One down, one to go. No one in the White House or State Department used that phrase in announcing the end of the United States’ failed Cuba policy, but it is undoubtedly ringing in the minds of more than a few people in Washington. Ending our hostility toward Cuba not only makes humanitarian sense but also represents a security gain for the United States. Now comes the bigger challenge: rebuilding our relations with Iran.
One of the great benefits of reconciliation with Cuba is that it reduces the possibility of upheaval or instability on the island and opens the prospect of a peaceful transition to democracy. Rapprochement with Iran — which is infinitely more important to the U.S. and the rest of the world — would do the same. If it happens, President Barack Obama will be able to leave office saying he ended both of United States’ most self-defeating foreign policies. History would record it as his greatest achievement on the world stage.
This week’s breakthrough, wonderful though it is, would have meant far more if it had happened a generation ago. Many of today’s young people cannot remember that Cuba was once a major global force able to project power around the world. Today it is poor and weak. Cubans are likely to benefit from better ties to the U.S., and Americans will finally be able to buy Cuban cigars and lie on Cuban beaches. But beyond the two countries directly involved — and perhaps Venezuela, which is Cuba’s only real ally — it is not likely to have much impact.
A breakthrough with Iran would be different. It could transform world politics as decisively as the U.S.-China détente of the 1970s. Iran is far larger and more important than Cuba. It sits in the heart of the world’s most turbulent region. Many of its security interests are aligned with those of the United States. Its economic potential is huge. From a geopolitical perspective, new partnership between Cuba and the U.S. is little more than a curtain raiser. Reconciliation and partnership with Iran, on the other hand, would change the world.
Talks that led to the Cuba breakthrough and talks with Iran over its nuclear program are not directly connected. Nonetheless, the success of the smaller project must give new momentum and urgency to the larger one. The breakthrough with Cuba shows that the pieces on the global chessboard are not nailed into place and can be moved. Secretary of State John Kerry has already said he hopes to visit Havana. That would be historic. But a trip to Tehran would be far more so.
Another lesson from this week’s dizzying about-face is that elections matter. If either of Barack Obama’s former opponents — John McCain or Mitt Romney — were in the White House, there almost certainly would have been no progress toward pulling our Cuba ties out of the deep freeze. Amid the widespread cynicism about U.S. politics and disillusionment with Obama, this turn of events is encouraging. Angry denunciations from anti-Cuba militants in Congress show how frozen many of them are in ancient patterns and how difficult it is for them to see beyond slogans and clichés. It’s enough to make you want to go out and vote.
Except for a few pockets of political anger at home, renewing ties to Cuba is a no-lose proposition for the United States. For Cuba, it may be more complicated. American-style consumer culture is likely to seep into Cuba; at this very moment, conversations about the Cuban market are probably being held in corporate headquarters of companies such as Starbucks and Walmart. Foreigners, including Cuban-Americans, will seek to buy choice homes and property on the island. Outside investment will inevitably lead to the emergence of a class of people who are richer than others. In every country, a class that gains economic power ultimately seeks political power. The geriatric regime in Cuba now faces a difficult balancing act. It has decided to accept a change that it may not be able to manage.
The key victory for the United States in this process is to have made a future crisis on our doorstep less likely. Some Americans will make money by trading with Cuba. In the end, though, we have won the ability to ignore Cuba. We can now forget about it and let it go its own way.
Far greater possibilities could emerge from better ties with Iran. Such a partnership would allow us to confront terrorism and violence in the Middle East more effectively. It would have to be predicated on a deal guaranteeing that Iran does not become nuclear-armed, and that would therefore be a major security gain for the region and the rest of the world. Iran’s ability to influence the course of events in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan makes it a potentially decisive force in the world’s most horrifyingly brutal wars.
This week’s diplomatic coup must whet appetites in Washington. Kerry and his team will enter the forthcoming round of Iran nuclear talks with new determination. Finally cutting the Gordian knot of our Cuban policy makes the prospect of a breakthrough with Iran all the more tantalizing — and perhaps more likely.