NEW YORK – It may seem like a stretch, but the Cold War crises that U.S. President John F. Kennedy faced hold important lessons for the nuclear impasse with Iran. Newly released historical files on the confrontations between the United States and the Soviet Union in the early 1960s can help us better understand what to expect if the current negotiations with Tehran fail and we are soon confronted with a nuclear-armed Iran.
Kennedy faced an unpredictable, risk-taking and at times aggressive opponent in Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Yet he frustrated Khrushchev’s ambitions and helped the U.S. avoid war through a combination of American nuclear superiority, firmness in defending national interests and a willingness to resist alarmist thinking.
The first observation from Kennedy’s Cold War experience is that if you assume the worst, you may get the worst. If any one lesson emerges from the documents, memoirs and research published in recent years, it is that the U.S. and the Soviet Union wasted billions of dollars and rubles guarding against a surprise nuclear attack that neither country ever seriously contemplated launching. The obsession with this worst-case scenario made many crises far more dangerous than they needed to be — and even caused some of them.
During both the Berlin crisis and the Cuban missile crisis, however, Kennedy chose not to assume the worst regarding Soviet motives and likely behavior. Instead, he saw the Russian leadership as driven by a range of different goals and emotions, including fear and uncertainty.
Kennedy rejected the prevailing assumption that the Soviets were only interested in amassing power and only understood the language of force. A more nuanced approach led him to opt for a blockade of Cuba rather than the airstrikes and invasion recommended by virtually all of his advisers. His strategy gave the Soviets the chance to realize they had made a mistake and back down without causing a war.
This precedent doesn’t mean we should think that Iran’s leaders are benign or well-intentioned toward us. But it would be a bigger mistake to assume that they are hellbent on destroying us, the Israelis or other U.S. allies in the region, and that they are willing to invite their own obliteration to do so.
Although Iran is often caricatured as a nation of irrational, would-be martyrs, its behavior has been ruthlessly rational for the most part. Even Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — a far more committed ideologue than his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — agreed to end the Iran-Iraq War in 1988 when his subordinates told him that continuing the conflict would only result in further Iraqi victories and could threaten the Islamic regime itself. With Iran, as with the Soviet Union, succumbing to our worst fears would likely produce a wildly inflated estimate of the real threat and lead to needlessly dangerous (and ruinously costly) gambits in response.
Another lesson of the Cold War is that military superiority, particularly nuclear superiority, matters. During the Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower administrations, the Kremlin’s thinking was dominated by the knowledge that the U.S.’ arsenal could obliterate the Soviet Union. In those days, the U.S. could launch hundreds of bombers and dozens — soon hundreds — of intercontinental ballistic missiles against Russia, while the Soviets had fewer than a half-dozen unreliable missiles that might theoretically hit the U.S.
At most, the Russians could have done horrific damage to a few American cities. That was more than enough to deter U.S. leaders from a first strike, but the Soviet leadership thought that the U.S. would be willing to accept such a disproportionate exchange and so would be willing to go to war with the Soviet Union.
As a result, when the Soviets overstepped themselves and provoked crises over Berlin and then Cuba, they panicked when the Kennedy administration showed a willingness to go to war rather than give in to their demands. In both cases, Moscow quickly sought to defuse the situation as fast as possible, even accepting humiliating conditions to avert a war they knew they would lose.
Like the Soviet Union early on in the Cold War, even a nuclear-armed Iran would be vastly outmatched by the U.S. strategic arsenal. Unlike the Soviets, the Iranians can’t ever hope to match the U.S. Thus, in any crisis, American negotiators will have the upper hand and should be able to compel the Iranians to back down quickly, even accepting significant reversals to avoid a war.
On past occasions when Iran crossed an American red line and was at risk of a U.S. military response — during the Tanker War in 1988, after the Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia in 1996 and after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the Iranians have backed down quickly and even made humiliating concessions of their own (such as ending the Iran-Iraq War and agreeing to suspend uranium enrichment) to avert an American attack.
A third observation from the Kennedy era is that communication is critical. Misperceptions are inevitable in international relations, and the fear conjured by nuclear weapons only adds to that risk. Kennedy resisted demonizing Khrushchev, seeing him instead as a mercurial leader prone to taking big gambles to try to address the challenges he faced. Although Kennedy’s sense of Khrushchev was broadly correct, he and the U.S. government in general still tended to misunderstand the Soviet leader’s goals and thinking.
Khrushchev was no better at understanding Kennedy’s motives or political circumstances, even though he too resisted malevolent caricatures of his rival. His belief that Kennedy was a pawn controlled by hard-liners and the U.S. military fed into the various crises of the early 1960s. Yet the wider understanding of the complexities faced by the other helped both leaders avoid disaster.
Kennedy helped institutionalize direct, reliable U.S.- Soviet communications, famously handled at tense moments during the Cuban missile crisis by John Scali of ABC News and Aleksandr Feklisov of the KGB. The growing realization of the importance of this channel led to the “hotline” between the White House and the Kremlin.
The U.S. and Iran have a distressing habit of misunderstanding the other, and in far more fundamental ways than the Americans and Russians did, because the differences in culture are much more acute.
No hotline or other such communications links exist between the U.S. and Iran. If the Iranians ever cross the nuclear threshold, we and they would do well to learn from all of JFK’s experiences in nuclear crises — especially his efforts to keep the lines open.
Kenneth M. Pollack is a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution and the author, most recently, of “Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb and American Strategy.”
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