How Not to Make Comparisons Between Iran and China

by Paul Pillar

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 whyKhamenei 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.

This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission.

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  1. The writer of the article completely ignored or forgot the events of the 1953 in Iran when the US government overthrew the democratically government of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran and began the animosity towards America. US has harmed Iran over and over and in the past 10 years constantly has expressed its desire to bomb Iran, “everything is on the table.” America must apologize to Iran and pay Iran reparations for what happened in August 1953. America has destroyed lives of generations of Iranian people and must somehow pay for it. Iran should not build a relationship with US. US helped Saddam to use chemical weapons on Iranian forces and civilians. US can not be trusted.

  2. Informative rebuttal, which is as it should be, on this subject. Another nail in the coffin of neocon rhetoric to slam the negotiations seeking a peaceful face saving end game for each side. Of course, Mr Alfoneh’s performance lies in the direction of appeasing his group, otherwise, who would pay the bills? Another example of the “revisionism” that’s become a hallmark of this century, as in dusting off the old relics, giving them a new coat of shine, as if they were new. What isn’t said, is telling, that being the issue that has many sycophants on that side beating the drum[s] over, “human rights/suffering”, taking place in Iran today. This isn’t to say that Iranian officials are innocent of their part, but neither are the Western governments who imposed the sanctions, who should know exactly who will be hurt by such. But then, that part of the issue has never been of any concern in the past, so why should it be today? Isn’t waging “WAR” on another country is the same category of “human rights abuse”, pertaining to the innocent population, or is that just another collateral damage issue of war that those who engage in such, use to ease their guilt of stepping on another country that doesn’t want to toe the line, that being “It’s our way, or the highway to ruin”.

  3. Mr. Alfoneh has made a huge number of other errors. At the end he there is very little in Alfoneh’s article that has any bases in reality!

  4. How very true: the folks at FDD do not want a deal between the P5+1 and Iran. Full stop.

  5. I’ve always preferred Walter Mondale’s zinger at Gary Hart in the Democratic candidate debates in 1988 when he asked “Where’s the beef?” It’s also more appropriate to the situation in Iran since it begs the question where is the substantive changes Iran will make in exchange for a lifting of economic sanctions. In fact, since negotiations began last year, Iran has become even more aggressive in its deeds and actions including a sharp rise in rhetoric aimed at the US, deeper involvement in the Syria conflict, an expansion in domestic crackdowns against dissidents and ill-timed calls for an expansion in its nuclear refining capacity.

    At the time of the opening of China relations, China and the US had carefully sketched a series of bridge building steps to set the stage, including cultural acts such as the first exchange of pandas to US zoos, to the first ever meetings between its military forces.

    Iran has made no attempts to create the same atmosphere of trust other than to stage an election of a loyal member of the regime in Rouhani and get him on Twitter. Sadly, there are so many things Iran could do to improve relations, but has instead opted to toughen its stance.

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