by Austin Bay
November 26, 2013
A Russian folk proverb, translated as "trust, but verify," became one of President Ronald Reagan's signature dictums. Reagan loved quips, but he knew this remarkable phrase was an explanatory twofer. It communicated both the predicament his administration confronted when negotiating Cold War treaties with the USSR and firm policy guidance for resolving the predicament, particularly when the negotiations involved security agreements.
When negotiating with a tyranny, a free and open society is immediately in a bind: dictatorships are inherently untrustworthy because they are regimes maintained by brutal distrust. Tyrants don't trust their own people. Instead, they trust instruments of fear -- bayonets, secret police -- using them to intimidate, imprison, or, when necessary, murder political opponents. Laws in these closed societies are convenient fictions, which means they really don't exist. Ultimately, tyrants rule by whim, which means rule by circumstantial convenience. When -- not if -- it benefits the tyranny to cheat on a negotiated agreement, it will do it.
Extracting trust from the untrustworthy -- how to do it is a quandary. Reagan knew reducing the USSR's Cold War nuclear arsenal would benefit America and its allies. However, Soviet reductions had to be genuine. Hence the quip's policy guidance: verification. But verification entailed opening the USSR'S closed society. In order to have a substantive, real world agreement between the superpowers that would reduce the threat of nuclear devastation and promote peace, the USSR had to change.
Let's call that regime alteration, since it isn't quite regime change.
What brought about regime alteration in the USSR? There were several predicates, but two in particular. Soviet economic decline was one. The USSR's economic failure was fostered by Communism's economic stupidity and the American strategy of containment. Containment was economic, political and military sanctions writ large. The other predicate: Reagan's willingness to use American military power when challenged by a calculated Kremlin political and propaganda gambit, the so-called 1983 Euro-missile crisis.
In a recent column, I suggested that manufactured crisis was the Cold War's last great political battle. Ultimately, Reagan deployed American nuclear-armed missiles to Western Europe to counter Soviet nuclear missiles, despite a bitter, fanatical Soviet political and propaganda effort to thwart the U.S. response. Reagan, in the pursuit of genuine arms reductions, had to unsheathe the saber and show it. His administration's counter-deployment enforced the security red line the Soviets had crossed.
Dictatorships, based on brute force, understand force. When they encounter it, the dastards respect it. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev's reformist Soviet government accepted Reagan's zero-zero missile deal: no U.S. missiles, no Russian missiles. Gorbachev also agreed to a binding and rigorous verification regimen. He had to. Reagan insisted.
Which brings us to Iran 2013 and the so-called nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama Administration and Tehran's bazaar-schooled clerical dictatorship.
There are some loose parallels between Tehran today and the Kremlin circa 1984. When they seized power at the end of WW1, Russia's Communists proclaimed a history-changing global revolution. So did the Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic revolutionary regime when the Shah fell in 1979. In its waning days, endemic corruption afflicted the USSR's failed atheist workers' paradise. Today, corruption runs rampant in the Khomeini's failed theocratic heaven.
Since the early 1990s, economic troubles have nagged the Islamic regime. Since the mid-1990s the same regime has sought nuclear weapons.
In 1985, Gorbachev saw the bayonet was losing its efficacy, abroad and at home. Eastern European satellites, like Poland, longed to break the Iron Curtain. Russians openly mocked Kremlin lies. Not so Iran 2013. Regime police have battered the Green Revolution. Iran's proxies, Lebanese Hezbollah and Syria's Assad regime, remain committed to mass murder.
Unlike 1983, America's 2013 leadership failed to back security promises with substantiating action. President Barack Obama proclaimed that Assad's use of chemical weapons constituted a security red line, which Assad could not cross. When Assad crossed it, Obama backed down.
As for assured verification? There are no assurances in this deal. Inspectors will have access to several key Iranian nuclear sites, but numerous experts have found major loopholes in the new agreement. In fact, the new agreement is really an agreement to talk again in six months. The Iranian dictatorship, in exchange for a relaxation in economic sanctions (worth an estimated six to seven billion dollars) has merely promised to restrain its nuclear weapons program for six months.
Is six months Obama's new nuclear red line? If it is, the mullahs are betting it is as firm as his last one, the one prohibiting Assad's use of nerve gas on defenseless civilians.