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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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Such clarity is entirely missing from the Obama administration’s approach to Iran, and has been since the Iranian people rose up in June 2009 and were greeted by American hesitancy and silence. Today we have instead what Ray Takeyh has called “the Rouhani narrative”: the administration’s explanation that Rouhani and his crowd are moderates whom we must strengthen by entering into agreements that lessen sanctions and make compromises on the nuclear file. Build them up, the argument goes, or the Revolutionary Guards and the supreme leader will get tired of them and throw them out.

The lessons of the Cold War teach that this is entirely wrong. First, there’s precious little evidence that people like Rouhani and Zarif are “moderates,” in the sense that they lean our way on human rights issues, Syria, or the nuclear weapons program. During Zarif’s recent visit to Beirut he laid a wreath at the grave of the terrorist Imad Mughniyeh, who was responsible for killing more Americans than any terrorists before 9/11. That’s moderation? Second, we do not strengthen such reformist voices as exist when we appear weak. The best argument such “moderates”—if they exist—could make is that aggressive actions in Syria or support for terror overseas or refusal to compromise on nukes are dangerous for Iran and threaten its security interests. When we act in ways that undermine this argument and suggest that we will do anything to avoid a confrontation, we strengthen the hardest of hardliners. When President Obama reversed himself on Syria, does anyone think Iranian “moderates” were strengthened—or instead the regime elements saying, “Press on, they are weak, they will get out of our way”? The best gifts Reagan gave those Russians who were really reformers were rising American defense budgets, support for rebels confronting Soviet-backed regimes in places like Afghanistan and Nicaragua, and the endless ideological warfare against communism.

The lesson is not that an American or Israeli attack on Iran is inevitable or preferable, only that the way to avoid it is clear thinking, a forceful diplomatic, economic, and ideological stand against the regime at home—and a military pushback against its adventurism abroad. Facing the Obama administration, Iran circa 2014 seems less like the Soviet Union of 1982 under the aging Brezhnev facing Reagan’s defense budgets and his ideological clarity than it does the Soviet Union acting in Angola, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan in 1979 and facing a Jimmy Carter who urged us to get over our inordinate fear of communism.

But after Carter came Reagan, the argument continues; doesn’t that teach us to wait, if necessary for another president and a new foreign policy? If we are confident Iran will not cross the nuclear finish line, perhaps. But 2017 is far away; from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the presidential election of 1980 was only 10 months. If 2017 may be too late, if Iran will reach a nuclear capability far sooner, erroneous lessons from the Cold War offer no comfort. Reagan did not wait out the Soviets, he beat them. We have no such strategy now toward Iran.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

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