Kennedy Showed How to Contain Iran

Kenneth M Pollack
Kenneth M Pollack Former Brookings Expert, Resident Scholar - AEI

November 17, 2013

It may seem like a stretch, but the Cold War crises that President John F. Kennedy faced hold important lessons for the nuclear impasse with Iran. Newly released historical files on the confrontations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the early 1960s can help us better understand what to expect if the current negotiations with Tehran fail and we are soon confronted with a nuclear-armed Iran.

Kennedy faced an unpredictable, risk-taking and at times aggressive opponent in Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Yet he frustrated Khrushchev’s ambitions and helped the U.S. avoid war through a combination of American nuclear superiority, firmness in defending national interests and a willingness to resist alarmist thinking.

The first observation from Kennedy’s Cold War experience is that if you assume the worst, you may get the worst. If any one lesson emerges from the documents, memoirs and research published in recent years, it is that the U.S. and the Soviet Union wasted billions of dollars and rubles guarding against a surprise nuclear attack that neither country ever seriously contemplated launching. The obsession with this worst-case scenario made many crises far more dangerous than they needed to be — and even caused some of them.

During both the Berlin crisis and the Cuban missile crisis, however, Kennedy chose not to assume the worst regarding Soviet motives and likely behavior. Instead, he saw the Russian leadership as driven by a range of different goals and emotions, including fear and uncertainty.

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