What Would JFK Have Done About Iran?

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: Iran, JFK, Cuban Missile Crisis

Graham Allison is director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is author of Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis.

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, it is instructive to consider what he might have done if faced with the Iranian nuclear challenge today.

In what historians agree was his “finest hour,” Kennedy successfully led the U.S. through the most dangerous confrontation in history, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.  The odds of war were, in Kennedy’s view, “between 1 in 3 and even.”

When the Soviet Union was found emplacing nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba, 90 miles off American shores, Kennedy declared that totally unacceptable — as President Obama has declared an Iranian nuclear bomb.  The question was how to eliminate this danger without war.

As the U.S. contemplates the choice between attacking Iran or acquiescing in its acquiring nuclear weapons, the deeper one drills down on either, the less acceptable it appears. If Iran gets a bomb, this will trigger a cascade of proliferation in the most volatile region of the world, increasing risks of a devastating conflict. Alternatively, a preventive air strike can delay Iran’s nuclear progress at identified sites. It cannot, however, erase the knowledge and skills ingrained in the heads of many Iranian scientists. Indeed, an attack would solidify Iranian determination to get a bomb as quickly as possible and dissolve the international sanctions regime that has both delayed Iran’s nuclear program and created incentives for it to negotiate....

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