The news that Iran is shipping Shahab and Scud missiles to Venezuela has the blogosphere going full throttle, and for good reason. The introduction of medium-range ballistic missiles in Latin America will mark a threshold of dangerous destabilization for the region. Iran’s current crop of operational missiles can’t hit U.S. territory from Venezuela, but they can hit Colombia, Panama, Honduras, and Mexico, among others. With Iran successfully testing longer-range missiles, it’s only a matter of time before Iranian missiles launched from Venezuela could hit the U.S.
Of equal concern, moreover, is the mere presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Latin America. Hezbollah is already there in growing numbers, operating freely in Brazil and Venezuela and often detected along narcotics-trafficking routes all the way to the U.S. border with Mexico. Earlier hints that Iran’s paramilitary Qods force has already deployed to Venezuela are now the harbinger of a greater and more complex threat.
American commentators are quick to point out the obvious similarities of the “Venezuelan Missile Crisis” to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. Their complaint is understandable: the Obama administration doesn’t seem to be acting vigorously — or even paying attention — as John F. Kennedy did. But the truth is that we shouldn’t long for a Kennedy-style resolution to the missile incursion of 2010. The record of Kennedy’s actions during the crisis shows that he bargained the Soviet missiles out of Cuba by agreeing to remove American missiles from Turkey.
Kennedy admirers have been at pains to minimize this aspect of the deal and depict it as a collateral, low-cost gesture. It was certainly presented in that light in the 2000 movie Thirteen Days. As summarized at the above link, however, the actual significance of the quid pro quo was sufficient to cause editors and historians to excise references to it in the early accounts of the missile crisis. Making such a deal didn’t reflect well on Kennedy’s public profile. It could not do so: the missiles removed from Turkey were a key element of the NATO defense posture in 1962, and Kennedy’s agreement to remove them was made without NATO consultation. The question about the missiles was not whether they were “obsolete” — they were liquid-fueled, and the U.S. was transitioning to a solid-fueled missile force — but whether the alliance was depending on them at the time. And the answer to that question was yes.
The Iran-Venezuela situation of today is more complex; as it unfolds, its features will increasingly diverge from the profile of the 1962 crisis. Today’s impending crisis involves much more of Latin America. We should address it on its own terms. I don’t wish for a Kennedy-esque approach from President Obama. I’m apprehensive about what he would be prepared to trade away in missile negotiations with Iran.