North Africa, West Asia: Analysis

What the Cuban missile crisis teaches us about US-Iran diplomacy today

The 1962 stand-off offers insights into dealing with the crisis following the US’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal

Benjamin Radd
26 February 2021, 12.00am
On 7 February, Iran's leader, Ali Khamenei, said the US must lift all sanctions before it will resume nuclear commitments
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SalamPix/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

“The Americans have surrounded us with bases on all sides… and created an intolerable provocation.” These are not the words of an Iranian official in 2021, but those of the then Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, in May 1962, justifying the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba.

In the midst of a nuclear weapons standoff, these are the sentiments expressed by the national leader of an avowed enemy of the United States, who is observing the Americans use their military superiority to encircle his country, isolate it diplomatically, and seek to economically cripple its economy with harsh sanctions and undermine its entire system of government.

In this scenario between the United States and an adversary, each side accuses the other of breaching international protocol – if not outright violating international law — culminating in a showdown whereby both parties must step back from the brink. The problem, however, is this: each side insists that the other must take the first step — and neither is willing to initiate.

In actuality, this is a summary of the state-of-play between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. However, this scenario is akin to US-Iran relations in 2021.

The circumstances surrounding those specific ‘13 days’ of John F. Kennedy’s administration offer insights and lessons that are useful in addressing the current crisis with Iran following the US’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA).

The situation facing the international community today may be summed up as follows: the United States withdraws from the JCPOA and reimposes harsh sanctions on Iran, and Iran retaliates by enriching uranium and accumulating stockpiles beyond what the deal allowed.

Just like in 1962, both the US and Iran are insisting the other takes the initial step of de-escalation

The US accuses Iran of violating the deal, while the Iranians respond that it was the Americans who breached its terms, first, by withdrawing and reimposing sanctions.

Now, under the new Joe Biden administration, the US has expressed a willingness to re-engage in diplomacy, but only under the condition that the Iranians “step back” and abide by the terms of the JCPOA. The Iranians respond that they will only consider doing so if the United States lifts all sanctions.

Just like in 1962, each side insists the other take the initial step of de-escalation due to the inference of bad faith ascribed to both. And just like in 1962, each side holds firm in its position and insists it will not take the first step. Where do we go from here?

Everybody wins?

A proposal floated by the Iranian foreign minister, and echoed in other diplomatic circles, is the idea of taking “synchronous measures” (also referred to as a “freeze-for-freeze”), whereby both parties agree to concurrently act to de-escalate, rather than the standard ‘quid pro quo’ approach to diplomacy whereby one side acts first to signal good faith, followed by a reciprocal step by the other.

When Kennedy and Khrushchev were faced with a similar challenge in 1962, it was precisely this type of ‘synchronous measure’ that helped resolve the standoff.

At the time, Khrushchev was concerned about the placement of American intermediate-range 'Jupiter’ nuclear missiles in Turkey, which were within range of the entire western Soviet Union (including Moscow and Leningrad). In response, the Soviets placed their nuclear-capable missiles in Cuba as a deterrent to any US first-strike using the Jupiter missiles.

When it became clear to both leaders that they had apocalyptic weapons pointed at each other, the pressure was on to immediately de-escalate to avert a nuclear war. But who would take the first step? Much like with Iran and the United States today, Kennedy insisted that Khrushchev withdraw the missiles from Cuba as the first step. The Soviet premier insisted that it was the United States who 'broke the rules' by blockading Cuba and had also encircled the Soviet Union with offensive nuclear weapons. It was the classic playground ‘you did it first’ argument.

What worked in 1962, with two seemingly stubborn foes locked in a nuclear crisis, may also work today

The solution to the standoff in 1962 was similar to what is proposed today between Iran and the United States: synchronous measures. The United States would agree to remove the Jupiter missiles from Turkey concurrent with and to the Soviets withdrawing their missiles from Cuba.

This way, both leaders could save face in their ultimate schoolyard showdown, with each claiming that they resisted pressure to capitulate vis-à-vis the other. Of course, what Kennedy did not mention, and what Khrushchev did not know, was that those Jupiter missiles were technologically obsolete, and that the US was planning on retiring them anyway, the Cuban crisis notwithstanding.

What worked in 1962, with two seemingly stubborn and intractable foes locked in a nuclear crisis, may also work today. If the Biden administration can work with its European allies to offer Iran a deal whereby both sides synchronize in a “stand-down” – perhaps an agreement by the US to remove banking or oil sanctions in return for Iran concurrently decreasing uranium enrichment to below the 3% threshold – we may find a way out of the current dilemma.

Any synchronous measure must allow for both parties to maintain the public perception of negotiating from a position of strength, rather than succumbing to pressure or intimidation.

Kennedy’s decision to “sacrifice” the Jupiter missiles afforded such an opportunity, allowing him to burnish his anti-communist bona fides among the American electorate and Congress by insisting upon the concurrent withdrawal of missiles from Cuba. Khrushchev, meanwhile, could boast to the Politburo that he stood firm against the Americans with the synchronous removal of the Jupiter missiles.

It was a diplomatic win-win in an otherwise zero-sum environment.

Today, the United States and Iran are locked in a stalemate where, by appearances, one side must yield to the other first in order to reach a peaceful outcome. The lesson remains that an effective synchronization strategy employed in 1962, with arguably much higher stakes and greater risks, is definitely worth considering and adapting for 2021.

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