international analysis and commentary

A truly historic Iran deal: lessons in realism from JFK


As an Eisenhower Republican, I’ve always had a deep affection for his successor, that most enigmatic of presidents, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Like most Americans I yearn to have another chief executive with similar style, wit, and charm. But that is not why I continue to admire Jack Kennedy; oddly enough what he accomplished has been as underrated as the atmospherics surrounding him have been overrated.

His supreme triumph – mentioned but not sufficiently explored during these past few days when the 50th anniversary of his death has forced the world to again take stock of JFK – of seeing off the Cuban Missile crisis, could well have saved humanity from nothing less than the apocalyptic pestilence of global nuclear war. What stands out about him is his cool, skeptical realism, his understanding that in global diplomacy the perfect must never be the enemy of the good. Such an outlook allowed the United States to reach a flawed, but ultimately workable deal with its archenemy, the Soviet Union of Nikita Khrushchev.

The strategic headlines after that crisis, back in 1962, were quite true in their way. The Soviets retreated from their aggressive efforts to station nuclear weapons in their Cuban ally, a fact on the ground which if not altered would have changed the global strategic calculation dramatically in the Soviet’s favor. Kennedy had to stop this destabilization before it occurred. As a good realist, he knew that if he restored the very favorable strategic Cold War calculus that existed before the crisis, he could tactically give way on almost anything else. And despite the trumpets blaring post-crisis about what a triumph Kennedy had managed to pull off (and it was, though not as people of the time thought), the details of the agreement with Khrushchev reveal a far more even-handed agreement, one which gave both sides enough for it to prove enduring.

The Soviets were assured the US would not try again to unseat their ally Castro, that obsolete Jupiter missiles in Turkey – which gratingly sat on the Soviet Union’s back door – would be quietly removed six months after the November 1962 agreement. Both these points gave Khrushchev enough immediate breathing room to pressure the hawks around him to pull back from the brink. The Missile Crisis did not constitute a diplomatic running of the table by the US, something that only works in fiction or following the complete military annihilation of an enemy, such as after World War II. Instead, it was the subtlety of the deal, the give and take nature of its good though not optimal outcome, which made it important and enduring.

The Iran interim deal of this weekend – one that attempts to head off the decade-long brewing slow-motion Cuban Missile crisis between the Islamic Republic and the West – has true merit precisely because of its real-world imperfections. In essence, all the interim deal did was to effectively buy the West six months to try to negotiate a comprehensive nuclear deal with Tehran, during which time it would be extremely difficult (due to a greatly enhanced ability to inspect Iranian nuclear sites) for the mullahs to break out and decide to dash toward a nuclear weapon.

The freeze was bought for the relatively cheap price of $6-7 billion of limited sanctions relief, all the while the primary global sanctions pertaining to oil production and banking remain fully in force. Broadly put, the Iranians have kept their nuclear infrastructure, and the Americans have kept their sanctions regime. I can almost hear Jack and Bobby Kennedy saying that this is promising in the sense that it is more than has been done in the past decade as this crisis has simmered, but now the hard part begins.

And it remains almost beyond the realm of possibility to see how a comprehensive deal will be reached in the near term. Just laying out the final accord’s parameters gives a sense of the gargantuan task that lies before Secretary Kerry. A final deal means Iran will insist on its fundamental right to enrichment. By the same token, the US will insist Iran signs the Additional Protocol, meaning global inspectors must have a pretty free run to investigate any Iranian nuclear site whenever it suits them. Iran, after decades of effort and with the whole country – regardless of politics – united behind the nationalist drive for a bomb, will have to definitively give up its dreams for a nuclear weapon. The US Congress, despite labeling Tehran as a continued state sponsor of terrorism, will be forced to get rid of all sanctions levied against the Islamic Republic.

If all of this seems fantastical and highly unlikely to come to pass, it probably is. There is simply too much bad blood on both sides, too little trust, and too many wrecking powers in both domestic political settings for this utopian, comprehensive solution to stand much of a chance. But in the spirit of JFK, we must not let this lack of perfection allow, in our disappointment, for catastrophe. Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, probably has not changed his ultimate view of his nuclear program any more than the American administration has. Simply put, the Ayatollah wants to keep as much of his program as he can, while getting the maximum in sanctions relief. In turn the West wants to get rid of as much of the nuclear program as possible, while keeping as much of the sanctions pressure on as possible.

However, out of all this there is hope. One of the less commented on and more important aspects of the interim deal is that it can be renewed at both sides urging every six months. Say – as is very likely –  progress is made but no definitive deal is reached. By both sides getting enough of what they want along the way, this useful process can continue, hopefully yielding enough over time to silence the war drums (which certainly do not serve American or Western interests) while stopping Iran just short of a full nuclear capability. That is not as grandiose a goal as the definitive “solution” to the Iran crisis, but it is an outcome that just might work, and is probably the optimal outcome that can be hoped for on this imperfect planet. Jack Kennedy would take the deal; so should we.