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Obama, Iran and the Echoes of the Cuban Missile Crisis

September 26, 2009

To be sure, the growing tensions - and stakes - over the Iranian nuclear program are different in kind and degree from the brinksmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis 47 years ago. But events of the past week have stirred the echoes of that confrontation with the Soviet Union. In each case, an international gathering in the U.S. became the forum for dramatic revelations of duplicity by American foes. And President Obama, like Kennedy in 1962, may have secured concessions from Russia in exchange for a commitment to dismantle U.S. weapons on its doorstep.
In a last minute announcement at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh, President Obama flanked by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy revealed the existence of a massive, covert Iranian uranium enrichment facility. After years of surveillance by U.S. intelligence, Tehran acknowledged the secret plant in a cryptic letter to the IAEA (if not American awareness of it). While Brown decried "the serial deception of many years," Obama made use of his new leverage to warn the Iranians on the eve of the multiparty talks:

"Iran is on notice that when we meet with them on Oct. 1 they are going to have to come clean and they will have to make a choice," he said. The alternative to giving up their program, he warned, is to "continue down a path that is going to lead to confrontation."

Playing what Penn State University professor and Iran scholar Fariborz Ghadar called the "ace in the hole" against the Iranians, President Obama "played the cheating card" to make "Iran look really bad."
If that sounds vaguely familiar it should.

On October 25, 1962, another eloquent Democrat from Illinois, Adlai Stevenson, presented the United Nations Security Council with incontrovertible evidence of Soviet nuclear missile installations 90 miles from Florida. Stevenson's speech eviscerated the denials by the USSR and rallied global opinion to the United States. In perhaps the most famous exchange in modern diplomatic history, American UN Ambassador Stevenson confronted his Soviet counterpart:

STEVENSON: You are in the court of world opinion right now and you can answer yes or no. You have denied that they exist. I want to know if you -- if this -- if I've understood you correctly.
ZORIN (statement in Russian followed by English translation through a United Nations Interpreter): Sir, will you please continue your statement. You will have your answer in due course.
SECURITY COUNCIL CHAIRMAN: Mr. Stevenson, would you continue your statement please? You will receive the answer in due course.
STEVENSON: I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over, if that's your decision. And I'm also prepared to present the evidence in this room.

(While the New York Times was among the first to disclose the news of the Iranian nuclear fuel plant, in 1962 its reporter James Reston agreed to Kennedy's request to sit on the Cuba missile story until the President could address the American people on October 22.)
Ultimately, a quid pro quo between JFK and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was an essential ingredient in defusing the crisis. Kennedy pledged the U.S. would remove its aging Atlas missiles in Turkey in the months after the USSR's dismantling of its Cuban bases, but only if the Soviets kept that promise secret.
It is that deal with the Russians in 1962 which eerily parallels the announcement last week by President Obama that the United States would not proceed with missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, instead deploying sea-based anti-missile weapons on ships in the Persian Gulf. But while Kennedy secured immediate Russian concessions linked to future (and covert) U.S. steps in Turkey, it's unclear whether Obama's public announcement will buy the Kremlin's cooperation in reigning in the Iranian nuclear program.
The initial indications are mixed. While Defense Secretary Robert Gates denied any quid pro quo in its plan to scrap the Bush anti-missile interceptors and radar installation (a move which not only caused rancor in Warsaw and Prague but charges of appeasement from Republicans in Washington), Russian President Medvedev soon after cancelled the deployment of short-range missiles near Poland. And after learning of the second Iranian fuel plant from Obama, as McClatchy reported:

On Friday morning, the Kremlin issued a terse statement calling on Iran to provide proof that the plant is being used only for peaceful purposes by Thursday, when Iran is scheduled to meet with the U.S., Russia and four other countries in Geneva.

For his part, nuclear proliferation expert and former Senator Sam Nunn praised Obama's diplomacy, declaring, "The fact that Russia has issued a strong statement [shows] we are in far better position now than we were four or five months ago." But writing at Foreign Policy, David Kramer worries, "There's still good reason not to get excited about Russian cooperation on Iran." The proof, of course, will come starting October 1.
In any event, President Obama kept up the pressure on Tehran in his weekly Saturday address. Caught red-handed, Iranian Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi announced that his country would allow IAEA inspectors to visit the newly disclosed site. Meanwhile, Harvard professor Graham Allison, who wrote perhaps the definitive study of the Kennedy administration's handling of the 1962 showdown, offered a new label the ratcheting up of tensions with Iran: "the Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion."


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

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