What the Cuban Missile Crisis Failed to Teach Us About Iran

With the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis at hand, a re-examination of the thirteen days of confrontation between the United States and Soviet Union has led to new interpretations of “the most dangerous moment in human history.”

These analyses have focused on debunking the myth of President Kennedy’s resolve in neutralizing the Soviet threat, instead emphasizing the importance of diplomacy during the standoff and applying lessons from the crisis to the current Iranian nuclear confrontation. While encouragement of greater diplomatic engagement is germane to the Iranian situation, it fails to account for the fundamental differences between the confrontations with Moscow and Tehran, to potentially dangerous effect.

A major distinction between the Soviet Union of 1962 and the Iran of today is the threat that each represents for U.S. interests. Soviet capabilities during the time of the crisis consisted of 300 to 500 nuclear weapons, enough to destroy each major American city several times over. Though Iran has the capability to enrich uranium to 20 percent, there is no evidence that Tehran has either nuclear weapons or a proven launch vehicle to deliver a nuclear payload.

Perhaps even greater than the differences in parity of capabilities are the dissimilarities in the world order and each country’s relationship with the rest of the globe. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet Union was one of two major superpowers in a bipolar world. Capable of projecting power across the world through both military might and the export of its worldview, Soviet leaders had the standing to back down from confrontation without a loss of importance on the world stage. In the case of Iran, stepping back from a peaceful nuclear program has more serious implications.  Not only does such a program enjoy widespread domestic support, its disavowal could undermine the regime,. The implications for Iran are even more significant, in fact, due to its lack of major strategic allies and the squeeze of the U.S. sanctions regime.

Finally, in the Iran crisis, we have the presence of a powerful third party. Though the 1962 crisis occurred on Cuban soil, President Fidel Castro had little influence over the nuclear weapons themselves and was rebuked when calling for a Soviet strikes against U.S. targets at the height of the crisis. Israel, in contrast, has a larger stake in the outcome of the Iranian standoff, the ability to impact U.S. policy choices concerning Tehran and the ability to initiate a pre-emptive strike against Iran. Tel Aviv’s demands for a “red line” delineating criteria for a strike against Iran and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s campaign for U.S. support are illustrative of this capability.

While differences in the Cuban and Iranian situations are intrinsically important, they are especially significant because of their implications for U.S. action in diffusing tensions with Tehran. Because of asymmetries in military strength and international prestige between the U.S. and Iran that did not exist between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the carrot and stick approach used by Kennedy could result in unintended consequences, including increased Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear device if applied today. Such consequences would serve as an unfortunate reminder of “how much more reckless revolutionary authoritarian regimes can be when cornered.” This is not to say that the U.S. should not engage diplomatically—it should. It is merely a reminder that the Cuban Missile Crisis was characterized by threats as well as diplomacy.

Though Soviet nuclear weapons represented significant challenges to U.S. national security during the crisis, addressing the threat from Tehran requires a different approach than the one employed with Moscow in 1962. In offering “a diplomatic proposal that allows Iran’s government to save face before its people,” as advocated by Eurasia Group Director Cliff Kupchan, the U.S. will not only display the type of creative diplomacy favored by Kennedy, it will best position itself to neutralize the Iranian threat.

Kate Schmelzer is a graduate student at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. She is a member of a seminar on Nuclear Policy and International Security taught by Joe Cirincione.