How Not to Make Comparisons Between Iran and China

June 6, 2014 Topic: Security Region: United States Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

How Not to Make Comparisons Between Iran and China


One of the most famous zingers in American political history is Lloyd Bentsen's “you're no Jack Kennedy” line in his 1988 vice presidential candidates' debate with Dan Quayle. Quayle's preceding remark in the debate actually had not made any overall claim to comparability with Kennedy. Instead he was responding to a question about his relative youth and perceived inexperience, and about his ability to take over the presidency if necessary, by observing that his length of service in Congress was already comparable to that of Kennedy when the Massachusetts senator had been elected president. But nobody remembers that context—only Bentsen's immortal jibe.

A somewhat similar forced effort to be more comparative than a comparison being criticized comes from Ali Alfoneh of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, which these days endeavors not so much to defend democracies as to frustrate diplomacy of the most important democracy. His target is a recent piece of mine that, according to Alfoneh, makes an incorrect analogy between China and Iran and thus between Richard Nixon's opening to China and any thawing of U.S.-Iranian relations in connection with the nuclear deal currently under negotiation. I was in turn criticizing an op ed by Eric Edelman, Dennis Ross, and Ray Takeyh that argued for involving Congress earlier and more heavily in the nuclear negotiations. Edelman, et al. were the ones who mentioned Nixon's China policy, while contending that U.S.-Soviet strategic arms negotiations, in which there was significant Congressional involvement, was the most instructive precedent for how the Iran talks ought to be handled. I suggested instead that the China opening, which was prepared in great secrecy and did not involve Congress at all, was a more apt comparison for any rapprochement with a previously distrusted and ostracized regime, which is what Nixon's diplomacy in the 1970s was about.


Alfoneh says nothing about secrecy or Congressional involvement, and gives no clue that this was the subject of my essay. Instead he presents a catalog of various ways in which China differs from Iran, and Mao Zedong differed from Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He could have mentioned many more differences. Chinese leaders, for example, speak Mandarin, while Iran's leaders speak Persian. Khamenei is a slender man, whereas Mao was rather corpulent. And so on. But Alfoneh does not explain how any of the differences, including the ones he mentions, have any significance for whether striking a nuclear deal is wise, or whether a larger rapprochement stemming from a deal with Iran would be wise, let alone implications for Congressional involvement or other aspects of how the Obama administration is handling Iran diplomacy.

One can read between the lines about what is going on here. The folks at FDD do not want any agreements with Iran, they want Iran to continue to be ostracized, and they are trying to torpedo the nuclear negotiations. The China opening is today widely and rightly seen as a significant and positive achievement by Nixon. So FDD endeavors to beat back any tendency to think of agreements or rapprochement with Iran in the same light as the China opening.

Okay, if they want to do full-blown comparisons between Iran and China, let's do that. But our friends at FDD ought to be careful what they wish for. There are, for one thing, Alfoneh's factual errors—such as saying Henry Kissinger was secretary of state at the time of the China opening, when in fact he was not. The man who was—William Rogers—was cut out of preparations for the initiative just as much as Congress was.

Then there is this interesting paragraph from Alfoneh:

It's also worth noting that the U.S.-China rapprochement came at a time when the Communist regime already possessed the nuclear bomb, and its military ambitions would not clash with American policies for nonproliferation. In the case of Iran, the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions are likely to remain a constant source of tension between the two states.”

So an improved relationship with Iran would be less of a problem—and more similar to the favorable U.S.-China rapprochement—if Iran did have nuclear weapons than if it did not? Are we to conclude that we thus should condone the Iranians building such weapons or even encourage them to do so, and then we could talk about a better relationship afterward? (Of course, removing the issue as a source of tension by keeping the Iranian nuclear program peaceful is part of the purpose of the current talks.)

Alfoneh tells us, as another item in his catalog of differences, that Khamenei is less powerful than Mao was. Interestingly, this seems to go against the thrust of what FDD's fellow opponents of an agreement habitually assert about internal Iranian politics, which is that we are foolish to be negotiating with President Hassan Rouhani because it is the supreme leader who really calls the shots. Alfoneh's picture of Iranian politics with contending factions and with a supreme leader who is far from an absolute dictator is a much more accurate description—and is all the more reason to be sensitive to how the nuclear negotiations will affect those politics. Successful conclusion of a deal will significantly help Rouhani's side of that political contest, and will tend to push the supreme leader and the rest of the regime more in Rouhani's—and our preferred—direction.

Alfoneh also wants us to know that Khamenei sees the United States as the biggest threat to Iran (supposedly another difference with Mao's China, which he says saw the USSR as a bigger threat). That statement about Khamenei's perceptions is undoubtedly true, and would make Iranian acceptance of a better relationship with the United States all the more of a strategic change for both countries (although Alfoneh wants us to believe that for Iran it would be only “tactical.”) Most conspicuously missing from Alfoneh's treatment is any explanation of why Khamenei and other Iranian leaders see the United States as a threat. It is not because hatred or suspicion of the United States is embedded in Iranian DNA. It is because the United States has given Iran ample reason to see it as a threat. Siding with the aggressor Iraq in an extremely bloody war, imposing years of debilitating economic sanctions, making repeated threats of military attack, making shows of force in Iran's immediate neighborhood, talking frequently about regime change, and tacitly condoning an anti-Iranian assassination campaign have a way of doing that.

In his piece Alfoneh says I have something to learn from National Interest editor Jacob Heilbrunn, who, citing the late British historian A.J.P. Taylor, warned against erroneous historical analogies. I can't claim to have known A.J.P. Taylor personally (although when I was at Oxford a friend of mine was writing his dissertation under Taylor's supervision). I do know Jacob Heilbrunn. Jacob Heilbrunn is a friend of mine. Mr. Alfoneh, you're no Jacob Heilbrunn.