The prospects for a diplomatic rapprochement between U.S. and Cuba serve as a timely barometer on U.S.-Iran relations, in light of the strong parallels between the two cases. In fact, one may even go further and assert that the White House’s ability to normalize relations with Cuba and end the half-century embargo on the island-nation in its vicinity serves as a litmus test of Obama’s foreign policy including its Iran policy.
If successful and President Obama achieves his stated objective of U.S-Cuba normalization despite some Congressional opposition, then this is likely a spur for added momentum to set relations with Iran straight, after decades of estrangement.
With the polls indicating that the majority of Americans favor Obama’s initiative, which has been in the making for several years mostly through secret diplomacy, Obama’s congressional challengers are likely to succeed in throwing speed bumps to slow the process but not to freeze or reverse it.
Their failure, on the other hand, might actually embolden them to put up a more fierce opposition on Iran, given the present ‘tough talk’ by some members of the Republican Party on a pending legislation; such talks also serve the ‘good cop, bad cop’ with the White House, which has a vested interest in the nuclear talks and does not want to see it collapse.
There is, in other words, a side-effect to the Cuba re-opening issue that can rub on the Iran issue in different ways, depending on several factors, such as the failure or success of anti-Cuba legislators or the outcome of current negotiations for a political agreement, per the 4-month time-line set by the negotiators in the nuclear talks. Even a ‘policy linkage’ can be inferred from Obama’s recent statement that he could “never say never” to the idea of a US embassy in Iran, i.e., the timing after his ‘historic announcement’ on Cuba suggests such a linkage.
But, are these tactical or strategic considerations? And to what extent they are influenced by the strategic new U.S.-Russia competition, which has spurred a new ‘oil war’ against Russia? Another way of posing this question is: did Obama intend to checkmate (neutralize) Putin’s hand in Latin America by this new initiative toward a country that has a role in Russia’s global geopolitics vis-à-vis U.S.? Usually, the answers to such questions do not reveal themselves until a sufficient passage of time, just as we still do not know all the facts about Kennedy’s role in the 1962 Bay of Pigs invasion or, similarly, the CIA’s role in the 1953 coup. Clever historians, on the other hand, know only too well that there is often a gap between the leaders’ stated intentions and their true objectives.
Hence, it is premature to think that the U.S. has now given up on the ‘regime change’ approach toward Cuba and may be more inclined to pursue it more through ‘soft power’ than ‘hard power’ including sanctions — that have been cruel, inhuman and decried regularly at UN and WTO by the international community. Perhaps the U.S. has sanctioned itself out of the international affairs to some extent and is now beginning to take account of the tremendous toll, i.e., over a trillion dollars market loss with respect to Cuba over the past 50 years, and a similar amount with respect to Iran over the past 36 years.
Cuba and Iran, A comparison
There are both strong similarities as well as important differences between Cuba and Iran. In terms of one to one comparison, the latter have the upper hand, given the differences between Cuba and the much bigger, oil-rich and multi-ethnic Iran that has acquired nuclear technology and is a regional pivot on an expanded scale. It is rather in terms of their antagonistic relationship to the U.S. superpower that similarities gain the upper hands, underscored by the anti-US hegemonic stance of two nationalistic developing states, one secular the other religious, mirror-imaging each other in their revolutionary zeal and stamina to stand up to Uncle Sam.
Both countries have had to deal with US subversion, proxy war, economic warfare, coercive diplomacy, etc., and this has resulted in a natural solidarity between the two countries — that serve as role models in their assertive anti-Americanism. U.S. is also home to political exiles from both countries, although the majority of Iranian émigrés to U.S. are a-political and do not mirror the highly-politicized Cuban community that is concentrated in Florida and has a strong lobby presence in Washington.
That community is now divided over the opening to Castro’s Cuba, which has made it clear that it does not intend to appease the US with respect to reforms or democracy, etc. But, Cuban economy has been thrown back decades due to the U.S. sanctions and today’s Cuba has certain vulnerabilities to the U.S. hard and soft power that are not fully shared by Iran.
Of course, this does not mean that the Obama administration is not seeking to take advantage of the Saudi-led oil war to extract serious concessions from Iran at the negotiation table, while simultaneously raising hopes for a US embassy in Iran and full normalization of relations.
On a personal level, this might be Obama’s desire, but it is unclear if at the policy level the objective is the same, as too many intervening other variables are at work, one of which is U.S.’s loyalty to its Saudi or Israeli allies who oppose the lifting of Iran sanctions. The coincidence of the oil war and the new diplomatic niceties toward Iran may reflect a paradoxical mind-set that needs to eventually cohere into a consistent approach, otherwise it will be unable to leap frog to a meaningful rapprochement with Iran.
This means that on the whole we can compare and contrast Cuba and Iran within limits and without glossing over the vast differences between Cuba’s and Iran’s geostrategic particularities from the prism of U.S.’s national security. Nevertheless, in the present context of sanctions-weary US economy and the multiple advantages in ripping the benefits of diplomatic opening to old enemies, there are compelling reasons to view the U.S.-Iran with an eye on Cuba.