On Iran's nuclear program, Obama should take a cue from JFK and 'go first'

Fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy announced the US would stop nuclear tests in space. The move was meant to build trust for negotiations with the Soviets, and it worked. President Obama should follow the JFK example by, for instance, waiving some sanctions on Iran.

Ebrahim Noroozi/AP
A female supporter of Iranian presidential candidate Hasan Rowhani flashes a victory sign as she holds his poster at a campaign rally in Tehran June 8. Op-ed contributor Matthew Bunn writes: 'Once the upcoming Iranian elections are past, President Obama should announce a Kennedy-style initiative,' such as 'waive some substantial sanctions.'

Fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy delivered a commencement address at American University whose message echoes down the decades to the challenges America faces today – including the challenge of Iran.

Only months after the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the edge of nuclear war, Kennedy chose to speak of peace. This, as he faced a nuclear-armed Soviet Union that had a hateful ideology and was seemingly bent on world domination. The American president challenged those who saw peace as “impossible” or “unreal,” calling this “a dangerous, defeatist belief.” He spoke of a “practical” peace, based “on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements that are in the interest of all concerned.”

Strikingly, while upholding American values, he recognized that the United States, too, bore some responsibility for the cold war, and urged Americans “not to fall into the same trap as the Soviets, not to see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side.” He argued that “even the most hostile nations can be relied upon to accept and keep” treaty obligations that serve their own interests.

Today, as the US faces an Iran whose government is also driven by an ideology alien to American values, seemingly bent on exporting that ideology and threatening Israel, Kennedy’s words carry a deep resonance. Can the US find a practical peace with Iran that verifiably keeps its still-expanding nuclear program from building nuclear weapons? Or are we doomed to a terrible choice between military strikes and acquiescing to Iran building a nuclear arsenal?

Kennedy recognized that deep mutual distrust was the key obstacle to progress, leading each side to reject every proposal from the other as a propaganda trick. One of the most profound insights in his 1963 commencement speech came in response to those who argued – as many do today of Iran – that talk of negotiations was “useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude." Kennedy added: "I hope they do. I believe we can help them do it.”  To that end, Kennedy went from words to action – announcing that the US would stop atmospheric nuclear testing as long as others did, would send negotiators to Moscow to seek a nuclear-test ban, and would seek to open a direct communication line between Washington and Moscow.

Kennedy’s initiative worked. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev called it the “greatest speech by any American president since Roosevelt.” Both the leading state-controlled Soviet newspapers, Pravda and Izvestia, printed it in full. Ten days later, negotiators reached an agreement on the hotline. The Soviet Union stopped nuclear testing as Kennedy had, and negotiators in Moscow took only three weeks to negotiate the Limited Test Ban Treaty. Khrushchev announced a halt in production of strategic bombers. Later there were mutual reductions in production of nuclear bomb material and in defense spending, along with a reciprocal pullback of thousands of troops from central Europe.

Kennedy’s approach was based on a simple idea – that to get past overwhelming mistrust, the US had to take the first step, not just in words, but also in concrete, undeniable actions. It had to be a big enough step to seem important and real, even in the face of the other side’s distorted view of America – but modest and reversible enough not to endanger US security. If the other side responded, a next and bigger step might be possible.

It is time for President Obama to take the same approach with Iran. The strategy of biting sanctions, constant threats of military action, and carefully hedged proposals offering Iran little relief from its sanctions suffering is leading Iranian leaders to want a way out – but it is also reinforcing their view that the US is implacably hostile and will never lift sanctions even if Iran does accept reasonable limits on its nuclear program.

Once the upcoming Iranian elections are past, President Obama should announce a Kennedy-style initiative and take a major step in one of the central areas of dispute – as with Kennedy’s test halt. The US, for instance, could waive some substantial sanctions and offer further conciliatory steps if Iran reciprocates. Iran could then export a portion of its 20-percent enriched uranium or blend some of it back to 5 percent, offering to do more if the US took further steps.

As with Kennedy’s initiative, positive steps to pursue other common interests should be taken at the same time – from cooperation to stop the flow of drugs from Afghanistan into Iran to limiting the risks of unintended incidents at sea. To have any hope of gaining real limits on Iran’s nuclear program – a reduction in the amount of enriched uranium that could rapidly be further enriched for a bomb, a cap on Iran’s enrichment capacity, and far-reaching inspections – every option to get there needs to be explored.

Five decades ago, Kennedy called on Americans not to be “blind to our differences” with the Soviet Union, but also to “direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved.” We must do the same today in the face of the Iranian challenge.

Matthew Bunn, an associate professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, is a former nonproliferation adviser in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. His research focus includes nuclear proliferation and ways to control it.

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