Individual Analysis: Nuclear Non-proliferation in the 21st Century
At no point in history has humanity been closer to nuclear war than during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the modern era, where the United States has attempted to ensure nuclear non-proliferation; the distant memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis remain terrifying enough for the nation to have decent support by its populace when it comes to pressuring other nations to not develop nuclear capabilities. Although the dreaded nuclear apocalypse has continued to be thankfully averted, there are important lessons in diplomacy that one can take from the most notorious situation. The most prominent today is Iran. The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), a NGO (Non Governmental Agency) of the United Nations published a report in 2011 stating that they feared Iran was taking clear steps towards the development of nuclear weapons. Graham Allison in his article for Foreign Affairs entitled “The Cuban Missile Crisis at 50” gives a brief history of the namesake crisis, proposed solutions, along with making a potential “Kennedyesque” third solution to the Iranian situation. Iran, which claims to be developing nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, has been repeatedly warned by both Israel and the United States about the potential for military strikes if they do not end their nuclear program. The reasoning given behind this is their potential for nuclear weapons. In realist terms, this would upset the balance of power, obstructing Israel as the regional hegemonic power. Outside of the commonly proposed airstrikes and simply leaving Iran alone, Allison states that the third solution he sees it would be a “carrot and the stick” approach, threatening a regime-changing attack should Iran attempt to muddle investigations into their nuclear program. To believe that a genuine Kennedyesque solution is possible with the individual actors today seems a stretch. One must take a look at the individual actors of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the crisis of today – Khrushchev and Netanyahu, Castro and Netanyahu, ending with Kennedy and Obama.
Khrushchev, the Soviet leader during the Cuban Missile Crisis, knew that a nuclear war would be disastrous for both sides. In spite of Soviet rhetoric that socialists would easily emerge out of a nuclear catastrophe, Khrushchev himself was a Soviet reformer and considered a liberal among his own party (“Khruschev on Khruschev,” “Khruschev and Stalin,” “Averting the Apocalypse”). While Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran, is also considered somewhat of a reformer in his nation, he is much more of a realist than Khrushchev the idealist – along with the fact that he is not the supreme leader of Iran, further complicating matters (Miner). Ahmadinejad has continuously expressed wishful thinking, along with his generals, that the United States would struggle to topple the Iranian regime; that reprisals from Iran would bring the western power to its knees (Nal). While military engagement with Iran would certainly be more costly than the engagement with Saddam's army in Iraq, it is hard to see how Iran imagines it would withstand the incredible air superiority of both the United States and Israel. Furthermore, one could assume that Iran, and by proxy Ahmadinejad, is sincere that it does not wish to pursue nuclear weapons and only nuclear power. If this was indeed true, then they would be an inevitable frustration-aggression response from Iranian leaders who may see the United States and Israel attempting to bully Iran into economic disparity. The oil will dry up, and Iran has claimed that nuclear energy is the only way to ensure its future. Both Khrushchev and Ahmadinejad lacked/lack the favor by the conservative hardliners within their party, however (“Krushchev on Krushchev,” Miner). Khrushchev was deposed soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis for his idealist, pro-western policies, and Ahmadinejad is constantly criticized by the Supreme Council for his domestic policies (“Senior Citizen Khrushchev,” Miner). It is, therefore, not a stretch to imagine that like his superficial Soviet counterpart, Ahmadinejad is playing a game of rhetoric which is often times mistranslated (either accidentally or intentionally) by the western media. For example, an infamous line by Khrushchev is “History is on our side. We will bury you.” However, this idiosyncratic line is a saying in Russian that one will simply outlast their opponent (“Khrushchev on Krushchev,” “Power and Peace”). It was not taken as such in the western media.” An infamous comment by Ahmadinejad is that Israel would be “wiped off the map,” but this too is a repeated mistranslation. According to Ahmadinejad himself during an interview with Piers Morgan on CNN,
“So when we say ‘to be wiped’, we say for occupation to be wiped off from this world. For war- seeking to (be) wiped off and eradicated, the killing of women and children to be eradicated. And we propose the way. We propose the path. The path is to recognise the right of the Palestinians to self- governance.”
