With the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis looming, it is a good time to think about how the same sort of deal that saved the world from atomic war in October 1962 might work today with Tehran. Back then, the Russians sent nuclear-tipped missiles to Cuba with the two-fold purpose of trying to deter any use of force aimed at toppling Fidel Castro and countering American Jupiter missile emplacements in Italy and Turkey. Moscow's risky move -- which also entailed giving commanders in Cuba some authority to launch their missiles in the event of an American attack -- led to a 13-day brinksmanship crisis that came all too close to ending in Armageddon.
Things turned out well only because of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's willingness to remove his weapons from Cuba in return for a public American pledge never again to try to overthrow Castro by force (the U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion had occurred just the previous year). Also, President John F. Kennedy secretly acceded to a Russian request to remove the intermediate-range Jupiters from sites within striking range of Moscow. For half a century, both sides have lived up to the terms of the bargain. The durable success of the solution to this earlier showdown should thus suggest how we might resolve the festering nuclear crisis with Iran.
At its core, the current dispute arises from these irreconcilable concerns: the fear in many capitals that Iran might send a nuclear device "downstream" to a terrorist network; the possibility that "crazy" mullahs might not react coolly in a major crisis; and reasonable worry in Tehran that, absent a deterrent capability of its own, a military intervention aimed at regime change -- i.e., the fate that befell Saddam Hussein -- might be mounted. On this last point, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad put the matter quite succinctly at Iran's National Defense Industry Day in August, when he spoke of the goal of having capabilities that would "reach a point where they will serve as a deterrent to all bullying and arrogant powers." Ahmadinejad is no doubt implicitly referring to the United States, but Israeli-Iranian antipathy is surely an accelerant in this matter as well. Still, the heart of the dispute lies in mutual fear -- as can be seen even in Prime Minister Netanyahu's high-school-style poster presentation at the United Nations last week.
There are just two problems with a "Cuban solution." The first is that Tehran might turn down the offer of a no-invasion pledge from the United States (n.b., Israel poses no practical threat of occupation and regime change). The second is that it might accept. But if they declined this peace offer, the mullahs would further undermine their already shaky support with significant slices of Iranian society, and the international community would firm up its unified economic and military opposition. If the offer were accepted, there would be the worry that Iran would become more adventurous in world affairs, since it now had a "safety net." At best, though, more adventurism would simply be a change at the margin, easily coped with through skillful diplomacy, as well as by special operations and other counter-terrorist forces from many nations.