The Israeli debate over Iran’s nuclear program is, perhaps oddly, not yet heated. For now, the action is with the Americans: Israelis watch the negotiations nervously and without confidence, but there is little sense of impending doom—or impending war.
Opinion polls show that Israelis think Iran is building toward a weapon, not toward a “capability,” and they pay attention to Iran’s continuing acts of aggression (in Syria, for example), its support for terrorism, and the constant statements from Iran’s leaders about eliminating Israel from the map.
So why no panic? Perhaps Israel’s experiences with war and terror, facing Arab armies and more recently Hezbollah and Hamas, have immunized it from a panicked response. Perhaps there is faith in the Israel Defense Forces’ ability to stop Iran if the need arises. Or perhaps Israelis expect that in the end America will act to stop Iran from getting a bomb.
But during a recent visit I found another explanation as well—one that is more disturbing. Talking with members of what I’d call the “security establishment,” I found the occasional appearance of wishful thinking built around imagined Cold War analogies. That the Obama administration appears to harbor precisely the same hopes is no cause for comfort.
Here’s the theory: Once upon a time the United States and the Soviet Union almost came to war, in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and there were decades of deep and belligerent hostility. But over time, with the growing desire among Russians for economic improvement and the good things of life and the weakening of the Communist ideology among the ruling elites, that hostility eroded. Diplomatic relations were opened between Moscow and Washington, class warfare on a global scale was replaced by “peaceful coexistence,” a hot line was established, summits proliferated, and relations got into a groove of peaceful competition and occasional cooperation. The Soviet Union became a status quo power with which America could do business. So we waited, and watched while their economy rotted and their system became unreformable, the rulers lost faith in it, and finally it fell. Without a shot being fired, as Mrs. Thatcher once said.
So, the theory continues, that’s what we need to seek with Iran. Perhaps we are at an early stage; perhaps the religious elites, at any rate, haven’t lost their fervor. But they’ve lost popular support, lost the youth and the businessmen, and have realized they need a compromise. They are willing to slow down their nuclear program. Now they are led by “moderates” like Hassan Rouhani and Javad Zarif, who recognize the need for change. Time will erode their system just as it did the Soviet system, so is a war really necessary and unavoidable? Sure, if they leap toward a bomb, if they misjudge us, we’ll have to act or you Americans will. But in Cold War terms maybe it isn’t 1962 and the missile crisis and DEFCON 2; maybe it’s the 1970s or 1980s, and maybe there’s only a decade or so to go. So maybe we just wait.
That Israelis should entertain such a theory is natural, considering the price they might pay for an attack on Iran. And while rehearsing this approach they always repeat that if at some point they see Iran jumping for the bomb, they will have to bomb Iran. Still, what is striking is how this theory—whether expounded by Israelis or by Obama administration supporters—misunderstands the Cold War and its lessons.
First, it has to be said that Mrs. Thatcher’s wonderful line about Reagan winning the Cold War “without firing a shot” is false. Throughout the Cold War we fired shots. The greatest number of American casualties came in Korea and Vietnam, but on many other battlegrounds our soldiers and CIA agents, and our proxy forces, killed and died. Containment was not a series of speeches but a military strategy designed to impose costs on the Soviets and to constrain their behavior. Moreover, defeat on those foreign battlefields weakened the USSR and its alliance system—and perhaps more importantly weakened the party’s hold at home. There is no better example of this than the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan. For we understood that the way a tyranny keeps power is by tyrannizing, which defeat lessens its ability to do. It shows the populace that the rulers are not invincible, have been beaten, and may be beaten again.
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.
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.