Iran, History, and Strategy by Analogy



Despite all the warnings about the dangers of drawing inappropriate conclusions from past events, commentators on contemporary international conflict are constantly drawn to historical analogies. There is a natural desire to learn lessons from all the big things that went wrong in the past, notably the two World Wars, and a few things that went right, notably the end of the Cold War. In some areas this has become routine. Any attempt to negotiate with a disagreeable regime will soon to lead to solemn references to Munich. The 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War has encouraged a number of worried comparisons with the current relations between China and Japan to the point where this has become a natural starting point for any consideration of where their mutual tension might lead. Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s invocation of this comparison was probably the most significant, if only because he believes his country is in a pre-war situation.

Yet the differences between Europe in 1914 and the Pacific in 2014 are enormous, in terms of the issues in dispute, the respective alliances, geography and the nature of the military options, the wider economic and social context, and so on. Thinking about any past wars usually provides wise reminders about the need for diplomatic care at times of crisis and thinking hard about the consequences of any rash move, getting to know what you can about your opponent and trying to understand any country you happen to be invading, but such caution does not require close reading of past events or tight comparisons with the present.

Too often the metaphors become metonyms, a shorthand way of making a point. If you are weak and spineless in the face of a challenge from a dictator, then he is bound to take advantage. If you allow military timetables to set the pace, then an otherwise innocuous trigger will lead to a global conflagration before the diplomats get a chance to exercise restraint. These cases are used as illustrations to reinforce a stance taken for other reasons. Worried about soft talk and you will gravitate to Munich; fearful of the big stick and you go to 1914.

History provides a sample box of events that can be employed to reinforce the required “lesson.” Need to keep a war limited, recall how MacArthur’s dash to the Yalu in 1950 drew China into the Korean War. Alternatively, worried about the limits, note how Saddam Hussein was let off the hook at the end of the 1991 Gulf War. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis advises the provision of an escape route for your adversary even while being firm. Northern Ireland is available to show how terrorists can be brought into a political process while the end of the Cold War provides guidance on how to ease deep international tensions. Although many of the favourite cases are dated (going back to Munich is equivalent to policy-makers in 1938 contemplating the lessons of the Crimean War), we have seen with the debates over Libya and Syria how Iraq and Afghanistan are starting to provide their own lessons.


The potential value but also the dangers of looking to the past to illuminate the present can be seen in the use of the end of the Cold War as a guide to policy towards Iran. In a recent article in The Weekly Standard, Elliott Abrams argues that the application of an inaccurate Cold War analogy is leading to an overly optimistic assessment of the possibilities for dealing with Iran. He is not saying that the Cold War cannot be a helpful source of lessons, but that the wrong lessons have been drawn. It should be noted that Abrams’ article also contains the raw material for a Munich lesson as well, although he shows restraint in keeping only one analogy in play at a time. There is nonetheless the same animating concern that the special responsibility a status quo power has for international security is jeopardised if it is unwilling to stand up for the weak in the face of predators. Abrams usies the Cold War to make a similar point to the one normally associated with Munich: Once it is assumed that a status quo power is taking a narrow view of its own security and has become bothered about the costs of intervention then the predators will be emboldened and the weak will look elsewhere for their security.

According to Abrams, the wrong lesson to learn from the 1980s is that if the United States offers the right incentives and communicates actively, it can help an ideologically driven regime appreciate the need for a more responsible foreign policy and internal reform.   The right lesson to be drawn from the Cold War, he argues, is that “any moves toward negotiation and coexistence on the military and diplomatic level must be matched by greater ideological clarity and aggressiveness on our side, or the message will be that we are giving up the struggle.”

Abrams bases his case on four observations. First, the Cold War wasn’t so cold.  In fact, it saw shots repeatedly fired in anger – certainly in Korea and Vietnam but also, and of particular importance, in Afghanistan, where it became possible to show that the Soviet tyranny was not invincible. Second, non-Communist countries which did not fully trust American guarantees were tempted to acquire their own nuclear weapons. Third, it was necessary for the United States to challenge the Soviet ideology relentlessly. Fourth, to the extent that there were “moderate” forces in play within the USSR, it was necessary for the West to support their approach by showing that a hard line would not work.

