Would Reagan have Approved the Iran Deal?
Ronald Reagan abhorred nuclear weapons. He wanted to get rid of every last one. As he declared in his 1985 inaugural address: "We seek the total elimination of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth." But Reagan was not in a rush to get a flawed deal with the Soviet Union that might have made the United States dangerously vulnerable.
In 1986, at the Iceland superpower summit, Mikhail Gorbachev dangled a deal calling for total elimination of ballistic missiles. How could Reagan resist?
But Reagan said he would accept only if the Soviets allowed the U.S. to proceed with development of his Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed "Star Wars" by his critics. Reagan was prepared to usher in a non-nuclear world, but not at the expense of leaving the United States defenseless. The summit broke up without any immediate progress or achievement on arms control.
Reagan was not in a hurry.
Yet, history vindicated his patience. A year later, in 1987, Washington and Moscow agreed on the first major rollback of deployed nuclear weapons -- complete elimination of intermediate range missiles from both sides of the Iron Curtain. It was a breakthrough made possible by Reagan's vision and firmness a year earlier. It also helped bring an end to the Cold War, by leaving the Kremlin unable to match U.S. strategic superiority.
Which brings up an interesting question: How would Reagan have responded today to a nuclear agreement between world powers and Iran? Would he have signed Sunday's Geneva deal?
Somehow, I doubt it.
Reagan, first and foremost, demanded clear and concise terms for any deals with the Soviet Union. When he counseled "trust but verify," he left no doubt what exactly had to be verified. President Obama, on the other hand, was so eager to get a deal that he settled for mushy provisions that each side already interprets differently. No sooner was the ink dry in Geneva but there already popped up blurred perceptions of whether the interim agreement allows Iran to proceed with enrichment of uranium.
Iranian leaders, who were jubilant about the deal, immediately served notice that they considered themselves free under the Geneva accord to continue with uranium enrichment, and fully intended to continue with spinning their centrifuges. American negotiators emerged with a quite different view of the agreement, arguing that it rules out enrichment. Yet the text of the agreement clearly refers to an Iranian "enrichment program" down the pike.
Which side is right? Neither? Both? Or, as Michael Gordon of the New York Times put it: "American officials signaled earlier this week that they were open to a compromise in which the two sides would essentially agree to disagree on how the treaty should be interpreted, while Tehran continued to enrich."
On such quicksand does Obama reach an accord with the mullahs. Reagan, based on his own record on nuclear disarmament, would have taken more time, and tightened sanctions in the meantime.
No wonder Israelis and Arabs alike have been badly shaken by what they consider U.S. vacillation, weakness -- and all-too-ready accommodation with Tehran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ruffled White House feathers by vowing that Israel is not about to repeat Czechoslovakia's fate in the 1930s, when Western leaders sold out Prague and allowed Nazi Germany to pursue its expansionist agenda. Sad to say, but the shadow of Chamberlain now lingers over the Iran deal. Munich then. Geneva now. An eerie echo indeed.
Leo Rennert is a former White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers