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A Misleading Cold War Analogy

Don’t count on containing Iran.

Feb 17, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 22 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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From this perspective, recent American policy toward Iran is demoralizing—both to Iranians seeking freedom and to us. The American refusal to act in Syria, the unwillingness to see that the real war there is with Iran and its allies and proxies, the decision instead to permit Iranian and Hezbollah forces to fight there and keep Assad in power can only have strengthened the Islamic Republic. An Iranian elite that watched the Americans draw a red line in Syria and then back away from it can only view the red line we have drawn on their acquiring nuclear weapons as unconvincing.

In fact, if the history of the Cold War was a series of American hot wars, large and small, direct and indirect, that repeatedly confronted Soviet power, the record with Iran is the opposite. The Iranian regime has been killing Americans since the 1980s, in terrorist attacks in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia and through their very active role in Afghanistan and Iraq. For all those killings they have never paid a price, even though the U.S. government knew and spoke publicly about their supplying weapons, IEDs, training, and fighters to attack us. If vigorous American containment moved Moscow toward coexistence and weakened its ideological fervor over time, the lack of such American action should suggest that Iranian elites are far from that condition.

Second, the early Cold War was a time of nuclear proliferation. Stalin wanted the bomb, and so did Mao, and, more strikingly, so did the British and the French. Consider: We were in a tight post-World War II alliance with them in NATO, we were together in governing Germany, there were ironclad American commitments to defend Europe against the Soviets .  .  . yet the British and the French both said, “Thanks, that’s great, but we need the bomb too.” The lesson may be that if Iran gets the bomb, it is inevitable that the Saudis, Turks, and others will smile at possible American offers of defense arrangements and pledges, but see them as no substitute for their own little “force de frappe.”

Third, the comparison of Soviet and Iranian elites is itself misleading, for the Islamic Republic is still led by men motivated by religious faith. It was hard enough for the West to come, finally, to an understanding of communism as a substitute faith; books like The God That Failed taught us the nature of Communist belief. But Communist ideology was a weak reed when compared with belief in one of the great world religions. While Das Kapital was written just three years before Lenin’s birth, the ayatollahs have a real faith, not a substitute one. It is true that they have perverted Shia Islam with the state takeover of religion, and true that the older quietist school still has many adherents, but that does not suggest that the clergy running the regime are beginning to second-guess themselves and are about to produce a Gorbachev.

What produced a change in Soviet behavior was the willingness of the West, led by the United States, to fight the Cold War on the ground—and the willingness to fight it ideologically. Several Israeli officials reminded me that Reagan negotiated with the Russians just as Obama is negotiating with Iran. And the United States and the USSR had diplomatic relations, constant diplomatic contacts, and even regular summit meetings. That’s true but misleading, for while the Americans negotiated they also attacked: under Truman, Kennedy, and Reagan perhaps most forcefully. Reagan, after all, did not allow his desire for negotiations to prevent him from saying the Soviet Union was an “evil empire” that would end up on the “ash heap of history.” 

The United States spent vast sums over the decades on Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, and similar efforts to undermine the Soviets, harnessing intellectual candle-power from the days immediately after World War II to the campaign of support for Solidarity in Poland. The missing equivalent today would be a campaign to undermine Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and above all the Islamic Republic itself—not just by sabotaging centrifuges but by sabotaging its belief system, empowering dissident groups, and providing far wider Internet access just as during the Cold War we provided fax machines. The lesson of the Cold War is that any moves toward negotiation and coexistence on the military and diplomatic level must be matched by greater ideological clarity and aggressiveness on our side, or the message will be that we are giving up the struggle. That message will be received both by the regime, which will become more confident and more aggressive, and by the populace, whose hopes for freedom and whose willingness to struggle for it will be diminished.

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