Turning to Iran, Abrams argues that there is no evidence that President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif are moderates, in any way that we would recognise. He then concludes that the combination of America appearing to be a soft touch on the nuclear issue and hesitant to use force, as with Syria, will not only encourage a hard-line stance by Iran but also may lead those countries most threatened by this prospect to seek security through their own nuclear programs. In contrast to the suggestion that Teheran is losing confidence in its own beliefs, Abrams argues that a centuries-old religion is likely to be more resilient than the communist ideology that had been in existence for only decades – hence the importance of his Cold War lesson of matching negotiations with “greater ideological clarity and aggressiveness.”


How do Abrams’ arguments hold up? It is of course true that the Cold War involved quite a lot of fighting. In the case of Korea we might assume that the intervention sent a salutary message to both Moscow and Beijing about American readiness to fight for its allies. However, in the case of Vietnam, an ill-considered intervention weakened the United States, put strain on its allies and ended up diminishing American power. There is no law of strategy that says that the aggressive option inevitably makes the right impression on an adversary.  In fact, sometimes the aggressive option leads to a quagmire. An aggressive stance can cause other problems too.  Nobody, for example, can reasonably argue that the American action in Iraq weakened Iran. Teheran has never had so friendly a government in Baghdad.

On the ideological side, clarity is important of course, but it was not the Voice of America that defeated communism. Rather, it was the evident gap between communist propaganda and the everyday reality. In this respect the difference was made not so much by official mouthpieces (although I would make a case for the BBC World Service) but by increasing evidence that Western countries were not only more free, but also more prosperous and comfortable. It is also important to recall the actual process that led to the implosion of state socialism in Europe. The weak links in the system were those members of the Warsaw Pact who were desperate for reform and who, over the course of 1989, abandoned the Soviet model.

This introduces the issue of alliances. Iran has nothing at all to compare to the Warsaw Pact. Iraq is friendly but weak, especially as it comes to appreciate the consequences of alienating its Sunni minority. Syria was an important ally, but is now riven by civil war. Even if Bashar al-Assad holds on it will be years before his country can be put together as a viable state.  If Assad is stronger than a year ago, that is because of Hezbollah’s intervention on his behalf, reflecting its view and Teheran’s that their position would be immeasurably weakened if the regime was ousted. Here Hezbollah acts as instrument of Iranian foreign policy, but this has come at a cost. Hezbollah is now caught in a running battle with Sunni jihadists, which has spilled over into its home base, while its standing in both the Lebanon and the wider Middle East has fallen.

What then of America’s allies? For a status quo power allies represent core obligations, although in practice the nature of these obligations and the quality of the underlying relationships can vary. Abrams argues that once allies come to doubt their security guarantees then they will take steps to protect themselves, probably by getting their own nuclear weapons. The Cold War examples he cites are those of Britain and France, but he is wrong to lump them together. Britain saw itself as a partner of the United States in nuclear deterrence. France certainly saw the “force de frappe” as an alternative to alliance, but what is striking is that nobody followed it out of NATO’s integrated military command, and certainly not Germany, which  was most dependent on the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

American security relationships in the Middle East are far more tenuous than those in Europe. Countries such as Saudi Arabia are evidently unnerved by what they perceive to be President Obama’s irresolute response to events in Syria and are unconvinced that negotiations will stop the Iranian drive to a bomb. But just as the President has lacked a rich array of credible options for tackling these crises, Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries do not have many serious alternatives to working closely with the United States. They are unlikely to turn to Russia, the main backer of Teheran and Damascus. Even if the Saudis were attracted to the idea of their own bomb, getting one would be no simple matter.

Moreover, alliances depend on mutual benefits that need to be demonstrated. During the Cold War, and particularly during Vietnam, the question of what costs the United States should be prepared to accept to reassure allies came up regularly. Could the American people be persuaded to accept human and material losses on behalf of allies whose domestic politics were disagreeable and who seemed to do little to help themselves? Should actions be taken that were unlikely to succeed just to show that the US was prepared to take risks on their behalf?  Needy and vulnerable allies can be a strategic liability.  The Soviet Union’s allies posed the largest challenges to state socialism. Assad’s weakness has drawn Iran into a vicious civil war in an effort to save him. An impetuous ally might draw the United States into situations it would rather avoid. The American global role is based on its network of alliances, and if that began to erode that could have severe consequences, but sometimes good options for holding it together are just not available. Iran, after all, was once a “pillar” of American strategy in the Middle East.

