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Khrushchev, Iran, and Bad Historical Analogies

By Taylor Marvin

Confrontation at sea. US Navy photo via Wikimedia.

On a recent episode of NPR’s Weekend Edition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis host Rachel Martin spoke with Graham Allison of the Kennedy School of Government about the foreign policy lessons of the crisis. Matin raised the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, noting that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested the comparison during his recent speech before the UN General Assembly where he argued President Kennedy prevailed by setting a red line that “prevented war and helped preserve the peace for decades.” Allison agreed with Netanyahu’s analogy, and ended the discussion by noting that the current dispute with Iran leaves no good options on the table:

“So I think we’re now into a season where I would hope that after the election, whomever is elected will become intensely focused and inventive about options that are not very good — I call them ugly options, very ugly options — but that would nonetheless be better than attack or acquiesce.”

Of course Allison is right — there are no good options here, despite neoconservative protestations to the contrary. However, I’m not convinced that the comparison between the Cuban Missile Crisis and the current dispute with Iran holds up in any meaningful way to scrutiny.

President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev were able to avert war because each preferred a negotiated compromise to fighting. The Soviets had initially put nuclear weapons in Cuba — contrary to their previous assurances to Kennedy that they would not — out of a desire to remedy their strategic missile imbalance with the US, credibly detere a US invasion of the island on behalf of Castro, and possibly as a future bargaining chip. The Soviets eventually withdrew the missiles from Cuba in exchange for rather meaningless concessions from the US: a tacit pledge not to invade Cuba and a secret pledge by Kennedy to remove obsolete Jupiter IRBMs from Turkey, whose secret nature did not allow the Soviets to present the concession as a victory. Ultimately the Soviets backed down because they knew, unlike the Americans, that there were already armed nuclear missiles in Cuba that would certainly be unilaterally launched by local commanders in the event of a US invasion or airstrikes. While the end of the crisis was a disaster for the Soviets, even the final settlement’s weak US pledge not to invade and the secret removal of the Jupiters was preferable to escalation towards an American invasion, which the Soviets alone knew would certainly lead to nuclear war.

This logic does not extend to the US and Israel’s confrontation with Iran, because it is unclear if Iran holds war with the US or Israel as the worst possible outcome. A nuclear strike or ground invasion by the US against Iran is clearly off the table — at worst, a war between the US and Iran would mean an ongoing air campaign against military targets, naval warfare in the Gulf, and an Iranian terror campaign against American targets abroad and, through its Hezbollah proxy, Israel. Barring an exceedingly unlikely mass uprising by the Iranian populace against the government, this is a survivable outcome for the regime.

Of course, survivable does not necessarily equal preferable. But there are reasons to think the Iranian regime would hold a limited US attack as preferable to publicly walking back from its nuclear program. The nuclear program remains popular within Iran, though support for the program has fallen. If the Iranian regime was popularly perceived to have been forced to abandon nuclear development the program’s popularity would undoubtably rise through a “lost cause” mentality. Backing down in response to foreign pressure would likely be extremely politically risky for policymakers, and would be perceived national embarrassment that would generate push back both from conservative sectors of Iranian society and hardliners within the Iranian government whose opposition to the United States is an integral part of their political DNA. Even if decisionmakers in Iran wanted to abandon the nuclear program, these domestic audience costs within and outside of the regime would make it difficult to do so. Entirely justified US concern over Iran’s history of misleading the international community would make it difficult for IRI leaders to use private negotiations to sidestep these audience costs.

A war would certainly be painful for Iran: the broad US air campaign against Iranian nuclear and air defense targets required to delay the Iranian nuclear program by up to a decade would certainly kill numerous civilians, and would destroy difficult to replace military infrastructure. A wider conflict sparked by Iranian retaliation would be more costly. However, an American strike would not be a disaster for hardliners within the Iranian government. As the Saddam Hussein painfully learned in 1980, the Iranian people are quick to rally against a perceived aggressor — despite American protestations, a strike targeting the nuclear would be viewed as an unprovoked attack on their homeland by the vast majority of the Iranian population. A strike woud solidify the position of hardliners, and give them a political blank check to resume terrorist violence abroad, as well as instantly discredit potential liberal reformers both within the regime and in Iranian civil society.

From the perspective of IRI hardliners an Israeli strike would bring greater political benefits — antisemiticly-charged domestic anger and the marginalization of their political opponents — with significantly less damage to both the nuclear program and military infrastructure than a more capable American strike. A much higher priority drive towards nuclear capability would soon follow, with great popular support.

In the NPR interview Allison remarks that Netanyahu’s reference is basically correct “with respect to red lines and the ways they can constrain the competition, and therefore contribute to preventing war.” The problem is that, depending ideologies of key Iranian decisionmakers, the relevant red line Tehran will respond to may lie beyond limited war. The Cuban Missile Crisis ended peacefully because both actors viewed their ultimate settlement preferable to war, and the Soviets accepted a lopsided agreement because they recognized that the cost of war would be higher than the Americans did (as only they knew, with nuclear weapons armed in Cuba, a US invasion would initiate nuclear war). This peaceful outcome would not have been possible if both sides were willing to “escalate through” war before they reached their minimum acceptable outcome. If Iranian policymakers’ domestic audience costs and ideology influence them to hold a limited war preferable to backing down on the nuclear issue, the Cuban Missile Crisis is a bad historical analog. In fact the Iranian conflict’s long duration — “like a Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion” — substantially raised Tehran’s domestic audience costs by making their commitment to the right to develop domestic nuclear energy more firmly anchored in the minds of Iranians.

In 1962 Khrushchev was able to make disproportionate concessions — withdrawing nuclear weapons from Cuba without being able to publicly reveal the US’ less strategically valuable parallel Jupiter concession — because he enjoyed a position to dictate Soviet policy. It is not clear if Iranian policymakers today have this same flexibility, as hardliners and their conservative constituents still enjoy considerable power in the IRI government; certainly more than their reformist opponents. The importance of hardliner political support means that allowing Iran to be coerced out of the nuclear program would likely be more politically costly for current policymakers than the Cuban Missile Crisis’ lopsided diplomacy was for Khrushchev. However, Iran’s dual government of the elected presidency and parliament and unelected Supreme Leadership offers an interesting “escape valve” to the avoid domestic audience costs associated with acquiescing to foreign pressure. If Khamenei reaches the decision that the nuclear program is not worth the costs — there is evidence that the drive for nuclear capability is not set in stone — he could place responsibility for the nuclear program, and the costs of abandoning it, on the increasingly marginalized President. As Kenneth M. Pollack relates in his excellent if dated history of US-Iranian relations, both Supreme Leaders have frequently used this tactic to walk back from policies they came to regret.

Note: Immediately after wrapping up this post I noticed that Michael Dobbs has a piece on the same topic up at Foreign Policy, though he examines the question from a different angle. Check it out. Daniel Larison also has a post up today about the increased chances of war with Iran under a Romney presidency.

***

On the subject of the Cuban Missile Crisis, check out The Atlantic’s excellent photo collection commemorating the crisis.

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One Comment Post a comment
  1. That is a really good write well done, the image caught my eye, well done. We have just wrote a similar article about Cuba that you might want to read.

    October 17, 2012

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