In a “blunt” speech at American University, President Obama “aggressively” defended the international agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program by invoking the daring diplomacy of President John F. Kennedy.
The polemical fire in Obama’s address targeted the many critics of the deal who supported the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003. The setting invoked JFK’s “strategy of peace” speech, delivered on the same campus in June 1963. The analogy of Obama’s Iran nuclear deal to JFK’s Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty took up much of the speech.
But the historical strength of Obama’s argument came from another source:
claiming the legacy of JFK’s statesmanship during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Right-wing polemicists protest that “Obama is no JFK,” while carefully ignoring what Kennedy actually did when facing a situation not unlike Obama’s.
The slow-motion crisis
The U.S. confrontation with Iran in recent years has been a slow-motion version of the Cuban missile crisis. Obama didn’t face down the imminent prospect of war as JFK did. But he rejected the same kinds of militaristic arguments that JFK rejected in pursuing a peaceful solution. JFK crafted a diplomatic solution in two dreadfully tense weeks. Obama crafted a solution over two agonizing years.
The logic of confrontation in Iran and Cuba was quite similar. An ideological adversary, hostile to the United States, secretly embarked on an effort to obtain nuclear weapons. The effort was exposed, and the American president had to decide what to do.
In 1962, Cuban leader Fidel Castro agreed to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s plan to secretly install nuclear-armed ballistic missiles on the island. In the 2000s, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei approved plans to secretly build the capacity to enrich uranium and (probably) to weaponize the resulting nuclear bomb. In Cuba, U.S. aerial surveillance detected the installation of the missiles. In Iran, opponents of the regime leaked plans of the secret nuclear program to Western governments.
Like Obama, JFK rejected calls for an immediate attack. One difference was that in 1962, a majority of Kennedy’s national security advisers, including all the Joint Chiefs of Staff, favored a preemptive attack on Cuba. Since 2008, Obama has heard many calls for attacking Iran (from Israel and right-wing pundits), but he has not faced much pressure for attacking Iran from U.S. military leaders who have seen first-hand the toll of ill-conceived wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Like Obama, JFK threatened to take military action with his “all options are on the table” rhetoric. But he coupled his implied threat with a willingness to make concessions.
The pursuit of peace
Like Obama, JFK eventually made concessions. He privately promised Khrushchev that he would not invade Cuba.
Like Obama, JFK justified the concessions by saying they prevented the adversary from ultimately obtaining the most terrible weapons known to man.
And like Obama, JFK succeeded. Cuban never obtained nuclear weapons and never again posed a serious threat to U.S. national security.
Just like JFK’s critics, Obama’s opponents complain that the adversary has emerged from the negotiations stronger, that dangers remain, that the president could have gotten more. What they can’t deny is that Obama’s JFK-style diplomacy made it much, much harder for the enemy to obtain the ultimate weapon.
And just as JFK’s diplomacy paved the way for reconciliation with Cuba, which has just begun, so Obama’s diplomacy will pave the way for a future president to reconcile with Iran.