This leads to the most important question raised in Abrams’ article, which is whether there are any grounds for optimism in the recent political developments in Iran. Abrams describes the regime as effectively monolithic, certainly ideologically driven, and confident that it can build nuclear weapons while still getting economic concessions. Yet the political structure of Iran is actually quite complex.  It does have a “Supreme Leader,” but it also has many factions, and tensions, as one would expect, between ideological hard-liners and more pragmatic types who are focused on the need for reform. Unfortunately the question is not whether Prime Minister Rouhani is a Gorbachev, which might introduce interesting parallels, but whether Supreme Leader Khameini is, to which the answer is certainly not. So in this regard Abrams is right to warn against the notion that Rouhani might simply “do a Gorbachev.”

Still, change in the Soviet Union began once the leadership recognized the severity of its economic condition. Those that set in motion that change neither sought nor expected the collapse of the system they were trying to lead. They did not control events, and neither does the Iranian government. Iran’s current economic predicament may well prove to be intractable. Some commentators have noted some modest growth since last November’s interim agreement, as if to suggest that easing sanctions is already showing itself to be a cure for Iran’s woes.  But the Islamic Republic needs much more than a couple of percentage points to keep pace with is population growth, and to compensate for the lack of investment in its oil industry and the collapse in oil exports.

To get full relief from sanctions, Iran will need to demonstrate that it lacks a nuclear weapons breakout capability, though the hard-liners may resist the concessions this requires.  And it will still then need thoroughgoing economic reform – an unpalatable option for Khameini and those elites who benefit from the current system.  Rouhani therefore is in the normal condition of most policy-makers. He faces a dilemma. He cannot satisfy the international community, reform the economy and placate the hard-liners embedded in the Iranian power structure. He probably does not know himself how he can manage this dilemma. This may lead to negotiations on a final nuclear deal that are difficult and possibly fruitless. There are therefore good reasons to be cautious about success. It may be that economic desperation allows Rouhani sufficient latitude, but it is possible that real change will require a new Supreme Leader. Khameini is alleged to be in ill health. Whether or not this is true may turn out to be one of the more important political facts about Iran.

So this is not easy. Wishful thinking is unwise on Iran, but so is a fatalistic assumption that Iran is bound for success.  There is a lot to play for and that requires understanding as best we can what is going on the country and seeking to fashion the right mixture of incentives and pressure to encourage it to move in the right direction. This effort requires diplomatic engagement with the Iranian government, which is not in itself a concession. The challenges are to be found in the substance, not the process. Even if one is gloomy about the long-term prospects it makes sense to keep open lines of communication to a regional power, as the West did with the Soviet Union.


Where does this leave us with lessons and the uses of history? This discussion shows that comparing and contrasting two apparently similar situations can be quite fruitful, so long as the aim is to identify recurring dilemmas rather than to draw lessons. The limits of the exercise must be understood. Along with counter-factuals, historical analogies can be ways of exploring causation and therefore of evaluating available policy levers. The mistake lies in assuming that following the same policies will produce the same outcomes.  In short, history should alert you to factors of which to be aware, dangers that might be lurking unseen, possibilities that might be worth exploring, or questions to ask.  It can provide suggestions but not rules to be followed.

History is most useful when trying to work out why a particular situation is different from another to which it bears a superficial resemblance. History can provide context and chronology. It can help explain the origins and character of a country’s power structures, cultural biases, regional networks, sensitivities and vulnerabilities. This can be as true for those historical episodes that we think we know well as for the situations that we are struggling to comprehend. Consider: if one key lesson has come out of the plethora of new books on the origins of the First World War, it is how much is still in dispute and how much can never be known because we can only speculate about the paths not taken. The fact that historical events are so regularly subject to revision and reinterpretation provides good reason for caution in applying “the lessons of the past.”


Lawrence Freedman has been Professor of War Studies at King’s College London since 1982. His most recent book is Strategy: A History (OUP, 2013).


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