Published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Online
By Kingston Reif
Article summary below; read the full text here.
On September 4, 1962, President John F. Kennedy released a statement in response to intelligence reports of a Soviet arms buildup in Cuba. Kennedy said the United States did not have evidence “of the presence of offensive ground-to-ground missiles; or of other significant offensive capability either in Cuban hands or under Soviet direction and guidance.” However, he warned, “Were it to be otherwise, the gravest issues would arise.”
Of course, the next month Kennedy found out that the Soviet Union was in fact deploying offensive missiles and nuclear warheads in Cuba, prompting a deep crisis that brought the planet within a hair’s breadth of nuclear catastrophe. Historian Michael Dobbs writes that Kennedy later regretted making his September statement, as “[h]e was compelled to take action, not because Soviet missiles on Cuba appreciably changed the balance of military power, but because he feared looking weak.”
Fast forward 50 years to March 4, 2012. In a high-profile speech to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), President Obama declared: “Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” Obama reiterated this position last month to Israeli students in Jerusalem: “Iran must not get a nuclear weapon. This is not a danger that can be contained, and as President, I’ve said all options are on the table for achieving our objectives.”
Might Obama, like Kennedy, later regret issuing such an ultimatum? If Iran cannot be peacefully convinced to curtail its nuclear program, the president could soon be faced with a hugely consequential decision: attack Iran in an attempt to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons, or recognize that it could do so and embrace deterrence and containment instead. By staking American credibility on a policy of prevention at all costs, Obama may end up believing he has to choose war. But he would be wrong, because deterrence (threatening devastating retaliation) and containment (blunting the spread of Iranian power and influence) may in fact be more prudent than preventive attack.