by Ryan Costello
Fifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy delivered a visionary commencement speech at American University where he called on Americans to reexamine their assumptions about peace, including with our then-archrival, the Soviet Union. In so doing, Kennedy challenged a mindset that has shaped modern American foreign policy: that diplomacy is appeasement and the only rational way to deal with rivals is through unyielding pressure and military force. Today, with President Barack Obama struggling to obtain a deal that ensures peace and prevents Iran’s increasingly authoritarian leaders from pursuing a nuclear weapon, Kennedy’s words resonate and offer guidance for a reinvigorated diplomatic approach to Iran.
As tensions with Iran rise, President Obama would be wise to heed Kennedy’s words “not to see only a distorted and desperate view of the other side, not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible, and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats.”
In 2008, when candidate Obama was drawing comparisons to President Kennedy for his idealism and soaring rhetoric, he openly challenged the anti-diplomacy mindset gripping U.S. policy. The young Senator’s willingness to engage face-to-face with the leaders of Iran and North Korea without preconditions was ridiculed by his opponents as a sign of his inexperience. But Obama stood firm and, upon entering the White House, his administration briefly attempted to reach out to Iran before altering course a year later in favor of escalating economic sanctions. While this reflected the Washington consensus that Iran will only respond to pressure, it has hardened Iran’s opposition to American interests.
Kennedy knew that a sole reliance on pressure and confrontation would be met in kind by the Soviet Union, increasing the likelihood of war. The same holds true for Iran today. As proponents of diplomacy warned, escalating pressure has strengthened Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s power, devastating reformists and limiting avenues for internal change. Iran is responding by continuing to advance its nuclear program and, as the State Department warned last month, surging its support for terror groups to levels not seen in two decades.
Now, with hawks from both parties calling for a cessation of the intermittent diplomatic talks and enhanced military pressure, the President is dangerously close to falling victim to a policy of brinksmanship that puts us on the path to war.
Months before his speech, Kennedy faced the very real possibility of nuclear Armageddon during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy stymied the hawks within his administration who pushed for strikes on missile sites and an invasion of Cuba, which would have almost certainly triggered nuclear war. Through deft diplomacy, Kennedy offered Nikita Khrushchev and the Soviets an exit from the escalating tensions, allowing both sides to save face. Narrowly avoiding nuclear war had a profound impact on Kennedy, a “cold warrior”, and helped shape his stirring words delivered that summer at American University.
In an era where superpowers with rival ideologies clashed on the global stage, Kennedy challenged the “dangerous, defeatist,” the belief that peace is not possible, and that “war is inevitable.” Since the challenges of international politics are man-made, he argued, they will never be out of mankind’s capacity to solve. Kennedy explained that peace need not be the result of a “sudden revolution in human nature” called for by the naïve, and could be achievable through “a gradual evolution in human institutions — on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned.”
Despite the hostile rhetoric of Soviet propaganda, which described the United States as bloodthirsty imperialists eager to launch preventive war, Kennedy warned that “no government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue.” Further, we must “persevere in the search for peace in the hope that constructive changes within the Communist bloc might bring within reach solutions which now seem beyond us.”
We are fortunate that the Cold War did not end in conflict. But the final chapters of our cold war with Iran have not yet been written.
Today, many policymakers believe that the pursuit of peace with Iran is foolhardy and that preventive war must remain “on the table.” Iran’s leaders meanwhile echo the propaganda of the Soviet leadership. Our decades of mutual mistrust have seemingly created a wall in which only animosity and barbs can penetrate. If Kennedy were alive today, he might warn President Obama about these “dangerous, defeatist” beliefs. Continuing to allow those beliefs to bind us to a policy of isolation, military pressure and continually escalating sanctions will only further undermine the reformist movement, strengthen Khamenei’s power and increase the likelihood of a spark igniting the flames of war.
But Iran cannot forever remain a pariah, cut off from the international community, stifling the hopes and aspirations of its people. And the United States cannot afford another bloody, open-ended conflict in the Middle East. To achieve the deal, we will need to challenge our assumptions, break away from the cycle of mutual escalation and put our full weight behind diplomacy.
As Kennedy warned, “I realize that the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war — and frequently the words of the pursuer fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task.” Let’s hope his warning still resonates today.
— Ryan Costello is a policy fellow with the National Iranian American Council and a graduate of American University’s School of International Service.