In his March 5 convention speech, AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr invoked the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis as an analogy to the current saber-rattling surrounding Iran's nuclear program, suggesting that, fifty years on, the former might contain lessons for our handling of the latter.
Perhaps. But they might not be the lessons Mr. Kohr has in mind. I was there fifty years ago and deeply involved in what unfolded. To begin with, my message to the bellicose Israeli Prime Minister would be "Mr. Netanyahu, you're no John F. Kennedy."
Faced not with some future would-be "capability" of a third-rate power to build a primitive proto-type weapon but, rather, the surprise deployment of dozens of nuclear-tipped missiles ninety miles from our homeland by a superpower capable of destroying us, President Kennedy chose not a pre-emptive airstrike – a "Pearl Harbor in reverse" his brother called it – but a temporizing naval quarantine and diplomacy. And, when the dust had cleared, peace – and our mutual survival - was saved by a tit-for-tat diplomacy that involved compromise. The Soviet missiles were removed in return for an American pledge never to invade Cuba…and the subsequent soto voce removal of our nuclear-tipped Jupiter missiles from Turkey, ninety miles from the Soviet homeland.
Therein lies the lesson today for Iran, Israel…and us – diplomacy and compromise. And, as with Cuba and the Soviet Union fifty years ago, success depends on facing up to truth. In the latter situation, the truth entailed acknowledgement of our missiles in Turkey and a renouncement of our already manifest attacks on Cuba (Need one recall the Bay of Pigs or the assassination attempts on the life of Fidel Castro?). In the current situation, the truth entails acknowledgement of Israel's nuclear arsenal and its and our only faintly veiled campaign of cyber-attacks against Iran and assassinations of its nuclear scientists.
Israel's nuclear arsenal? It is high time to end the hypocrisy about Israel's "nuclear opacity" and to end the decades-long word games – still perpetuated by Mr. Netanyahu – that Israel "will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East." Everyone knows – as Micah Zenko made clear this week in a Council of Foreign Relations blog and John Cassidy did in the New Yorker – that Israel possesses over 200 nuclear weapons and a panoply of sophisticated strategic delivery systems. The latter include U.S.-supplied F-16 fighter-bombers; German-supplied Dolphin-class submarines, which give Israel a second-strike capability; and Jericho III ICBMs with a range of up to 7,000 miles.
Might not Iran fear that arsenal that has already been used to launch pre-emptive strikes against Iraq and Syria? Might it not be deployed Cuba-style in the diplomacy of peace?
Would it be so far-fetched to acknowledge Israel's nuclear capability and to use it to begin negotiations aimed at a nuclear-free Middle East with Iran and others like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who might be tempted to develop their own nuclear weapons programs if Iran did? Would it be so onerous for Israel to submit its existing program to international safeguards in exchange for internationally-policed prohibitions against future capabilities in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt?
To be sure, "Israel has the sovereign right," as Prime Minister Netanyahu has reiterated this week, "to make its own decisions" concerning its national security. And, so, Mr. Prime Minister, does the United States. While we might, as President Obama has reiterated this week, be prepared to "cover Israel's back," when that back is truly against the wall as it was in 1973, we are not about to blindly follow Israel off a cliff in a pre-emptive strike that can only result in a massive regional war while we are still engaged in a decade of other wars that have drained our wherewithal and clouded our moral clarity.
Our lessons of fifty years ago and this past decade teach us to beware of a "Pearl Harbor in reverse." That is not the American way. I pray it is not Israel's. And I pray, Mr. Prime Minister, Mr. President, that you will give peace a chance.