Fifty years ago this coming October, President John F. Kennedy faced an eerily similar choice in what historians agree was the most dangerous moment in human history. The United States had discovered the Soviet Union sneaking nuclear-tipped missiles into Cuba. Kennedy decided immediately that this could not stand. Over an intense 13 days, he and his Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev confronted each other “eyeball to eyeball,” each with nuclear weapons on hair trigger. To signal their seriousness and determination, both took actions they knew would raise the risks of war in the short run — but justified these actions as necessary in order to prevent the even larger dangers of nuclear conflict.
Today, the intensification both of bellicose rhetoric and actions against Iran is similarly necessary, but also risky. Over the past year, the United States and Israel have increased the cost to Iran of pursuing its current path, including what are reported to be cyber attacks, targeted assassinations of Iranian scientists, embargoes on some of Iran’s oil exports and, most importantly, exclusion of Iran from the international financial system.
Unquestionably, Iran’s Supreme Leader is feeling the pressure on his regime. But he is also reminding the world of the costs Iran can impose on us: Because one out of every five barrels of oil that flow to international markets goes through the Strait of Hormuz, he can threaten higher oil prices, which quickly translate into higher prices for Americans at the gas pump, undermining America’s weak economic recovery. Not to mention, an Israeli attack on Iran and the subsequent Iranian retaliation could produce wider war in the Middle East.
What, then, is to be done? First and foremost, the president should not think narrowly about his options, trying to decide between going to war or allowing Iran to acquire a nuclear bomb. Obama’s challenge is to refuse the options available and invent an alternative as far outside the box as Kennedy did during the Missile Crisis.
In 1962, that alternative combined a public deal, a private ultimatum and a secret sweetener. Publicly, the United States would pledge not to invade Cuba if the missiles were withdrawn immediately. Privately, President Kennedy gave Khrushchev an ultimatum: Announce withdrawal of the missiles within 24 hours or watch America eliminate the missiles by an air attack. Secretly, the president’s brother promised Khrushchev that if Soviet missiles were withdrawn from Cuba, U.S. medium-range nuclear-armed missiles in Turkey, about which Khrushchev had expressed concern, would be gone within six months.