Why Iran isn’t the Soviet Union
April 8th, 2013
10:35 AM ET

Why Iran isn’t the Soviet Union

By Jonathan Adelman, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Jonathan Adelman is a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. The views expressed are his own.

Despite the rhetoric of the Obama administration and tougher sanctions, hard realities suggest a likely American policy of not attacking Iran but seeking to contain it.

For Iran, the benefits of nuclear weapons are significant: becoming the ninth member of the world’s exclusive nuclear club, spurring nationalist ardor at home, potentially dominating the Middle East, enhancing its leadership of the world’s neutralist bloc, offsetting the likely loss of their main Arab ally Syria and deterring an American attack. America’s desire to stop Iran, meanwhile, is constrained by many factors: withdrawal of an aircraft carrier battle fleet from the Persian Gulf, $80 billion in Iranian hard currency reserves, opposition from Russia and China, foreign efforts to help Iran evade international sanctions, American war weariness, economic malaise, Congressional hyper partisanship and the Obama policy of leading from behind.

Trying to contain a nuclear Iran avoids an unpopular military strike, regional war and harsher sanctions. And most appealing of all, containment succeeded for 40 years with the Soviet Union, culminating in its dissolution in 1991.

There is only one critical problem with the alluring temptation of containment —the Islamic Republic of Iran is no Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was a global superpower, with a vast military-industrial complex and Red Army whose World War II victories helped defeat Nazi Germany. During the Cold War the Soviet Union had several thousand strategic nuclear weapons capable of destroying the United States. The Red Army dominated Eastern and much of Central Europe and threatened Western Europe.

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By contrast, Iran is a second rate military and economic power. It reactivated its nuclear program in 1984 and has still not exploded its first atomic bomb. In the 1980s, even after eight years, it could not defeat Iraq, a task that the United States accomplished in three weeks in 2003. With only several hundred atomic scientists, Iran relies heavily on foreign help for its nuclear project.  It possesses a modest missile force, weak army and no modern navy. Iran lags far behind Israel, with its strong air force and 100 to 200 atomic bombs, and NATO stalwart Turkey. Iran’s $13,000 GNP/capita lags far behind the United States ($49,000), United Arab Emirates ($49,000) and Israel ($32,000).

Second, Iran lacks Soviet global political influence and ideological clout. Moscow was the center of international communism that embraced one third of the world’s population.  Iran’s Islamic fundamentalism resonates only among 2 percent of the world’s population (mostly 100+ million Shiites). It has few state allies (Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, Iraq?) and only two non-state actors (Hezbollah and Hamas).

Third, the Soviet Union was largely rational in its foreign policy. When the Berlin Blockade (1948), Cuban missile crisis (1962) and invasion of Afghanistan (1979) failed, it withdrew its forces. It maintained embassies in enemy countries and a hot line with Washington after 1962. Moscow conducted prolonged negotiations with the West that resulted in several treaties. Iran does not have embassies or hot lines with its “enemies,” supports international terrorism, conducts cyber attacks on Western targets and often talks recklessly of destroying Israel.

Fourth, the Soviet nuclear threat was remote, many thousands of miles away, and slowed by liquid fueled rockets that took hours to fire. Iranian rockets, on the other hand, are solid fuel and only hundreds of miles from their targets.

Finally, there is the nature of leadership. The Soviet elite were dominated by secular college graduates, heavily engineers, who had a rational international perspective. The Iranian elite are dominated by radical mullahs with a limited world view.

Containment of a nuclear power under any circumstances is a risky business. Containment even of the relatively rational Soviet Union almost led to a nuclear war over Cuba in 1962. Imagine what could happen in trying to contain an Iran lacking many of the rational aspects of the Soviet Union.

A rogue state operating outside the normal international boundaries is more likely to take radical gambles. A militarily, economically and politically weak regime, led by radical mullahs with an eschatological world view on the coming of the Mahdi, may take chances for great goals that no other state would ever take. The danger of accidental launch under presumed attack is far higher for the amateurish Iranian Revolutionary Guards than the professional officers and KGB Border Guards in charge of Soviet nuclear weapons.

As in Greek mythology, the siren song of containing a nuclear Iran is hugely tempting and alluring – but in the end may lead to shipwreck and disaster.

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Topics: Iran

soundoff (125 Responses)
  1. AladdinSane

    Iran isn't trying to take over the world like the USSR. Smarter to ask the same question about the US.

    April 10, 2013 at 4:14 am | Reply
    • Thinker23

      Well, let me ask you this question, Aladdin... Does the US try to take over the world, in your opinion?

      April 10, 2013 at 6:11 am | Reply
      • Angela

        US has taken over the world!

