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Iran Policy and the 50th Anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis

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The unrepentant neo-cons and backbenchers on Mitt Romney's foreign policy team, such as Dan Senor and Cofer Black, always advise their candidate to attack signs of "weakness" coming from President Obama. The Administration's announcement of direct talks between the U.S. and Iran should be welcomed as good news by those who don't wish to see yet another bloodbath in the Middle East but Romney can be counted on to condemn the diplomatic breakthrough as insufficiently hawkish. The news that Obama has chosen dialogue over saber-rattling gives Romney the opportunity to vent his criticism at the sole foreign policy debate that falls on the 50th anniversary of the night when President John F. Kennedy first made public the existence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba.

Fifty years ago, President Kennedy, after being informed that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had deployed intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Cuba, was able to move beyond his knee jerk reaction to bomb and invade the island. Fortunately, over the course of days Kennedy tempered his response by adding statesmanship to his brinkmanship. The idea of bombing Cuba followed by a ground invasion was sidelined in favor of more incremental pressures: seeking multilateral assistance while enforcing a Naval "quarantine" of Soviet vessels to give negotiations more time.

As the United States tries to assess the danger of Iran becoming a nuclear power the lessons of JFK's dealing with the Soviets over the change in the nuclear status quo is more relevant than ever.

The bluster and war mongering of repeating the mantra "all options are on the table" needlessly heightens tensions and makes war more likely if it is not accompanied by face-saving ways out of the crisis. The U.S.'s adversary du jour, (in this case the fallible clerics who run the Islamic Republic of Iran), typically do not respond well to military threats of air strikes, "red lines," or "axis of evil" rhetoric (thank you David Frum). These kinds of intimidating tactics coming from a nuclear power that can lay waste to Iran, although favored by the neo-cons who brought us the disastrous war in Iraq, if devoid of any links to a pathway out of the confrontation amount to little more than bullying and belligerence. In the case of Iran, the threat of "the use of force" after years of George W. Bush's calamitous policies in the region do nothing to dissuade the Ayatollahs from continuing their nuclear enrichment program.

Iran remains a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which has safeguards and allowances for the civilian uses of nuclear power. The best U.S. intelligence analyses conclude that Iran is not building an atomic bomb.

If President Kennedy could offer an off-ramp from disaster to Nikita Khrushchev, who was at the time the U.S.'s most bombastic ideological foe who possessed a nuclear arsenal big enough to do serious damage, then a sitting U.S. president today can give Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (a far weaker adversary) a similar face-saving way out of the current "crisis."

Through secret backchannels, Kennedy offered Khrushchev sweeteners in the form of offering to remove the U.S.'s Jupiter missiles from Turkey and pledging not to invade the island in exchange for the Soviets agreeing to take their missiles out of Cuba. Any public ultimatum ("red line") against Iran absent of private offers of concessions amounts to nothing more than war mongering.

A wiser policy toward Iran more akin to the one Kennedy applied to Cuba during the missile crisis would be to take the military option "off the table," quiet down the noise level from actors in the U.S. and in the region (such as Bibi Netanyahu) who are screaming for a war, and deal with Iran on terms of mutual respect and a realist recognition of shared interests. This dual-track policy appears to be where President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton are heading. It is the only policy that can defuse the "crisis." There is no military solution.

Let's not forget that in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks Iran offered to help the United States track down Al Qaeda and has assisted in stemming the drug traffic out of Afghanistan. And let's also not forget that the Reagan Administration armed the government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the mid-1980s in an attempt (according to Reagan) to open up a "dialogue." And let's not further forget that it was the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency that in August 1953 overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh and installed the Shah Reza Pahlavi. The CIA coup d'état, organized from within the U.S. embassy in Tehran, re-wrote that nation's history denying Iran in the early 1950s what might be called today a "Persian Spring."

There has never been an adequate American acknowledgement that the U.S. was responsible for propping up a dictatorship in Iran under the Shah for 25 years, which set the stage for the 1979 revolution that brought the clerics to power in the first place. The recent history of American-Iranian relations, which has been a lengthy series of underhanded and failed policies, must be taken into account. A little humility on the American side could go a long way.

In October 1962, President Kennedy's sobering experience during the missile crisis led directly to his American University speech of June 1963 where he called for an end to the demonization and brinkmanship of the Cold War. The crisis also put the Atmospheric Test-Ban Treaty on the front burner of his priorities and Kennedy spent considerable political "capital" in prodding the U.S. Senate to ratify the treaty.

Had Kennedy decided to bomb and invade Cuba it would have been popular with the hardliners around him and with American public opinion. But it is also highly likely that one of the 98 tactical nuclear bombs on the island would have been detonated over the heads of U.S. marines. (There had been good cause for politicians and other residents of Washington to begin readying bunkers and bomb shelters.)

On October 22, 1962, in announcing the existence of the missiles President Kennedy chillingly told the world that any detonation of a nuclear device in the Western Hemisphere would be considered "an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union." Yet he understood that Khrushchev would have to brush back the hardliners inside his own government. Imposing a U.S. Navy "quarantine" of Soviet ships heading for Cuba and bringing in the United Nations and allies to help find a way out of the crisis was the least pugnacious of the military options and it bought time for negotiations.

Robert F. Kennedy was sent as his brother's emissary to privately talk to the Kremlin-connected journalist, Georgi Bolshakov, and to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. The U.S. offered to dismantle its Jupiter missiles in Turkey and agreed not to try to topple the Castro regime. In late 1963, Kennedy even sent out feelers to the Cuban government that normalizing U.S. relations might be a possibility if Castro agreed to certain conditions, such as limiting the Soviet military presence. Although these efforts were cut short by Kennedy's assassination they illustrate that he was willing to make substantial concessions and push against the Cold War orthodoxy of the period that took as gospel that the Soviets only respected threats of massive violence.

With the ongoing partisan attacks against President Obama when facing challenges in a more complicated world than existed a half century ago, along with his ill-advised escalation of drone attacks that only increase tensions and create new enemies, the last thing this country needs is to blunder itself into another misguided war. What's needed when dealing with Iran and its nuclear program is the cautious pragmatism and willingness to bend and make concessions that characterized President Kennedy's strategy 50 years ago.

During the missile crisis the United States and the Soviet Union sidelined regional actors who called for military actions that would be in nobody's interest (including those demanding it). And like the crisis of 1962 the tensions with Iran in 2012 can be lessened with a greater willingness to compromise, the offering of concessions, and a recognition that war will only bring added misery and hardship to the people in that part of the world who have already endured enough.

Romney will no doubt go on the offensive against Obama's new Iran initiative decrying it as "weak" and not aligned with his neo-con proclivities. The Right's echo chamber will denounce the timing of the announcement of talks with Iran as an "October Surprise." But we mustn't allow their shrill, politicized whining about sensible diplomatic overtures drown out the crucial need for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Unfortunately, neither candidate today could make the kind of speech that President Kennedy delivered in June 1963 without enduring considerable political fallout. Kennedy said in his American University address:

"[H]istory teaches us that enmities between nations, as between individuals, do not last forever. However fixed our likes and dislikes may seem, the tide of time and events will often bring surprising changes in the relations between nations and neighbors. So let us persevere. Peace need not be impracticable, and war need not be inevitable. By defining our goal more clearly, by making it seem more manageable and less remote, we can help all people to see it, to draw hope from it, and to move irresistibly towards it... For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal ... [W]e shall ... do our part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just. We are not helpless before that task or hopeless of its success. Confident and unafraid, we must labor on -- not towards a strategy of annihilation but towards a strategy of peace."