What Would the Gipper Do About Iran?

What Would the Gipper Do About Iran?

Reagan's handling of the Soviet Union suggests he'd take a more subtle approach than some of his self-proclaimed ideological heirs.


The distinguished career of George Shultz culminated in his service as secretary of state for most of Ronald Reagan's presidency. Shultz showed at the time his ability to discern Reagan's intentions better than some other senior members of the same administration. So when Shultz starts drawing Ronald Reagan comparisons, we maybe ought to pay attention. Shultz makes such a comparison with the current issue of Iran, in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal.

Iran may not be the most propitious topic for drawing lessons from Reagan's foreign policy. For most of Reagan's administration Iran figured chiefly as the opposing side of a U.S. tilt in favor of Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War. That policy was interrupted and contradicted by what became perhaps the blackest mark on Reagan's presidency: the Iran-Contra affair.


Shultz recites several unexceptional, but unenlightening, maxims regarding how, he says, Ronald Reagan negotiated—such as “be realistic,” “recognize opportunities when they are there,” and “know what you want so you don't wind up negotiating from the other side's agenda.” No one should have any problems with any of that advice. But then Shultz presents a simple hardline posture toward negotiations with Iran, featuring the advice to “up the ante” if our side is not getting what it wants from the other side.

Shultz's advice has several deficiencies regarding today's situation with Iran—in particular, complete inattention to what goes into the Iranian side's bottom line, and to what may be unacceptable to Tehran, and thus unachievable at the negotiating table, no matter how much an ante is upped.

The particular Reagan-era issue from which Shultz extracts his advice by analogy is that of intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) in Europe. The story he tells is that the Soviets initially had a bunch of those weapons in Europe and we didn't; Reagan upped the ante by deploying comparable U.S. forces; the Soviets then started showing negotiating flexibility, leading eventually to a treaty abolishing that category of nuclear arms. That's a true story.

But there isn't any kind of arms race like that going on between Iran and the United States. Indeed, focusing on arms balances helps us to understand the actual perspective of the Iranian leaders toward nuclear weapons. Those leaders know that even if Iran were to try to build such a weapon it could never come anywhere close to the nuclear strength of either the United States or Israel, with its large and longstanding arsenal of nuclear weapons, and that consequently one or a few nukes would be at least as much a liability as an asset. That is part of why the Iranians, rather than deciding to build a nuclear weapon, have decided to pursue a negotiated agreement with the West that would preclude them from doing so. Realizing all this does not argue for the sort of hardline approach Shultz recommends.

Shultz does realize that upping the ante in the current situation would involve enacting more anti-Iran economic sanctions, not deploying nuclear-tipped missiles. But he doesn't draw any comparisons with economic sanctions directed against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, although such a comparison would be more appropriate than his INF example. He might have referred specifically to the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which was enacted in 1974 and was intended to use restrictions on trade to pressure the Soviets into allowing more emigration of Jews. The Soviet response in the first years of Jackson-Vanik was to reduce the number of visas for would-be emigrants, evidently to avoid showing weakness in the face of such pressure. A similar dynamic is at play in the Iranian case, as in many other situations. The Soviets continued to be stingy with exit visas through most of Mr. Reagan's presidency. It was not until the Soviet Union was falling apart that the floodgates of Jewish emigration finally opened.

There is a different, more fundamental, characteristic of how Ronald Reagan approached conflict with the prime adversary of the day. It is one that George Shultz could have been expected to mention because he saw this in Reagan, as many others failed to, when they were both in office. Reagan envisioned an eventual end to the kind of bitter, all-consuming conflict that the Cold War had become, and he did not behave as if the conflict would go on forever. Related to this outlook, he was serious in talking about a world that eventually would be free of nuclear weapons. An arms build-up in the short term was a means to getting to this end, not a goal in itself. (Reagan and Barack Obama have in common that they are the two presidents who have clearly articulated the objective of a nuclear-weapons-free world.)

Reagan approached negotiations firm in his belief that the Cold War would end, and that it would end in the not too distant future. Shultz understood this perspective. Inveterate Cold Warriors in Reagan's administration such as William Casey and Caspar Weinberger never seemed to understand it. They seemed to be content to fight the Cold War forever.

Rather like those old Cold Warriors, there are some who seem content to have hostility with Iran last forever. This tendency has multiple roots, including the goal of the current Israeli government to keep Iran isolated and estranged from the United States, and the psychic need of many Americans for a new prime foreign adversary now that we don't have the Soviet Union to kick around any more.

This is not how the Gipper would handle Iran today. Being realistic and recognizing an opportunity when it is there, he would seize that opportunity.  If he were to approach the problem the same way he approached the Cold War with the U.S.S.R., he would use negotiations not in an unrealistic attempt to attain the unattainable but instead to move closer to the goal of ending the new cold war, the one with Iran.