Truman National Security Project

JFK-style Diplomacy is What’s Needed for Iran

By Tim Kistner | 11.22.13

This Friday marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s tragic assassination. As we reflect on how that day changes America, it is also important to recognize Kennedy’s contributions to America’s foreign policy. For one, Kennedy’s expert handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis should serve as a lesson to our lawmakers today—in particular, as they deal with the United State’s latest nuclear danger: Iran.

Today, the global landscape has changed, but the threat of nuclear weapons remains. This threat confronts us most starkly in Iran, where Western powers fear the government has been working toward building a nuclear weapon for more than a decade. The United States has a stake in preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons – both for our own security, and that of our regional allies like Israel.

Fortunately, there is reason for hope and optimism. Despite a “negotiators pause” following a series of talks in Geneva – the first in-person encounter between the highest levels of US and Iranian administration in over thirty years – US and Western allies have made unprecedented progress towards a deal that would prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The details of the emerging deal are foggy, but it is safe to say that the deal would stop Iran’s from continuing to develop nuclear weapons, in exchange for a gradual release of sanctions imposed by the international community that have severely impacted Iran’s economy  .

This is a tremendous opportunity, one which we must not lose. In the past, Iran has been reluctant to negotiate away its nuclear ambitions. The closest moment came ten years ago, when three European nations nearly reached a deal—only to be scuttled at the last minute. Yet, as with all major moments in history, it comes down to the people at the helm. The new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, was the lead Iranian negotiator on nuclear weapons the last time a deal was close. Rouhani’s past openness to deals—coupled with recent statements about expanding ties with the West—make this moment an opportunity not to be missed.

Nevertheless, the United States Senate has threatened to derail the talks. The Senate is debating whether it should implement new, additional economic sanctions on Iran—worsening the financial restrictions that have already crippled the Iranian economy. On the precipice of a major diplomatic breakthrough, tightening the reins on Iran (again) would risk scuttling the chances of progress. Indeed, that’s why President Obama and Secretary Kerry engaged in heated lobbying efforts in Congress to get members of their own party to refrain from passing new sanctions. What’s more, sanctions would take a long time to go into effect, with no impact on the next few weeks of negotiations other than displaying bad faith on the part of the United States.

Certainly, the Senate plays an important role in foreign policy, and their counsel is valuable. But just as President Kennedy led America’s approach during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the delicate dance of negotiation must be led by the President and the President’s representatives. President Kennedy managed the crisis with skill, in part because he was unburdened from a Congress working against him for political purposes. The Senate should heed that example, and allow President Obama and Secretary Kerry to pursue the negotiations in the manner they believe is most likely to achieve a deal.

Israel, represented by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  has voiced its strong opposition to the deal that was beginning to take shape ten days ago in Geneva. He has not shied away from voicing his opinion to the President and Wednesday flew to Moscow to express his strong reservations to Prime Minister Putin before his departure for Switzerland.  To be sure, Israel is our most important ally in the Middle East, and will continue to be for years to come. Nevertheless, we should not let our unprecedented progress towards a negotiated deal on nuclear weapons be derailed by Mr. Netanyahu, a notorious hard-liner towards Iran, whose views are not necessarily shared by the entire Israeli people. After all, our final goal is the same as Israel’s: an Iran without nuclear weapons. The quibble is primarily over tactics.

A half century ago, President Kennedy recognized the inherent danger of nuclear weapons as he stared a nuclear Armageddon in the face. And he recognized that not all things are easily obtainable: “Peace,” Kennedy said, “is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process.” Kennedy’s wisdom holds true today with Iran.

By imposing new sanctions, the Senate would only throw a monkey wrench into that process towards peace, with little discernible benefit. Instead, our lawmakers should take their lead from President Kennedy, and allow the Obama Administration to continue their unprecedented progress towards a non-nuclear Iran—and a more stable Middle East.

Timothy Kistner served in the Obama Administration as Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security and is a Partner in the Truman National Security Project.