Is Obama’s foreign policy similar to Cold War diplomacy?

For the Iranians, peaceful coexistence, even with the limits the Soviets put on it, is a theological impossibility.

July 29, 2015 20:38
4 minute read.
US President Barack Obama at the Rose Garden of the White House

US President Barack Obama at the Rose Garden of the White House. (photo credit: OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO / PETE SOUZA)

At his press conference on July 14 defending the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement [JCPOA] with Iran, US President Barack Obama made the obvious and indisputable point that “deals” in international affairs are made between adversaries, not allies. Implied in what he said is that, despite their divergent interests, adversaries sign such deals to advance an interest they share – in the case of the JCPOA, a commitment to peace. To prove his point, the president cited the arms control agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

But any analogy between these agreements and the JCPOA cannot withstand even the most cursory examination.

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The agreements the United States signed with the Soviets during the Cold War – the two SALT Treaties in 1972 and 1979, the Vladivostok Accord in 1974 and the INF Treaty in 1987 – were bilateral. They involved two countries, not seven as does the JCPOA (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany plus Iran). As a result, the United States could respond in whatever way it wished in the event these agreements were violated, which they were. In the case of the JCPOA, because it is a multilateral agreement, responding unilaterally is more difficult politically, and less likely to have the intended effect.

No less important in assessing the president’s analogy is that the Soviet leaders during the Cold War were not like the mullahs in Iran today. They wanted to live. The mullahs, while perhaps not actively seeking to die, are aware of the advantages of doing so, which include gaining access to the 72 virgins the Koran and the Hadith promise Muslims upon arrival in Jannah, the Muslim equivalent of Heaven. In addition, nuclear war carries with it the likelihood of collective martyrdom, to which the Shi’ite Muslims of Iran in particular aspire. In light of this, the statement in 2001 by then Iranian president Rafsanjani that destroying Israel would be worth the lives of millions of Iranians in any Israeli nuclear counter-attack is readily comprehensible.

Whatever their monstrous crimes, the Soviets had no such eschatological vision animating their actual policies. While Soviet generals such as Marshal A. M. Sokolovskii, chief of the general staff of the Soviet armed forces during World War II and defense minister in the late 1940s, seriously contemplated nuclear war with the United States, they did so not because they wished to die in fulfillment of an ideological imperative, but because they believed the Soviet Union could fight and win such a war: the Soviet population was still predominantly rural, and thus sufficiently dispersed to survive even multiple nuclear strikes by the United States. Similarly, several in the civilian leadership prior to Khrushchev, notably Beria, Malenkov (until 1954) and Stalin himself thought that somehow only capitalist countries could be destroyed by nuclear weapons. However ridiculous, this caused them to believe that in a nuclear war the Soviet Union would not only survive but emerge victorious.

This is very different from seeking nuclear war so that millions will die.

It is essential to remember that the eschatological vision the Iranians embrace does not allow for the peaceful coexistence Soviet leaders from Khrushchev onward declared to be their policy toward the United States and the West. To be sure, “peaceful coexistence” was not always peaceful. While precluding direct military confrontation between the superpowers, it allowed their proxies, such as Israel and its Arab enemies, to fight one another periodically. Nor was it meant to be permanent, or to signify a change in how the Soviets viewed the course of history.

Capitalist countries, including the United States, were destined to collapse.

But for the Iranians, peaceful coexistence, even with the limits the Soviets put on it, is a theological impossibility.

While the mullahs may be capable of using nuclear weapons the way the Soviets used them during the Cold War, namely for the political benefit that accrues from threatening non-nuclear countries with total destruction, their apocalyptic theology would seem to require them, at some point, to attack their enemies with nuclear weapons. The fact that Israel possesses nuclear weapons, and that Sunni Muslim regimes, in their fear of Iran, will soon acquire them, may actually make the Iranians more likely, rather than less likely, to do this.

In short, the paradoxical logic of nuclear deterrence – the concept of MAD, or Mutually Assured Destruction – that kept the nuclear peace for the duration of the Cold War is sadly inapplicable to the Middle East today and for the foreseeable future.

In seeking public support for the JCPOA, President Obama would do well not to invoke misleading historical analogies that demonstrate his ignorance of history. The agreement with Iran must be considered on its own terms, both as a means of serving American interests and of protecting the American people, and for its likely effects on America’s allies and America’s enemies in the Middle East and elsewhere.

At the same time, one can fairly wonder why an American president so deficient in his knowledge and understanding of history should be given the benefit of the doubt in his predictions of the future.

The author is a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University and the author of Meeting the Demands of Reason: The Life and Thought of Andrei Sakharov (Cornell University Press, 2009).

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