Another Missile Crisis?

In its typically heavy-handed way, the Bush administration announced today that if Iran suspends its suspicious uranium activities, then the United States will engage in multilateral diplomacy to persuade Iran to do so. This is consistent with the kind of multilateral charade that the United States earlier performed regarding North Korea, with its neighbors, and Iraq, with the United Nations. We hope they mean it this time, though the record is not encouraging.

The continuing confrontation over Iran's emerging nuclear weapons program has been called a “Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion” by Harvard's Graham Allison, recalling what historians still term “the most dangerous thirteen days in the history of mankind.”

Applying that description to the Iranian situation is a useful reminder, but not an exact analogy. Of the two, the Cuban Missile Crisis posed a far more imminent threat to our survival. In October 1962, we discovered that a series of nuclear weapons sites, less than two weeks away from completion, were being installed suddenly and secretly just 90 miles from our shores by a nuclear superpower that had long threatened to “bury” us in the “Cold War” global struggle for military and ideological supremacy. Today, an infant weapons program still years away from completion is being established relatively openly and gradually more than 7,000 miles away by a developing country that has nothing to gain and everything to lose by attacking the United States. A quick American response to Iran, much less a violent one, is neither required nor wise.

But if we accept the analogy, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's May letter to President Bush can be compared to Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev's letter to President Kennedy on October 26, 1962, both sent at moments of high tension in the respective confrontations. Upon release, the Iranian letter was described by the American media as “long” and “rambling.” The Bush administration was dismissive. “It looks like it did not answer the main question that the world is asking, and that is, ‘When will you get rid of your nuclear program?'” said President Bush. Said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: “It isn't addressing the issues that we're dealing with in a concrete way. There's nothing in here that would suggest that we're on any different course than we were before we got the letter.” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, “We've seen it. I think there really isn't anything new in it.”

An adversary's letter described as “long” and “rambling,” with nothing “new” or “concrete,” also applied to Khrushchev's October 26, 1962, letter. During our ExComm discussion the next day, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara noted this very point. “Hell, that's no offer! There's not a damn thing in it that's an offer. You read that message carefully. He didn't propose to take the missiles out … It's 12 pages of fluff … That's no contract. You couldn't sign that and say we know what we signed.”

The absence of substantive, realistic points for negotiation is not the only similarity between the two letters. Both were also full of denials, bluster, and insults.


Khrushchev in 1962: “You are mistaken if you think that any of our [weapons] on Cuba are offensive. All the [weapons] located there … are on Cuba solely for the purposes of defense.”

Ahmadinejad in 2006: “Is not scientific R&D one of the basic rights of nations … Can the possibility of scientific achievements being utilised for military purposes be reason enough to oppose science and technology altogether?”


Khrushchev: America's actions are “aggressive [and] piratical.”

Ahmadinejad: “History tells us that repressive and cruel governments do not survive.”


Khrushchev: “If we started to [stop] your ships, then you would also be as indignant as we and the whole world now are … one cannot legalize lawlessness. If this were permitted, then there would be no peace … To what would all this lead?”

Ahmadinejad: “How much longer can the world tolerate this situation? Where will this trend lead the world to?... Do you think present policies can continue? ... My basic question is this: Is there no better way to interact with the rest of the world?”

In 1962, the Khrushchev letter -- like the Iranian missive this year -- initially had all the appearances of an emotional, ideological rant, worthy of prompt dismissal. But President Kennedy also recognized that, despite its bravado and bluster, the letter could represent a potential opening, and that its most significant feature was not what it said or did not say, but that it was sent at all. Picking up on Khrushchev's expressed interest in communication, the President instructed me (Ted) and his brother Robert to draft a reply for his signature. Extracting from the Khrushchev letter its positive elements, and treating them as the basis for a settlement, the President's reply paved the way for the peaceful resolution of the crisis.

A useful lesson: When the world was on the precipice nearly 44 years ago, the President of the United States averted nuclear destruction by choosing constructive communication, not vituperation. He tried negotiation and cooperation, not escalation. As President Kennedy had earlier said in his inaugural, “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

In retrospect, President Bush's dismissal of Ahmadinejad's letter may come to be seen as a missed opportunity to avert military conflict -- not the first missed opportunity for peace under this President. True, the situation is very different now: JFK and Khrushchev already had a back-channel correspondence in place by the time of the missile crisis, whereas Ahmadinejad's letter is the first from an Iranian head of state to a U.S. President since the Iranian revolution of 27 years ago. But that is all the more reason why President Bush should have seized this opportunity.

If President Bush wishes to emulate President Kennedy's success in terminating that overwhelming threat in 1962, it is essential for him to remember what President Kennedy did not do, as well as what he did.

1. JFK did not listen to the “bombers” like General LeMay, who always recommend bombing regardless of the consequences, but preferred to listen instead to the soft-spoken experienced diplomats like Tommy Thompson, who understood Chairman Khrushchev's mind and could predict his reactions. A wise President knows that the quality of answer he gets to a tough question depends upon the quality of person he asks.

2. JFK did not violate international law or ignore multilateral global and regional organizations, but wooed and won world opinion so successfully that Khrushchev became internationally isolated, realizing that his reckless gamble was a failure when two friendly West African states refused refueling and landing rights to Soviet cargo planes bound for Cuba. In time, a nuclear Iran can also be isolated without our firing a shot.

3. JFK did not launch a nuclear war through a unilateral pre-emptive strike or ultimatum, even though those more aggressive actions would have been more politically popular at home than the seemingly more passive “quarantine” option. Instead he chose the latter, realizing that a military response would have driven his adversary into a harsh choice between escalation and humiliation. Kennedy, a decorated World War II combat veteran, would say later that he had “seen enough of war.” Not all Presidents have.

President Bush reportedly wants war with Iran over its nuclear weapons to be his legacy. He will certainly be remembered for such a war. But there may not be many legatees.

Ted Sorensen, a New York lawyer who served as Special Counsel to President John F. Kennedy, was a member of the National Security Council “ExComm” that advised the President during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Adam Frankel, a former Rosenthal Fellow in the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism, is assisting Mr. Sorensen on his memoirs.