, a show of military muscle and by making two essential promises. He brought the world back from the brink of nuclear annihilation by publicly guaranteeing it in response to any Soviet strike launched from Cuba. Meanwhile behind the scenes, the JFK gave Khrushchev a face-saving way out the mess he had created.
As the United States and Israel contemplate their approaches to preventing Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons and deterring it if it does, now would be a good time to abandon the Bush Doctrine for Kennedy's.
To be sure, there are important differences from 50 years ago. Iran is not an existential threat to the United States and, according to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA chief David Petraeus, has not yet decided to move forward with development of nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, President Obama's national security leadership including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey warned that Iranian retaliation in response to even a solo Israeli strike would damage the U.S. economy and threaten American interests around the world, including within the U.S. homeland. (Contemplating that certain blowback, former Mossad head Meir Dagan called attacking Iran "the stupidest idea I've ever heard" and warned that afterward, "the regional challenge that Israel would face would be impossible.") While General Dempsey explained that an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would be "destabilizing" and not "prudent," this week National Security Adviser Tom Donilon took that message to Israeli leaders personally. Echoing recent assessments in the press, General Michael Hayden, Donilon's predecessor under President Bush, said flatly last month that airstrikes capable of seriously setting back Iran's nuclear program were "beyond the capacity" of Israel.
But if Americans have given little thought to the consequences of a U.S. or Israeli attack to prevent Iran development of nuclear weapons, even less has gone into understanding what would happen next if Tehran succeeds.

That's one reason why recalling JFK's posture during the missile crisis of October 1962 is so crucial now. To those who believe the mullahs in Iran would a launch a nuclear first strike against the U.S. or Israel, Kennedy's nationally televised warning to the USSR is particularly instructive:

"It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union."

Swap "Iran" for the Soviet Union, "Iranian allies or proxies" for Cuba and "Israel" for any nation in the Western Hemisphere and you have a 21st century nuclear umbrella. (It is worth noting the Israelis already their own nuclear umbrella.) Such a declaration would make official what then Senator Hillary Clinton casually explained during the 2008 presidential campaign: if she were president, the United States would "totally obliterate" Iran in retaliation for a nuclear strike against Israel.
Last week, Fareed Zakaria suggested that "history lessons could deter Iranian aggression." America's own Cold War challenge in general and the Cuban Missile Crisis in particular should serve as a guide to hawks here and in Israel:

Israeli officials explain that we Americans cannot understand their fears, that Iran is an existential threat to them. But in fact we can understand because we have gone through a very similar experience ourselves. After World War II, as the Soviet Union approached a nuclear capability, the United States was seized by a panic that lasted for years. Everything that Israel says about Iran now, we said about the Soviet Union. We saw it as a radical, revolutionary regime, opposed to every value we held dear, determined to overthrow the governments of the Western world in order to establish global communism. We saw Moscow as irrational, aggressive and utterly unconcerned with human life. After all, Joseph Stalin had just sacrificed a mind-boggling 26 million Soviet lives in his country's struggle against Nazi Germany...
In the end, however, the global revolutionaries in Moscow, the mad autocrats in Pyongyang and the terrorist-supporting military in Pakistan have all been deterred by mutual fears of destruction. While the Iranian regime is often called crazy, it has done much less to merit the term than did a regime such as Mao's China. Over the past decade, there have been thousands of suicide bombings by Saudis, Egyptians, Lebanese, Palestinians and Pakistanis, but not been a single suicide attack by an Iranian. Is the Iranian regime -- even if it got one crude device in a few years -- likely to launch the first?

Despite the lessons of the USSR and Iraq and the warnings of experts, hardliners here and in Israel seem intent on the march to war. As former Iraq war enthusiast Peter Beinart lamented earlier this week:

Can you find former military and intelligence officials who are more sympathetic to a strike? Sure. But in my lifetime, I've never seen a more lopsided debate among the experts paid to make these judgments. Yet it barely matters. So far, the Iran debate has been a rout, with the Republican presidential candidates loudly declaring their openness to war and President Obama unwilling to even echo the skepticism of his own security chiefs.
And who are the hawks who have so far marginalized the defense and intelligence establishments in both Israel and the U.S.? They're a collection of think-tankers and politicians, most absolutely sincere, in my experience. But from Rick Santorum to John McCain to Elliott Abrams to John Bolton, their defining characteristic is that they were equally apocalyptic about the threat from Iraq, and equally nonchalant about the difficulties of successfully attacking it...How can it be, less than a decade after the U.S. invaded Iraq, that the Iran debate is breaking down along largely the same lines, and the people who were manifestly, painfully wrong about that war are driving the debate this time as well? Culturally, it's a fascinating question--and too depressing for words.

