The failure of American policy in dealing with Iran is succinctly summarized in an article appearing in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs.

1962, President Kennedy and Secretary of Defense McNamara confer over Cuban missile crisis (Wikipedia)

Graham Allison’s The Cuban Missile Crisis at 50 uses the 1962 crisis as backdrop to the Bush/Obama approach to the nuclear challenge posed by North Korea and Iran. In 1962 the confrontation was between two nuclear-armed superpowers, with both countries on a nuclear war footing (Kennedy, for example, placed the US military at DEFCON 2, one level before “Nuclear war is imminent; Russia can be assumed to have been at a similar level of alert). North Korea and Iran pose no such threat to the US or its interests so long as they remain in a pre-weapon state which is determined by America’s response to their emerging nuclear programs.

What do we learn from a comparison of the 1962 Cuban crisis and the crises represented by North Korea and Iran? What are the implications of America’s approach to these countries in the unfolding “showdown” with Iran?

Presented with intelligence showing Soviet missiles in Cuba, Kennedy confronted the Soviet Union publicly and demanded their withdrawal, recognizing that a confrontation risked war. Responding to North Korea’s provocations over the years, in contrast,U.S.presidents have spoken loudly but carried a small stick. This is one reason the Cuban crisis was not repeated whereas the North Korean ones have been, repeatedly.”

In other words, where Kennedy did not shy away from the threat of force to achieve his desired outcome, more recent presidents of both parties prefer a less direct approach to threat. Whereas Kennedy achieved a successful resolution not only of the Cuban crisis but achieved also a more stable and less adventurous relationship between the superpowers, North Korea correctly recognized the weakness in America’s response, its avoidance of military threat. Emboldened Pyongyang openly defied the superpower and continued to develop, publicly tested both a nuclear weapon and a missile designed to carry a nuclear warhead. Iran’s dealings with the United States clearly demonstrate that the ayatollahs learned from, and are taking a page from North Korea.

In 2006 following warnings by President Bush of the “gravest consequences” for exporting nuclear weapons or technology, considered by the United States a “grave threat,”

North Korea then proceeded to sell Syria a plutonium-producing reactor that, had Israel not destroyed it, would by now have produced enough plutonium for Syria’s first nuclear bomb.Washington’s response was to ignore the incident and resume talks three weeks later.”

Over the years of his presidency Bush repeatedly described a nuclear armed Iran “intolerable” and “unacceptable.” There were even hints of military action to underscore just how “seriously” the US considered the threat. But seriousness never quite reached the threshold of open threat by the president. Avoiding open threat it fell to America’s junior partner to deliver the message, even to encouraging relying on Israel to act as its surrogate. Several times over the years the Bush administration would act out its failure by publicly giving Israel first a “green,” then “red” light regarding a “go it alone war” with Iran. A prime example of US willingness to sacrifice its ally rather than take responsibility for the consequences of Gates/Mullen’s oft-repeated warnings of “unforeseen consequences” appeared in the press in July, 2007:

Bush has given Israel free rein to attack Iran’s nuclear sites if sanctions fail in spite of opposition from US generals and regardless of the possible economic and political repercussions of such a strike. ‘Amber means get on with your preparations, stand by for immediate attack and tell us when you’re ready,’ the official said, adding however, that Israel had been told that it could not count on the US to lend it military support.[!]”

During his tenure the president “sounded” tough, but his choices of secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs tell a different story. Gates and Mullen were both, to put it mildly, cautious about war with Iran, a regional threat to US interest both regarding its nuclear program, and its ambitions in the region. Certainly had Bush ever intended to confront Ahmadinejad in defense of the Arab oil monarchies he had ample opportunity. The final act in the charade of bluster was  the accommodating US intelligence community, the infamous 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran that concluded, “with high confidence that in fall 2003,Tehran halted its nuclear weapons.” Administration apologists have since pointed to the NIE as “political,” which it was, and “undercutting” the president’s policy, which it did not. In the end Bush left the problem of an Iranian bomb to his successor.

Enter President Obama. With the new president the appearance, not the substance of America’s Iran policy changed. Where Bush projected the appearance of  almost unpredictable “boldness,” President Obama set out to appear the Bush opposite: calm and “reasoned.” Although the new president, as his predecessor, insisted that “all options are on the table,” it was clear from the his accommodating successive violations of his negotiating “red lines” that in the end Obama’s “all options” would come down in the end to the ultimate “sanction.” Sanctions alone did not dissuade Pyongyang, and they do not impress Tehran. Iran continues to progress in its weapons program, tested a ballistic missile described as capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and may, according to recent reports, have tested a bomb in North Korea. Frustrated at Tehran’s failure to buy into America’s tried and true prescription for failure, following the latest round of “negotiations to nowhere,” Obama, like Bush before him, issued the familiar and lame threat:

My policy here is not going to be one of containment… “My policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons… When I say all options are on the table, I mean it.”

After three years of Obama policy failure, six years of a failure under Bush, it is fair to ask just what is meant by an American negotiating “policy,” by a president saying, “I mean it.” Does, “my policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons” mean he is willing to allow Iran to continue to develop its weapons program up to, but not beyond, weapon construction? Has American policy all along been to accept the Iranian bomb regardless to cost to America’s regional interests?

And what will America’s next “red line” be following a nuclear test in the Dasht-e Lut desert? More negotiations and ever more sanctions of proven failure with the North Koreans now hoped to succeed with the Iranians?

And the war, the nuclear arms race all but certain to follow: how does this fit your dreams, Mr. President, of the end of nuclear proliferation, “peace in out time?”

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