In a recent editorial in the Washington Post, Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute criticized the Obama administration for arguing that the only alternative to the agreement that was reached earlier this month between the P5+1 and Tehran is war. Kagan describes this as a “false dichotomy.” Instead, he argues, “the choice at hand is between accepting this deal now or continuing to press and negotiate for a better deal later.” Kagan’s perspective on this topic is more or less universal among conservatives in the United States and Israel who believe that if the Obama administration had threatened Iran with additional economic sanctions it would have forced Tehran to make greater concessions.
What made Kagan’s editorial interesting was his comparison of the current situation with regard to Iran and the late Cold War. He makes an analogy between the recent accord and the two agreements that resulted from the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks, SALT I and SALT II, that the U.S. reached with the Soviet Union during the 1970s. He describes both treaties as undesirable from the U.S. standpoint, much as he believes the accord with Iran is. According to Kagan, the SALT I agreement was a failure because it did not prevent the Soviets from continuing to add to their strategic nuclear arsenal and because it did not do anything to limit Soviet adventurism abroad. As a result, he argues, the agreement “did not have the desired effect.” But both of these criticisms miss the mark. SALT I was an interim agreement that froze the number of ICBMs and SLBMs that each side possessed. It did not place any limits on the number of warheads the two nations could deploy on those missiles, nor did it impose any constraints on how each country conducted its foreign policy. Moreover, Soviet foreign policy was already quite aggressive before SALT I was signed in 1972. Over the preceding ten years, the USSR had deployed nuclear missiles to Cuba in 1962, crushed the Prague Spring by invading Czechoslovakia in 1968, and provided North Vietnam with weapons and supplies as they fought against U.S. forces during the Vietnam War.
Kagan goes on to say that the follow-on SALT II agreement that was reached in 1979 was “another poor nuclear arms deal from the U.S. standpoint,” although he does not say why. He points out that although the U.S. Senate failed to ratify SALT II, the United States and USSR did not go to war. In his telling, the U.S. imposed new sanctions on the Soviet Union and ramped up military spending, forcing the Soviets to engage in an arms race they could not afford and eventually seek better relations with Washington. That is to say, the U.S. walked away from SALT II and instead opted to put greater pressure on the Soviet Union, which eventually resulted in Soviet capitulation and the end of the Cold War. (This narrative of the way the Cold War ended is deeply flawed, but it is universally embraced by conservatives.) However, Kagan overlooks several important facts. One is that despite the failure of the Senate to ratify SALT II, the Reagan administration abided by the agreement throughout the term of the treaty, which expired at the end of 1985. Second, the U.S. military buildup that began under Jimmy Carter and accelerated under Regan was a response to the Soviet military buildup that had occurred during the 1960s and 1970s. It was an attempt to shore up U.S. (and NATO) defenses against a growing Soviet military threat. In addition, SALT II’s provisions in no way precluded the U.S. from embarking on its military buildup. Nor did they prevent the U.S. from taking the steps it eventually undertook to challenge Soviet influence abroad, such as providing aid to anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan and supporting anti-communist movements in Eastern Europe.
Kagan makes special mention of the 1987 U.S.-Soviet Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. He contends that the U.S. and its allies were correct to pursue a “dual track” strategy in response to the threat posed by Soviet SS-20 ballistic missiles by deploying U.S. intermediate- range nuclear weapons in Western Europe while also negotiating with the USSR to eliminate all such weapons. The INF treaty achieved this goal. Kagan does not mention, however, that conservatives strongly opposed the agreement when Ronald Reagan submitted it to the Senate for ratification in 1988. Their arguments against it were remarkably similar to those put forth by opponents of the recent accord with Iran. They said that the terms of the treaty favored the Soviet Union, that it did not do anything to address the USSR’s human rights violations or its invasion of Afghanistan, and that the Soviets would cheat. Many conservatives feared that the INF treaty would lead to a broader normalization of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, just as many on the right now fear that the nuclear agreement will lead to broader improvements in U.S.-Iran relations. During the Senate debate over the INF accord, one conservative group even ran a newspaper ad comparing Reagan to Neville Chamberlain.
