Iran and the Cuban nuclear missile crisis

By Jonathan Power

It’s always better to talk than be super-tough. But Iran’s supreme leader, Ayotollah Ali Khamenei, last week firmly rejected the US attempt to resume negotiations over its suspected nuclear bomb making.

This is nothing short of disastrous. The Ayotallah must know that now Barack Obama has been re-elected not only has he got much more room to compromise but he has effectively seen off the attempt of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to persuade the US to attack Iran.

The Ayotallah probably thinks by going eyeball to eyeball with the US he is going to win more than even Obama is prepared to give. This is nonsense and the attitude of both sides reminds me of the negotiating tactics of President John Kennedy and Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, during the Cuban missile crisis in 1963 which nearly brought the superpowers to a nuclear war.

The central myth of the Cold War which has survived fairly intact is that Kennedy forced Khrushchev to capitulate and remove Soviet nuclear rockets he had secretly based in Cuba. Kennedy, it has long been said, didn’t give an inch. The Soviets blinked first.

The truth about the Cuban missile crisis is that Kennedy conceded something very substantial but all those around him misled public opinion for decades about what had been conceded. In fact the Soviets did withdraw their missiles but only after Kennedy promised to withdraw US Jupiter missiles from Turkey, not far from the Soviet border. For reasons of their own the Soviets kept Kennedy’s concession a secret.

Not until 1988 was there a clear admission about the deal. In his book, “Danger and Survival”, McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s national security advisor, admitted his decades-long hypocrisy and wrote, “secrecy of this sort has its costs. By keeping to ourselves the assurance on the Jupiter missiles in Turkey we misled our colleagues, our countrymen, our successors and our allies that it had been enough to stand firm”.

The justification was that it would deeply upset Nato allies “where the swap would have been portrayed as selling out Turkey”, writes Leslie Gelb in the current issue of Foreign Policy. Robert Kennedy, the president’s brother and close confidant, told the Soviet ambassador to Washington, Anotoly Dobryninn, that this fear was his major reason for keeping the deal secret. Dobrynin cabled these words back to Moscow. Dobrynin much later told Gelb that if “Khrushchev had managed to arrange a leak [giving the facts about the US compromise] the resolution of the crisis need not have been seen as such a glorious retreat”. Both Dobrynin and Gelb believed that by keeping the myth alive it “chilled US willingness to compromise” in future conflicts with the Soviet Union.

But why did the Soviets keep quiet? Perhaps because it would have made Moscow look weak. Khrushchev, we now know, had already decided to back down that morning before he knew later in the day of Kennedy’s decision to pull out the Jupiter missiles. He told his colleagues that the Soviet Union was “face to face with the danger of war and of nuclear catastrophe, with the possible result of destroying the human race.”

In 1989 the Americans and Soviets held a retrospective on the crisis. Kennedy’s confidant and speech-writer argued that Robert Kennedy’s book, “Thirteen Days”, was the definitive account. Dobrynin interrupted to say the book did not mention the Jupiters. Sorensen replied that Dobrynin was correct but that at the time of publication the deal was still secret, “so I took it upon myself to edit it out”. Within minutes Sorensen had made a somersault, an inability to be honest unless pushed.

Compromise does not come easy to either the Americans or the Russians. The myth reinforced the propensity for intransigence and has infected diplomatic negotiations not just between the great powers but between others – as with Japan and China and Iran and the US today.

Gelb recounts that in the famous “A to Z” review of US policy ordered by Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, during the war in Vietnam, the State Department was told by the White House that it wasn’t permitted to study possible compromises with North Vietnam. Only an extreme Cold War warrior, Richard Nixon, was able to withdraw from Vietnam and that only happened after the US had carried out blitzkrieg after blitzkrieg.

Today is it near political suicide to publicly suggest letting Iran enrich uranium up to what is in fact an inconsequential 5%. Likewise sensible compromise with the Taliban, even though power-sharing makes sense.

Compromise worked over Cuba. Forcing the other side to blink first can be counterproductive. In the Iranian case long-time US intransigence has now made Iran try the same policy. That gets nowhere.

© Jonathan Power 2013

One Response to “Iran and the Cuban nuclear missile crisis”

  • Jan says:

    Dear Jonathan

    Yes, of course it would have been better if Iran had said “yes”. The questions I would like to raise are:

    a) Exactly what did Biden suggest in Munich and was it unconditional negotiation or the usual: You must first do this and that before we can talk? And why does the U.S. suggest this now when new negotiations in the 5P+1 group are already decided for Feb 26 in Kazakhstan?

    b) How can it be considered psychologically intelligent to keep on with sanctions, the oil embargo and bomb threats AND invite to negotiations? There is no textbook in psychology that tells you that kind of approach makes people or countries more co-operative.

    On February 11, the US further tightened sanctions on Iran

    I think too many steps have been taken in the wrong direction – as SEEN FROM IRAN – for them to say “yes” to direct talks with the US outside the existing framework of the P5 + Germany.

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