Depressing words, indeed, but ones that are dominating the American debate about the Iranian nuclear program. "We know without a shadow of a doubt Iran will take a nuclear weapon, they will use it to wipe our ally Israel off the face of the map," Michele Bachmann explained, "And they've stated that they will use it against the United States of America." Arguing that Iran has essentially "at war with us since 1979," Rick Santorum's message to Tehran is a simple one: "If you do not open up those facilities and close them down, we will close them down for you." While Mitt Romney boasted, "I won't let Iran get nukes," his advisers have been warning the U.S. must launch a pre-emptive attack on Iranian nuclear installation soon "before it's too late." Meanwhile, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman and other of the usual suspects joined a bipartisan group of 32 of Senators supporting a resolution which:

"rejects any United States policy that would rely on efforts to contain a nuclear weapons-capable Iran." Some believe it amounts to a promise that the U.S. would use force against Iran if they become capable of producing nuclear weapons, though what precisely "capable" means is up in the air.

As their Washington Post mouthpiece Michael Gerson insists without evidence, such a policy is needed because Iran cannot be contained. His colleague Charles Krauthammer did not mince words in going much further:

"I cannot imagine the Israelis are going to allow Iran to go nuclear and to hold the Damocles sword over 6 million Jews all over again. Israel was established to prevent a second Holocaust, not to invite one."

Writing in Foreign Policy, Matthew Duss branded that view "the Martyr State Myth." For the likes of Newt Gingrich ("It's impossible to deter them. What are you going to threaten?") and Alan Dershowitz (who labeled Iran "the world's first suicide nation"), the calls of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei to and to "'kill all Jews and annihilate Israel" must be viewed as a promise, not a threat. A promise, that is, because the Shiite eschatology of the return of the Twelfth Imam at the End Times supposedly makes the nuclear annihilation of Iran a consummation devoutly to be wished. (Left unmentioned, of course, is that many of the Republicans' evangelical allies believe "the United States must join Israel in a pre-emptive military strike against Iran to fulfill God's plan for both Israel and the West...a biblically prophesied end-time confrontation with Iran, which will lead to the Rapture, Tribulation, and Second Coming of Christ.") As Duss summed it up:

The "martyr state" myth is based upon two flawed assumptions. First, that the Islamic Republic of Iran has been uniquely willing to endure the deaths of its own citizens in order to achieve its policy goals. Second, that the Iranian Shiite regime's End Times theology actually induces it to trigger a conflagration.

As Duss notes, the 1980's conflict with Iraq that consumed over a million and half Iranian lives was started by Saddam Hussein, not by an "apocalyptic mission of destruction" in Tehran. As for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's frequent references to the Mahdi, Duss pointed out:

[Ahmadinejad] was publicly rebuked by leading Iranian clerics, who told Ahmadinejad he "would be better off concentrating on Iran's social problems...than indulging in such mystical rhetoric." Iran's Etemad Melli newspaper quoted one of Ahmadinejad's critics as saying that, rather than obsessing over the return of the Hidden Imam, "Ahmadinejad would do better to worry about social problems like inflation."

To be sure, the Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons is a dangerous and destabilizing development. Even without resorting to its nuclear arsenal, Iran could theoretically blackmail American allies, such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, perhaps forcing the U.S. to extend its nuclear umbrella. Especially in the wake of the Arab Spring, a nuclear Iran could ignite an unpredictable and difficult to contain regional arms race, with the Saudis and Egyptians pressured to pursue their own nuclear programs. That's all the more reason for President Obama and America's European allies to continue to press Iran with the stick of sanctions. As President Obama put it :

"I've been very clear that we're going to do everything we can to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and creating an arms race, a nuclear arms race, in a volatile region."

Which is why as the U.S. struggles to prevent both Iran from moving forward with its nuclear program and Israel with strikes to demolish it, the President should take another page from JFK by enabling Ahmadinejad and Khamenei a way out. Just as Kennedy famously responded to Khrushchev's initial conciliatory message by offering to secretly later remove aging U.S. missiles from Turkey, the West can give help the mullahs in Tehran save face. And if Leslie Gelb is to be believed, there is a possibility that could be happening now with the assistance of Russia:

Both [Iran and the U.S.] have reached the conclusion that war is worse than continued uncertainty--at least for the time being, as far as the United States is concerned.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been driving the process. Moscow is one of Tehran's last reliable friends, which makes Russia agreeable to Iran, but suspect in the West. Nonetheless, Lavrov has presented Iran with an unpublished, and perhaps vague, step-by-step proposal with reciprocity at each step. The idea is for both sides to move gradually toward Iran's limiting (not eliminating) its nuclear capacity, plus extensive inspections and the West's lifting economic sanctions against Iran plus giving security guarantees.

But if all the diplomatic maneuvering fails, the Netanyahu government in Israel and its allies in the United States should recall America's experience with deterrence before launching an assault on Iran's nuclear facilities. As Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs aptly put it:

"Israel is finally confronting the sort of choices the United States and Great Britain confronted more than six decades ago. Hopefully it, too, will come to recognize that absolute security is impossible to achieve in the nuclear age, and that if its enemies' nuclear programs cannot be delayed or disrupted, deterrence is less disastrous than preventive war."

For Graham Allison, who produced the authoritative analysis of the Kennedy administration's response to the missiles of October, warned that the confrontation with Iran has become a "slow-motion Cuban missile crisis." Sadly, Allison laments, "You can see the parties, slowly but almost inexorably, moving to a collision."


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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