In Kagan’s mind, the events of the late part of the Cold War should serve as a guide as to how the U.S. should proceed with regard to Iran. In his telling, the Iran agreement is like the SALT I accord in that it will lead to more aggressive behavior by Iran throughout the Middle East without doing enough to restrict its nuclear program. Kagan believes that just as the Senate’s failure to ratify SALT II did not lead to a conflict between the U.S. and USSR, Congressional rejection of the Iran accord would not result in a war between the United States and Iran. He suggests that if the U.S. abandoned the agreement and instead increased economic and military pressure on Tehran in the same way it did to the Soviet Union, the Iranian regime would eventually be forced to acquiesce to more stringent U.S. demands and perhaps implement far-reaching domestic political reforms.
Kagan is not the only opponent of the Iran agreement to see a parallel with the USSR. Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations has made similar arguments, most recently in a July 9 editorial published in the Wall Street Journal. “During the heydays of arms control in the 1970s,” he writes, “the Soviet Union embarked on one of the most aggressive stages of its foreign policy.” Many historians would disagree that 1970s was the heyday of arms control; it was the early 1990s when the START I and START II agreements were reached between Washington and Moscow that substantially reduced their nuclear arsenals. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that Soviet involvement in the Third World or its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan had any connection to SALT I or II, which were, in any case, solely focused on constraining the growth of those arsenals. And, as noted above, Soviet assertiveness in global affairs long predated the 1970s.
Takeyh’s argument is not that the specific provisions of the two SALT agreements were problematic for the United States, but that they were emblematic of the broader détente between the two superpowers, which he believes was extremely unwise. In addition to SALT I and II, he is sharply critical of the U.S. signing of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which was not an arms control treaty but a multilateral agreement between the Eastern bloc and the West which effectively recognized Soviet control of Eastern Europe while also codifying the signatories’ commitment to respect and uphold fundamental human rights. “In retrospect,” Takeyh writes, “these were a series of foolish and costly decisions. The Soviet experience belies the notion that arms-control accords moderate ideological regimes.” (In earlier writings, Takeyh has said the opposite, praising the Helsinki agreement as a model for how to promote human rights in Iran.) However, the détente between the U.S. and USSR during the 1970s did end up having a significant impact on the Soviet regime. It facilitated the exposure of the Soviet population to the more advanced economies of the Western democracies, illustrating the stark economic and political failures of the Soviet system. Historian Vladislav Zubok of Temple University described this phenomenon in a 2008 article:
Until the mid-1970s Soviet elites and common people believed that the Soviet Union had a special mission and was in the vanguard of ‘progressive humanity’. This certainty could, however, survive only in the xenophobic closed social environment created during Stalin’s times. The growing openness, facilitated by the climate of détente, eroded this certainty. Millions of Soviet people who travelled abroad could see a gap between their deep-seated beliefs about Soviet ‘superiority’ and the realities elsewhere.
This increased awareness of communism’s shortcomings undermined the legitimacy of the Soviet regime at home and heightened popular pressure for economic and political reform.
Kagan’s and Takeyh’s Iran-Soviet analogy simply doesn’t work. This is partly due to their faulty understanding of the late Cold War and partly a result of their flawed assessments of the current situation with Iran. SALT I and II were both, in fact, good agreements that helped slow the nuclear arms race and set the stage for later, more far-reaching arms control accords. Contrary to the conservative narrative that Reagan’s hardline policies led to the demise of the Soviet Union, it was actually Reagan’s decision to adopt a much more conciliatory approach to the USSR in his second term that allowed the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to implement major political and economic reforms at home while also negotiating in earnest for deep cuts to both nations’ nuclear arsenals. If Reagan had persisted with the hardline approach that characterized his first four years in office, it would have rendered Gorbachev’s efforts to end the Cold War untenable and strengthened the hand of hardliners in the Soviet Union who opposed him. Similarly, if Congress rejects the Iran accord with veto-proof majorities, it will substantially undermine the moderates and reformists in Iran who elected President Hassan Rouhani in 2013 and hand Iranian hardliners a major victory. Were that to happen, Iran would almost certainly renounce the concessions it made in Vienna to curtail its nuclear program and instead move forward with its construction of a heavy-water plutonium reactor at Arak and installation of new, advanced centrifuges for uranium enrichment. At that point, the only way to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear capability will be the use of military force.
-- Richard Purcell