Opinion

Can the Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis Prevent All-out War Between Israel and Iran?

Unlike JFK and McNamara, Israel sees Iran as solely a military problem, not a political one. Netanyahu is backing Tehran into a corner that leaves them with no way out except striking back

An Israeli mobile artillery drives through sandy terrain during a military exercise in the Golan Heights, north of Israel. September 19, 2012
AFP

As U.S. President Donald Trump approaches the May 12 Iran deal deadline, Israel is playing a high-stakes game with the Islamic Republic.

On the military front, Israel has allegedly hit numerous weapon depots and military sites in Syria associated with the Iranian regime, most recently hitting a base and 200 missiles, killing 11 Iranian military officers. On the public diplomacy front, Prime Minister Netanyahu has gone on a PR campaign to kill the deal with Iran.

Netanyahu’s actions indicate that he views Iran as a military problem to be dealt with by coercion, and not a political one, which requires diplomacy to resolve. That’s dangerous – and wrong.

In Netanyahu’s zero-sum view of the conflict, the Islamic regime must go at all costs because the alternative is Israel's destruction. He believes its belligerent rhetoric and rejects its public commitments. Thus, he employed the Mossad to raid the Iranian archives for the political purpose of proving Iran had lied about its nuclear ambitions prior to the nuclear deal. It doesn’t matter that he provided no proof that Iran has violated the JCPOA.

He apparently harbors the hope that if Trump reneges on the deal and reinstates sanctions, the Iranian people will overthrow the ayatollahs, wishful thinking reminiscent of his 2002 prediction that the defeat of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein would inspire an uprising leading to the fall of the Islamic Republic.

But the whole point of diplomacy is to negotiate with rivals you don’t trust, in order to prevent a military crisis.

By shooting first – in violation of the 1974 cease-fire line with Syria – without sending clear diplomatic signals, Netanyahu risks eventual retaliation by Iran. Indeed, it has been reported that defense officials are bracing for a missile attack against northern Israel. The PM’s maneuvers also revitalize the crisis over Iran’s frozen nuclear program.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, May 6, 2018
Jim Hollander/AP

The resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis sheds much light on why it’s important to distinguish between a military and a political problem.

The parallels are not perfect, but the similarities between the 13-day crisis between the United States and the USSR, which could have ended in nuclear war, and the protracted struggle between Israel and Iran are striking.

Then, the Soviet Union challenged the status quo preferred by the United States by placing offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba. In this decade, Iran has challenged the status quo preferred by Israel by placing offensive ballistic missiles in war-torn Syria and by storing its nuclear know-how if and when needed.

Few would have faulted President Kennedy for viewing the offensive nuclear missiles that Russia placed in Cuba as a military threat. That would have meant attacking the missile sites detected by America’s spy planes. However, going down that path would have surely led to retaliation and countless lives lost, even if both sides refrained from using nuclear weapons.

U.S. Ambassador Adlai E. Stevenson, far right, describes aerial photographs of Soviet missile launching sites in Cuba during a UN Security Council emergency session at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Oct. 25, 1965
AP

So, JFK took the alternative route, a combined military-political strategy. First, he tried quiet diplomacy. When that failed, he went public with irrefutable proof of the Soviets’ placement of missiles in Cuba. He made a clear ultimatum, drawing a line with a naval blockade around Cuba. He showed resolve by mobilizing U.S. troops.

Yet simultaneously he sent signals that gave the Soviets a way out. Recognizing that in any crisis one side has to accept some damage to its interest by backing down, he offered the concessions of withdrawing missiles from Turkey and pledging not to topple Castro in return for a Soviet missile withdrawal.

As the Soviet ships approached the blockade line, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara instructed the admiral in charge of the blockade, George Anderson, not to open fire under any circumstances.

"We’re not trying to start a war," McNamara later recalled telling him. "We’re trying to convey a message, a political message."

That resolve allowed America to achieve its goal – removing the Soviets’ politically unacceptable presence in Cuba without ever firing a shot while accepting minimal damage to American interests.

The U.S. destroyer Barry pulls alongside the Russian freighter Anosov, presumably carrying Soviet missiles withdrawn from Cuba, as a U.S. patrol plane flies overhead. November 10, 1962
AP

Now consider Netanyahu’s actions. On the nuclear front, he has sounded the alarm bells about Iran’s nuclear ambitions for years but has never offered an honorable way out for Iran, only to yield its political and economic sovereignty by submitting to a permanent regime of nuclear inspectors and permanent sanctions.

His speeches seem clear but they are actually vague; he never draws the line that would evoke an Israeli response if crossed. Just look at what he told his cabinet Sunday: "We are determined to stop Iran’s aggression in its early stages, even if it involves a fight." "Early stages" does not a red line make. How early? Very early? How does Iran know what step next will provoke an Israeli response?

Lacking a direct line of communication, Netanyahu has treated the Iranian presence in Syria as a military problem, ordering dozens of attacks. This has been possible because of one factor that is significantly different than the Cuban crisis – the conflict is asymmetric. Whereas both the U.S. and USSR had nukes, only Israel has and Iran doesn’t.  

This asymmetry has enabled Israel to get away with attacking Iranian targets with impunity in a way America could not against Soviet targets. But it hasn’t worked as deterrence: Iran is still establishing dozens of long-term positions in Syria, as the New York Times has reported

You could ask why Iran is placing missiles in Syria if not to destroy Israel. While they are clearly pointed at Israel, most security experts at places like the Brookings Institution, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and others agree that the Iranians would only use them for retaliatory purposes. Note that unlike Hamas, which regularly fires rockets into Israel unprovoked, Iran has shown restraint, despite one-sided attacks by Israel.

Iranian soldiers walk past coffins of two member of Iranian Revolutionary Guards who were killed in Syria, during their funeral in Tehran October 28, 2015
\ REUTERS

Like the Soviets before them, Iran is interested in regime preservation, not a first strike against its archenemy, but neither does it want Israel meddling in its attempts to build its own sphere of influence.

Iran can already do enormous damage to Israel without placing missiles in Syria. As JFK lamented about the Soviet presence in Cuba, "What difference does it make? They’ve got enough to blow us up now anyway." The missiles are more about spreading Iranian influence than a prelude to unilateral attack.

This reasoning – which Netanyahu obviously rejects – makes the crucial difference between a military problem and a political problem.

As a problem that is politically unacceptable to Israel, the Iranian presence in Syria requires a diplomatic solution, rather than the military solution he has pursued in the name of taking "action against murderous aggression." 

To be fair, Netanyahu can’t draw a clear line like JFK did. There is no way to blockade Syria, no way to keep Iranian arms out unless Putin or Syria’s Bashar Assad get involved. Netanyahu added on Sunday, "We do not want escalation," but he didn’t set his terms for stopping Israeli attacks. Perhaps this week's meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin will be a step in the right direction.

Indeed, Netanyahu would do better to work with the superpowers to find a diplomatic way to minimize the Iranian presence rather than spending his energy undermining the JCPOA.

The prime minister should be wary of getting what he wishes for. Without the nuclear deal, Iran will feel less restrained in its responses to Israel. If Netanyahu keeps hitting Iranian targets without allowing Iran a diplomatic way out, he will eventually back Iran into a corner from which it will feel compelled to strike back. The consequences would be disastrous for everyone.

Steven Klein is an editor at Haaretz and adjunct professor at Tel Aviv University’s International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation. Twitter: @stevekhaaretz