Stop Comparing the Context of the Iran Deal to US-USSR Era

Rome(Updates with Khamenei’s comments on opposing the US) President Obama’s notion that his Iran nuclear arms deal is at heart analogous with Ronald Reagan’s arms control accords with the Soviet Union, is off base. If Iran was negotiating from a position of weakness, so was the United States, at least in comparison to 1980s–and as Obama critics say, he may have wanted the deal as much as Tehran.

Iran deal and Reagan-USSR analogy: See any turbans around?

The United States now is not the same United Sates in world affairs of the 1980s. Less than a decade after the debacle of the Vietnam War, Reagan was putting the US back into the global interventionist game. He would invade Grenada, back anti-communist forces in Central America and provide support for anti-Soviet Islamic rebels in Afghanistan. His idea was to roll back Soviet power and influence, not accept it.

Obama has come off a war in Iraq that has been as crippling strategically as Vietnam, even with many less American fatalities. He resists military intervention (or at least tries to keep it as low key as possible through drone strikes and covert action–and against non-state actors, something Reagan only began to have to deal with–disastrously in Lebanon). The United States couldn’t afford a vast Reagan-like military buildup even if Obama wanted one.

Obama is certainly not into Reaganesque sabre rattling. Reagan made it clear he wanted to roll back the “evil empire.” Obama has laid out no coherent plan to reverse Iran’s military-backed influence in the Middle East–neither in Iraq, nor Syria, nor Lebanon, nor Yemen nor in its support for Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement in the Gaza Strip.

Obama made clear he has no desire to label Iran as Middle East villain as Reagan labeled the USSR as global bad guy. Middle East problems are, well, just Middle East problems. “Ultimately,” he said. “It’s not the job of the president of the United States to solve every problem in the Middle East. The people in the Middle East are going to have to solve some of these problems themselves.”

Reagan embarked on military expansion and had persuaded the Soviets that the US considered nuclear war a possibility. Remember Star Wars? As fanciful as the space-based missile defense system may seem now, it scared the bejeezus out of Moscow, whose floundering economy was already straining to keep up with American military technology. Obama has taken no steps to suggest to Iran that he would mobilize US technology to counter an Iranian bomb. On the contrary, he dropped plans for deploying an Eastern European-based anti-missile system, because of Russian objections.

Even the threat of direct military action to stop Iran from developing a bomb was undercut by the bitter feud between Israel’s arch-hawk Benjamin Netanyahu and the White House.

In short, Reagan’s America was on the belligerent offensive. The US had given up on a decade’s policy of “détente,” which was a kind of acceptance of the status quo.

Obama, on the other hand, provided only two options to a war weary America: his way or war. No evil empire talk for him.

Present day Iran is not a mirror image of Gorbachev’s changing USSR of the 1980s. Iran’s leadership made clear that economic sanctions hurt, much as Soviet leadership recognized that its economy was in tatters. But I don’t see Iranian leaders laying out a kind of acknowledgement of a system failure as did Gorbachev, as early as 1985. His critique laid the basis for perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). We maybe will see perestroika in Iran, though its more likely that the mullahs in charge will be happy with the windfall of reentering the global economy.

Openness? How about at least freeing the Washington Post reporter held as a spy.

Iran’s foreign policy seems hardly to reflect the “new thinking” of the Gorbachev era. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei felt is necessary to remind everyone that Iran will continue to be hostile to the “arrogant” US, no matter the agreement.

The USSR under Gorbachev pulled away from foreign interventions and dumb causes (just ask Cuba). Iran is involved, through proxies, in civil wars in three countries: Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Khamenei mentioned also Iran is supporting “friends” in Lebanon, Palestine and Bahrain. In Iran’s eyes, the nuclear deal with the US is separate from these involvements and there is no sign that Obama was looking for a package deal to reduce Middle East tensions.

Shiite-run Tehran has long been on a campaign for penetrating and influencing the Sunni-Arab world. It considers support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and, through Assad’s Damascus, its channeling of arms to the Lebanese militia essential to its foreign policy. It shows no signs of truly pressuring the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad to share power with the Sunni majority left adrift by the overthrow of dictator Saddam Hussein. Iran backed militias have enthusiastically taken part in atrocities against Sunni civilians during the current battle against the Islamic State.

All this doesn’t mean that the nuclear agreement is bad. But it does mean that, in terms of today’s realities, it is fancial to expect that the deal will necessarily lead to a new peaceful era, as did arms reduction accords between the US and USSR. Hope I’m wrong.

Politico says indeed Iran is the new USSR and can be dealt with accordingly.

E.J. Dionne at Washington Post also like the Reagan analogy.

No prediction of an Iranian perestroika here.

Khamenei’s remarks.


Daniel Williams

Published by Daniel Williams

I am a former correspondent who, for more than 30 years, did time in China, Southeast Asia, Central America, Mexico, the Middle East, Europe and Africa and covered wars that went from episodic to non-stop. My book, "Forsaken," about Christian persecution in the Middle East came out January, 2016. NextWarNotes is a news and analysis blog designed to fill gaps, provide background and think about what’s next. The name of the site comes from a 1935 article by Ernest Hemingway in Esquire Magazine called “Notes on the Next War,” in which he predicted the coming conflagration in Europe, told why it would happen and warned Americans to stay out.

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