The idea that the Obama administration's policy for keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons could evolve into Cold War-style deterrence raises a range of interesting questions about our relationship with the Moscow of the analogy.
Why are we at odds with Iran? The main reasons are our lingering resentment over its seizure of U.S. hostages in 1979, its support of international terrorism and threats against our friend Israel, and the virulent anti-American stance and rhetoric of its theocratic regime and especially its presidential front man. The Carter administration broke off diplomatic relations with Iran in the spring of 1980, in the midst of the hostage crisis. In 2002, President Bush said it was part of an "axis of evil" that included Iraq and North Korea.
How could Iran hurt us? Iran doesn't represent a hundredth of the danger to the U.S. and our interests that the Soviet Union did, with its 50,000 nuclear weapons and support for anti-U.S. revolutionary movements around the world. Iran does support anti-Israel and -U.S. aggression and terrorism in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and its leaders have directly threatened the U.S. with suicide bombs. Still, it's hard to see how Iran represents a strategic threat of any kind, much less one of the dimensions posed by the Soviet Union (which whom our formal diplomatic relations were nonetheless uninterrupted throughout the Cold War).
Could detente with Iran follow deterrence? Perhaps the U.S.-Soviet example is again instructive. Beginning in 1969, President Nixon and Henry Kissinger envisioned a policy toward the Soviet Union that became known as detente. Moscow was providing substantial support to enemies of the U.S. in North Vietnam, Cuba, and elsewhere. Mr. Nixon believed he could use the inducement of better trade and cultural relations with the U.S. to persuade the Soviets to pull back in Vietnam and participate in strategic arms control agreements. The policy succeeded when it came to arms control, and possibly even in Vietnam when twinned with U.S. military muscle. There's evidence that after President Nixon ordered bombing raids against North Vietnam in May 1972, Moscow pressured Hanoi to make a deal to end the war. Tragically, the time line could never play itself out because of the weakening of Mr. Nixon's Presidency during Watergate.
Is there a package of inducements the U.S. could offer Tehran to persuade it to suspend its nuclear weapons program and cease its threats against us and Israel? That depends on whether Iran is engaged in a quasi-apocalyptic project against Israel and the West or, instead, would be willing to act rationally in pursuit of its security and economic interests. George Will argues that one reason Iran is intent on deploying nuclear weapons is that it fears a U.S. invasion such as the one we mounted against Iraq in 2003. Its fear is warranted. Would its intentions change if it had a reasonable expectation that the U.S. and Israel wouldn't attack? If we could make it worth Iran's while to remain a non-nuclear power, why in the world wouldn't we?
What is keeping the U.S. from reestablishing diplomatic relations with Iran? My guess is that it has mainly to do with politicians' emotions and political gamesmanship. Wouldn't President Obama look weak if he reached out to Iran more than he has already? Why should we reward the mullahs for their despicable behavior? Shouldn't they continue to be ostracized for threatening Israel? When it comes to our cold war with Iran, our policy would appear to be governed largely by our anger. Last I checked, relations between nations are supposed to be governed by cool, carefully calculated self-interest. If indeed we are coming to a place where we think that Iran can be deterred -- that is, that it would behave rationally when confronted with efforts to contain its ambitions -- then we should naturally be curious about how its leaders might react to more constructive stimulus.
Especially if our policy is based on waiting for the Iranian people, heirs of one of mankind's greatest civilizations, finally to get the government they deserve, it would be good to remember that there are those who believe that the Soviet Union began to die not when confronted by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s but when welcomed into the club by Richard Nixon. Fresh air and sunlight could be as toxic in the councils of the mullahs as it was for the Kremlin.