50 Years Later: Another Nuclear Threat
October 2012 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war. Having publicly declared that the United States would not tolerate offensive weapons in Cuba, United States President John F. Kennedy met with his advisors to develop a plan to get missiles out of Cuba. After rejecting an airstrike and invasion in favor of a more limited blockade, he negotiated with the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, to resolve the crisis peacefully. Fifty years later, a new threat is emerging. Iran is believed to be developing nuclear weapons which are a threat to Israel and could possibly lead to a destabilizing arms race or even a nuclear war in the Middle East. Today, the United States is faced with a similar option of attacking Iran or allowing it to have nuclear missiles. Many have pointed to the Cuban Missile Crisis as an example of how to deal with Iran. But the real lesson is to consider all possible options to avoid going to war.
In October 1962, a U.S. U-2 spy-plane discovered that the Soviet Union was installing nuclear tipped missiles in Cuba. After initially favoring an airstrike, President Kennedy imposed a naval blockade to prevent more shipments from entering Cuba. Nevertheless, the missiles in Cuba remained, and many of Kennedy’s advisers continued to promote an attack in Cuba. Kennedy instead devised an alternative plan that was made up of three parts. The first part was a public deal in which the U.S. agreed not to invade Cuba if the Soviet Union withdrew its missiles. Next, he issued a private ultimatum, which threatened to attack Cuba within 24 hours if the offer was rejected. Lastly, there was a “secret sweetener” which promised that the U.S. would remove its own missiles from Turkey within six months. Khrushchev accepted this offer, and the crisis was resolved (cubanmissilecrisis.org).
Fifty years later, Iran appears to be near the final stages of obtaining enough uranium for its first nuclear bomb. Israel is the most at risk if Iran gets nuclear missiles, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated that he is not against taking military action against Iran. Pointing to the lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Netanyahu argues that to stop Iran from developing nuclear bombs, policy makers must set “red lines” for limits on levels of uranium enrichment, and Israel and its allies will take military action if Iran crosses the lines. Netanyahu said, "President Kennedy put a red line before the Soviets in the Cuban missile crisis. He was criticized for it, but it actually pushed the world back from conflict and maybe purchased decades of peace" (Dobbs 2012).
Yet a proper understanding of the Cuban Missile Crisis can help the U.S. President and his administration point to the dangers of this approach. Like President Kennedy, the U.S. President today needs to find a solution to avoid nuclear confrontation between Israel and Iran without attacking. An important lesson that the U.S. President can take from Kennedy is that while red lines and ultimatums can play a role in resolving a crisis, they are also incredibly dangerous. Kennedy’s public statements that the United States would not tolerate offensive missiles in Cuba limited his options, and during the crisis he resorted to a private warning that the United States would attack Cuba. Publicly, Kennedy allowed Khrushchev to save face. Kennedy said his key lesson from the Cuban Missile Crisis was that to come away successful, one has to prevent “confrontations that bring an adversary to a choice of either humiliating retreat or nuclear war.” It was significant then that both the Soviets and the United States gave up something and compromised. So Kennedy’s plan had the “secret sweetener” in which he agreed to withdraw missiles from Turkey and a public commitment not to invade Cuba (Allison 2012).
In order for a plan to work today, it would seem likely that Iran will need to gain something in order to forgo nuclear missiles. Today, the U.S. could make a similar deal to Kennedy’s proposal. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims that the Iranian nuclear facilities are only for peaceful purposes for energy for its nuclear plants. So if Iran pledges not to enrich the uranium beyond the level required for fuel, the U.S. could sell Iran enriched uranium to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor. If they agreed, Iran must pledge to comply with maximal nuclear inspections and transparency measures. So just as with the Kennedy deal, everyone gets something, and there is no humiliating retreat (Allison 2012).
Nevertheless, the United States was fortunate to strike a deal and avoid conflict in 1962. Negotiating a deal with Iran could be more difficult than negotiating with the Soviets. What happens if the U.S. President and Ahmadinejad are unable to agree on an alternative option as Kennedy and Khrushchev were? If left with the option of attacking Iran or allowing them to have nuclear capabilities, the United States should choose the latter.
Former U.S. President George W. Bush drew the wrong lesson from the Cuban Missile Crisis. His administration thought preemptive force was necessary to stop Saddam Hussein from obtaining weapons of mass destruction, and he ordered the invasion of Iraq (Bush 2002). The United States is still facing the consequences of that decision in the form of national debt, a thinly stretched military, and the death of thousands of service men and women. The consequences of a war against Iran would be even more devastating. Military experts predict that aerial strikes with cyber attacks, covert operations, and use of special forces would not be enough to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. If executed correctly, it could, however, delay Iran’s ability to have nuclear weapons for up to four years by severely damaging its six most import nuclear facilities. These attacks would also show the Iranian government that the United States is serious and will not tolerate Iranian nuclear weapons.
But the cost of military action outweighs the benefit. Besides the deaths of innocent civilians and the financial cost of war, U.S. military action against Iran would worsen its reputation in the Middle East and the U.S. standing in the world. If the United States were to attack, experts believe that Iran would retaliate. Iran would launch missiles at Israeli cities and U.S. facilities in the region. Furthermore, Iran could attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which around 20 percent of the world oil exports pass. This would seriously hurt the financial markets and would be another headwind to the already weak world economies as they try to recover from the global financial crisis (Iran Project 2012). Lastly, one cannot forget the lessons of the recent wars fought this century that show that it is never as easy as planned, and the costs are even great than anticipated.
If President Kennedy had ordered an invasion of Cuba, the Soviets would surely have retaliated. Both countries were nuclear armed and ready to use them. If Kennedy attacked, it likely would have lead to nuclear war and the death of 100 million Americans and over 100 million Russians (cubanmissilecrisis.org).
In conclusion, leaders today must take the right lessons provided by the Cuban Missile Crisis and avoid going to war in Iran. There was no easy solution then, and that is true today. Hopefully an agreement can be reached to avoid Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. But for the U.S. President to find a deal that Iran, the United States, and Israel could all agree on may be even more challenging than President Kennedy’s situation fifty years ago. The United States cannot count on a peaceful alternative option this time and needs to understand the benefits of going to war in Iran do not outweigh the costs.
- Allison, Graham. 2012. “Will Iran Be Obama’s Cuban Missile Crisis?” Nytimes.com. March 8, 2012. http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-leadership/will-iran-be-obamas...
- Ben-David, Calev and Indira A.R. Lakshmanan. 2012 “Netanyanhu’s Iran ‘Red Line’ Deadline May Buy U.S. Time.” Bloomberg.com. September 28, 2012http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-09-28/netanyahu-s-iran-red-line-deadl..., George W. 2002. “President Bush Outlines Iraqi Threat.” October 7, 2002.http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2002/10/2002100...
- Cubanmisslecrisis.org. “History of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Background.” http://www.cubanmissilecrisis.org/background/
- Dobbs, Michael. 2012. “Would JFK Favor a ‘Red Line’ With Iran?” Foreignpolicy.com.September 20, 2012. http://cubanmissilecrisis.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/09/20/would_jfk_f...
- The Iran Project. 2012. “Weighing Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran.” http://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/IranReport_091112_FINAL.pdf
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