During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy made a secret deal with the Soviet Union: He would remove US missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Kremlin pulling its missiles from Cuba. A war was averted.
Facing an Obama-set deadline of late September to suspend its nuclear program in return for substantial talks or face tougher economic sanctions, Iran gave a weak response Tuesday. It said in a vague official memo that talks with Western powers are possible but only on broad international issues. Its nuclear program will continue.
The US and its partners in Europe were not impressed.
At the same time, the US announced Iran had achieved a "possible breakout capacity" to develop bomb-grade material from its enrichment of uranium – quickly, if it chose to.
The Obama administration now faces choices almost as difficult as did Kennedy: How much do you escalate possible threats? How much do you compromise and what can be done in secret?
Mr. Obama has already sent letters to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in hopes of direct, private engagement. This outstretched US hand was rebuffed, another sign that Iran is stalling as it develops a secret nuclear program. (Its 7,000-8,000 centrifuges at the Natanz facility can, in theory, produce enough enriched uranium for two or three atomic bombs.)
Now, with Obama's deadline looming, the American president has little choice but to move toward seeking international sanctions on Iran at the UN Security Council. To make such sanctions effective, however, Russia and China would need to go along, or at least not veto such a measure. One of the more drastic sanctions would be a cutoff of gasoline exports to Iran's already troubled economy.
Yet if new sanctions are thwarted or fail, Obama might then consider the next option: a military strike on Iran's nuclear facility, or a green light for Israel to do so.
He has not taken "the military option" off the table. Last February, he said he would use "all elements of American power to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon."
But such a chain of events toward war need not be inevitable. One side, or both, can give up something to prevent a Middle East conflagration. What might those compromises be, exactly?
In the Cuban crisis, Kennedy gave up nuclear-tipped missiles close to the Russian border. The move didn't really reduce American nuclear deterrence. Could Obama likewise withdraw US naval forces from the oil-rich region or some other step that only intelligence agencies would know about? Would such compromises be enough to satisfy an Iran bent on Islamic revolution beyond its borders?
Iran, of course, doesn't have a fully unified regime. Political infighting and violence since a rigged June 12 election has weakened both the supreme leader and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And estimates vary in the West and in Israel about how soon Iran can achieve the capacity to make a nuclear weapon – from months to years.
But by setting a deadline and keeping the military option alive, Obama may be heading for his own Cuban-missile-crisis moment. He needs to know, at least in secret, what the US is prepared to give up in order to avert a war, as Kennedy so cleverly did nearly a half-century ago.