WASHINGTON – Critics of the Iran nuclear deal claim it is flawed, among many reasons, because it does not demand that Tehran also change its behavior at home and abroad. That complaint ignores the United States' long history of striking arms control agreements with the Soviet Union, a far more dangerous enemy.
Those deals probably made the world a safer place through some of the darkest days of the Cold War and they proved talks could be productive even with a sworn adversary.
Dating as far back as the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963 — less than a year after the Cuban missile crisis — U.S. administrations engaged the Soviet Union in agreements to limit nuclear threats while not linking deals to abhorrent Soviet human rights abuses and the active arming and funding of leftist, anti-American revolutionary movements around the world.
As Cold War brinksmanship moved apace, the U.S., the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China signed on to the 1963 Nonproliferation Treaty. That agreement was designed to prevent other countries from developing nuclear weapons, while guaranteeing their rights to civilian nuclear technology — the very guarantee that, 47 years later, allows Iran to continue building nuclear facilities for power generation and medical research.
The U.S. and the Soviets moved in the 1970s to a period of "detente" which spawned the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, known as SALT, and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in the early 1970s. The treaties held despite the 1973 Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War, where conflicting alliances took the superpowers close to military conflict.
Nuclear negotiations continued to a 1979 agreement on SALT II to further reduce nuclear arms. President Jimmy Carter pulled out of the deal six months later after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But just three years after that, staunchly anti-Soviet President Ronald Reagan unveiled the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as START, aimed at shrinking U.S. and Soviet warhead arsenals and the number of bombers and missiles to deliver the bombs.
None of the deals, however, blunted U.S. efforts against what was seen as Soviet bad behavior, especially in Afghanistan.
"What we had to do was confront the Soviets directly by arming the mujahedeen (anti-Soviet Afghan fighters) and other things while we pursued on a parallel track arms negotiations," said William Courtney of the RAND Corporation and a former U.S. diplomat who worked on arms control and served in Moscow.
"That's probably the same strategy that we have to do with Iran. The Iranians were unlikely to agree to a nuclear accord that required them to stop arming Hezbollah or Assad or the like," he said, referring to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah that is an avowed enemy of Israel and embattled Syrian President Basher Assad, Iran's close ally.
The same year that START was signed, Reagan unnerved the Soviets with a speech proposing a space-based system to knock out any nuclear attack on the United States at a time when the Soviets were falling further and further behind in weapons technology. While the program was abandoned after needed technology proved too complex, the ploy was similar to Nixon's opening to China that also rattled the Soviets in the 1970s and likely prompted Moscow's readiness for the detente period.
Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution said in a blog post that the Iran deal could also show the value of negotiating with one's adversaries.
"What the agreement should cease is a few of the most enduring assumptions about U.S. policy toward Iran," said Maloney, interim deputy director of the foreign policy program and senior fellow at Brookings.
"In particular we should bid a good riddance to the taboo ... against direct diplomacy between the estranged governments of the United States and Iran," she wrote, adding that "the official no-contact policy that governs both sides seems rather quaintly outdated."
Steven R. Hurst is AP international political writer and reported from Moscow for 12 years.