Ahmadinejad is also an idealist at home, but his rhetoric shows that he is a realist abroad.
In the Cuban Missile Crisis, as Allison writes, Castro was not a true actor. The United States knew he was essentially a rogue agent, and was quick to state that they would see any nuclear attack directed from Cuba as a proxy of the Soviet Union. He was cut out of the picture. Castro was an exemplar of wishful thinking; perhaps strengthened in his delusion by the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion where forces trained and equipped by the United States were easily routed, Castro wished nuclear confrontation according to Allison. It is unfair, even superficially, to compare Netanyahu to a man like Castro, but for the purposes of comparison to the Cuban Missile Crisis it is nevertheless necessary. Netanyahu presents an interesting dilemma, as Israel is more than capable of acting independently. Having boasted that Israel could lead the United States “by the nose,” Netanyahu seems eager that military action is the only realistic response to a nuclear Iran (Pillar). Israel destroyed a Syrian nuclear facility in an airstrike before, and while Iran has been careful to fortify their own through bunkering and scattering, this has not prevented Israel from taking action (Follath, Stark). Israel has been supplied bunker-busting bombs by the United States (Shanker). Israel may be partly responsible for a campaign of assassinations against Iranian nuclear scientists, striking Iran's knowledge at its core (Vick, Klein). Netanyahu's experience no doubt affects him on a drastic, individual level. A wounded combat veteran, he has been in the special forces in a variety of military operations, including the Suez Canal, the Yom Kippur War, the Six Day War, and more (Melman). It is little wonder, therefore, that despite his time with the United Nations he is widely seen as a realist. Dennis Ross notes that, during the Clinton administration, there was little idea that “Bibi” wanted anything to do with the pursuit of peace [with Palestine] (Beinart). The existence of Israel as an essentially independent actor greatly complicates the situation, and regardless of if the United States were to join in on an attack against Iran, the United States would be greatly affected.
The matter of the United States, currently led by President Obama, is a particularly interesting situation. Obama, at the individual level, differs greatly from his predecessor Bush. In terms of foreign policy, however, there is a massive overlap (Moughty). To say that he is capable of a Kennedyesque solution seems improbable. Obama has continued much of the Bush doctrine, though with a more strategic policy (Moughty). He is not motivated by the same neo-conservative idealism that so affected the Bush doctrine. His ambition is arguably less in terms of nation-building and “spreading democracy,” but a sort of hard-power play on eliminating what his administration see as threats to American interests. Considering his actions in nations such as Libya and Pakistan, it is not unreasonable to say that he may try to avoid a “boots on the ground” situation in Iran, instead relying on methods such as airstrikes, cruise missiles, and drones (Moughty). While the United States does not face an immediate military threat, a nuclear Iran still upsets the balance of power, and from a zero-sum game perspective it cannot be allowed. Nevertheless, Obama is motivated to delay what may be the inevitable showdown – with an election mere months away, with an economy in shambles, and with a stretched-thin military that is prepared more for unconventional warfare than the traditional conflict that would be Iran, the question may not be a matter of “if,” but how and/or when.
To compare the Cuban Missile Crisis to the issue of a nuclear Iran seems to be a stretch. Iran is not yet a true nuclear power, and there is the possibility – however faint some may view it – that they are genuinely not pursuing weaponization. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, there was no genuine third party, and there was a great chance of nuclear mutually assured destruction. The complete opposite is currently the case in Iran. Perhaps a greater comparison would be a what-if scenario in the future. If Iran is allowed to become a nuclear power, and does pursue nuclear weapons, then Israel may be inevitably faced with a situation much more similar to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ahmadinejad, Netanyahu, and Obama, all act as chemical elements in a volatile mix. Each bring with them their own biases, each hold different religions, each hold their own ambitions and motivations. War seems inevitable – but a different war seemed inevitable fifty years ago, as well.
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