It is a truism that nations should not have permanent enemies, but the United States seems to have two: Cuba and Iran. We have been in a state of controlled rage against both of them for as long as most Americans can remember. These dysfunctional relationships have much in common.
Both have persisted far longer than rational self-interest would dictate. Our low-level war with Cuba has lasted 55 years, the one with Iran 35 years. No other countries in the world have been targets of our active enmity for so long.
A second similarity between these two long-lasting feuds is their deep historical roots. Cubans and Iranians nurture passionate nationalism that includes collective memory of traumatic American intervention. In 1898 the United States reneged on its promise to allow Cuban independence after the end of Spanish rule; 61 years later Fidel Castro referred to that betrayal in his first speech as leader of victorious rebels. In Iran, much resentment of the United States can be traced back to our role in deposing the country’s last democratically elected leader, Mohammad Mossadegh, in 1953.
Cuba and Iran were our clients for many years. Revolutionaries deposed the client regimes and established militantly anti-American rule. To some Americans, this was a betrayal akin to parricide. We tried to undermine the revolutionary regimes, but, despite all our efforts, those regimes survived. This has left a deep sense of frustration that fortifies our resistance to compromise with Cuba or Iran.
Hostility toward both countries is also driven by domestic politics. American presidents ritually kowtow to Cuban exile lobbies in Florida and New Jersey. Pro-Israel lobbies fuel anti-Iran sentiment in Congress. Without this political pressure, the US-Cuba and US-Iran relationships would not be so poisonous.
Another similarity between these two astonishingly durable vendettas is that while successive presidents pursued them mercilessly and at times violently, they also negotiated. The history of US-Iran diplomacy is littered with missed opportunities. When one side seemed ready to talk, the other was not. They misjudged and misunderstood each other. Americans often insisted on concessions that Iranians considered insulting to their sovereignty.
A new book, “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana,” by William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh, shows that the same patterns have afflicted our diplomacy with Cuba. In its pages we hear President Nixon vowing, “I’m not changing the policy towards Castro as long as I’m alive. That’s absolute. Final. No appeal whatsoever.” Henry Kissinger insists that it was time to “crack the Cubans” with “an invasion or blockade” because “we have to humiliate them.” And Secretary of State Alexander Haig tells President Reagan, “You just give me the word and I’ll turn that [expletive] island into a parking lot.”
Kissinger was incensed by Castro’s intervention in Africa and wanted to “clobber the pipsqueak.” He embraced the classic American view that the United States has rights to intervene abroad that other countries do not have. Castro disagreed. “Perhaps it is idealistic of me, but I never accepted the universal prerogatives of the United States,” he told one American envoy. “I never accepted and never will accept the existence of a different law and different rules.”
While Castro defied the United States by projecting power in Latin American and Africa, Iran did the same in the Middle East. This offended America’s sense of order. It seemed like a challenge to the world’s strategic balance, and, in a sense, it was. Cuba and Iran have refused to act according to American rules. In fact, they have worked relentlessly and, at times, quite violently to undermine American interests around the world. Yet even when the United States was at the peak of conflict with Cuba and Iran, the enemies were in touch through elaborate back-channel talks.
No breakthrough ever came. “Small successes do not necessarily lead to big ones,” the authors of “Back Channel to Cuba” conclude. “The incremental approach to normalization has not worked.”
The same could be said about our tortured half-efforts to reconcile with Iran. Nuclear talks between the two sides are proceeding in an atmosphere of mistrust and domestic political backlash. Even the emergence of a new common enemy, the Islamic State insurgency, does not seem sufficient to break the paradigm of US-Iran hostility.
Our long estrangement from Cuba and Iran cannot be permanent. In fact, these anachronisms offer the prospect of a twin diplomatic breakthrough. President Obama has the tools he needs to undermine the economic embargo on Cuba that is our most outdated foreign policy. He can also take decisive steps to build a new relationship with Iran, which would bring great strategic advantage in the frighteningly turbulent Middle East. These two ancient grudges have lasted too long. Ending them would be a dual triumph that would decisively advance our global interests.
Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.