        April 10, 2013 at 11:00 am |
      • Tahir

        Do you live in this world?

        April 10, 2013 at 11:10 am |
  2. PM

    Mr. Kameni , kill Americans all by nukles . Death to the U.S and Syrian rebels . Long live Iran , N.korea and Bashar al-Assad .

    April 10, 2013 at 7:45 pm | Reply
  3. lweba

    Iran's ambitions to arm itself are primarily based on fear of the Sunni. A nuclear Pakistan makes Iran feel unsafe. The biggest mistake the world ever made was to allow Pakistan to go nuclear. Now the consequences of this error are leading the whole of the middle East into a nuclear race. The bombs in Pakistan are the ones which force Iran to also go nuclear.
    When Iran succeeds to manufacture the N. bomb, all the Sunni countries in the Middle East will seek ways of also acquiring the bombs. This is because of the prevailing enmity between the Sunnis and the Shiites. The first country to go for the bomb will most probably be Saudi Arabia and then Jordan and also Syria. This will not end here, but Turkey too will also go nuclear which will make Greece edgy. Greece going nuclear might make some Balkan states also look for means of getting the bombs which in the long run this will make the whole world become nuclear!

    April 10, 2013 at 11:14 pm | Reply
    • Frank oliver


      May 28, 2013 at 11:47 pm | Reply
  4. mike

    "Adelman" is just another zionist brain washing america to use our money to create more of their wars. one day we will all be free

    April 11, 2013 at 12:47 am | Reply
    • garykatzjokesrgood4u

      Mike, if Iran nukes Israel and starts a regional war, I suppose your biggest concern will be $7/gallon gasoline. After all, they're just Zionists, right?

      April 11, 2013 at 8:59 am | Reply
      • Thinker23

        I'm afraid that in case Iran will start a nuclear war in the Middle East MIke's concern WILL NOT be $7/gallon gasoline. His concern will be $50/galllon gasoline (if he'll be able to find it, of course). His other concern will be how to get these $50 because most probably he (and millions of other Americans) will lose their jobs.

        April 12, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
  5. garykatzjokesrgood4u

    An additional factor is the world double standard against Israel. MAD worked for the U.S. and U.S.S.R. because both sides knew one nuke could lead to massive retaliation. Let's say Iran's mullahs are thinking about destroying Tel Aviv. They are prepared to absorb one or two Israeli counterstrikes (while they hunker down in safe bunkers, eating caviar). They know the U.N. and Muslim world won't tolerate Israel completely obliterating Iran with, say, 50 nukes. Just imagine the outrage and cries of "disproportionate response," "war crimes," and "genocide." They will call upon other Muslim nations to join in, including nuclear Pakistan. And what if a nuked and shaken Israel were simultaneously attacked from Gaza, Hezbollah, Sinai and even Islamist dominated Syria (through the Golan Heights)? So they might calculate they could eliminate or at least cripple Israel at a cost of just a million or two "martyrs." It might be that the biggest deterrent to the mullahs is not knowing how much retaliation the U.S. would be willing to dish out. If they think they will suffer an Iraq style regime change, they might stay their hand. Or they might attack the sneaky way, by supplying terrorists with a nuke and disavowing any connection (which is more their style, anyway). Scary.

    April 11, 2013 at 8:57 am | Reply
    • Thinker23

      Somehow I doubt that Israelis will allow themselves to be mass murdered because of the "disproportional response" outcry in the UN or elsewhere...

      April 12, 2013 at 3:39 pm | Reply
  6. mike

    yes the zionists want more wars ! that other people pay for. As if all the lives our sons and daughters & 1 million iraqies were not enough. All the money wasted, the jobs lost, the American international reputation tarnished , the instability to the international economy created by their wars.

    I think enough is enough, we need to get back our democracy, undo the monopoly and unfair influence created by zionism here at home over : the media, wall street, congress, military and the white house. We need to be FREE AT HOME first before we go invade other people all over the world.

    April 11, 2013 at 9:30 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      Mike... Not a single American soldier ever participated in Israeli wars. The war in Iraq had nothing to do with Israel and everything to do with Iraq swallowing Kuwait... and, by the way, Israelis prefer to live in peace and not be killed at wars.

      April 12, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Reply
      • mike

        "Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Bill Kristol [are]... the clique of conservatives who are driving this war," wrote New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd.

        Those are top zionists who drove the decision to invade iraq those same people are asking for 1 million Iranians to be murdered now. It is funny that Israel made Wolfowitz man of the year in 2004.

        As for Israelis preferring peace! One can look at their role in the killing now in Syria, Egypt and the way they are imprisoning the Palestinians in the largest concentration camp history has seen

        April 12, 2013 at 6:08 pm |
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