This piece is part of an On Leadership special feature exploring the present-day Iran tensions in the context of leadership lessons from crises confronted by Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy.
The mounting confrontation between the United States and Iran is like a Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion. Events are moving, seemingly inexorably, toward a showdown at which point President Obama will have to choose to either attack Iran’s nuclear facilities or acquiesce in an Iranian nuclear bomb. When examined in turn, each of these two options seems worse than the other.
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.
A similar deal with Iran could be developed. It could start with selling Iran 20-percent enriched uranium fuel for its Tehran Research Reactor in return for an Iranian pledge to stop its own enrichment beyond 5 percent — the level required to fuel nuclear electricity plants. If Iran were to agree, the United States could communicate privately to it that any violation of that agreement would justify U.S. military action. A U.N. Security Council Resolution could also authorize states to take punitive actions to enforce the deal.
The sweetener would be acknowledgement of Iran’s right to enrich uranium to the level required for fuel for civilian nuclear electricity plants, in return for its adherence to maximal nuclear inspections and related transparency measures. In effect, everyone gets something they want. Together with intelligence efforts by the United States and other countries, such a deal would offer the best assurance available that Iran is not secretly undertaking a nuclear weapons program.
Creating an agreement that would be acceptable not only by the standards of Iran’s Supreme Leader but also by those of U.S. and Israeli politics would be a challenge equal to JFK’s finest hour. For Obama, it would require imagination, courage and a willingness to weather what would undoubtedly be withering attacks from political opponents. Still, even if such a plan would be ugly and painful, it is clearly preferable to either war or a nuclear-armed Iran.
The first and most important lesson from the Missile Crisis for Obama is that when presented with a binary choice between unacceptable options, it is important to explore alternatives that, however unacceptable, are less catastrophic. Kennedy summarized his key take-away from the Missile Crisis this way: Success requires averting “confrontations that bring an adversary to a choice of either humiliating retreat or nuclear war.”
Graham Allison is director of Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and author of the book Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe .
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