Reykjavik vs. Vienna: The Start of Iran's Fall?

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Conservatives critical of President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran were quick to make unfavorable comparisons to Ronald Reagan’s famed 1986 walkout from nuclear arms control talks with Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Rush Limbaugh thundered, “There is no similarity between what Obama did here with the Iranians and what Reagan did with Gorbachev, say, at Reykjavik. … Reagan did clean the Soviets' clock, and the Soviet Union, as it existed then, is gone.” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a few days before the deal was announced, lectured Obama that “Reagan walked away, only to come back to the table later and secure a better deal.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board said of Obama’s handiwork, “This is the opposite of coercive diplomacy [that] Reagan practiced with the Soviets, refusing to budge on missile defenses at the 1986 Reykjavik Summit despite pressure from 99% of the world to do so. The Soviets were soon back at the negotiating table.”

But the conservative memory about Reykjavik and its aftermath is selective. The full story of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. arms control negotiations shows that Obama and Reagan walked similar paths to peace.

Reykjavik 1986 clearly was not Vienna 2015. Vienna was an intense two-week grind that resolved the final sticking points of a delicate compromise years in the making.

As the Washington Post reported a few months later, Reykjavik was “bizarre.”

The meeting was not intended to be a full-blown summit, but a two-day session that would set the stage for one in Washington. When the Soviets unexpectedly proposed a range of concessions, including a 50 percent reduction in “offensive strategic arms” calculated in a manner favorable to the U.S., Reagan’s team wasn’t prepared. Suddenly, the meeting turned into a negotiating frenzy.

American negotiators, scribbling on a yellow pad, offered the elimination of all ballistic missiles. Gorbachev one-upped with the elimination of all offensive strategic arms. According to Secretary of State George Shultz, at one point Reagan blurted out, “It would be fine with me if we eliminated all nuclear weapons,” to which Gorbachev responded, “We can do that. Let's eliminate them.”

But all of the Soviet proposals were contingent on Reagan confining his dream of a space-based national missile defense system to laboratory research for 10 years. Reagan wouldn’t budge. After going around in circles, on 6:30 PM on the second day he abruptly declared, “The meeting is over” and walked out.

In the modern conservative narrative, the Reykjavik walkout was the moment Reagan put the Soviets in their place, forced them to make more concessions to America and eventually led to the downfall of communism. But that’s far too pat.

Gorbachev had opened the bidding at Reykjavik, as he told his Politburo days before, because the arms race, driven by Reagan’s military spending, was straining the Soviet economy. But after Reykjavik, Gorbachev became convinced by his science advisers, and perhaps by newly released dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, that Reagan’s “Strategic Defensive Initiative” scheme would never come to fruition. (At a later summit, Gorbachev told Reagan, “Go ahead and deploy it. Who am I to tell you what to do? I think you’re wasting money.”)

The real impact of Reykjavik, on both leaders, was that behind the late acrimony they each saw the other was sincerely interested in arms reduction. So after a brief cooling period, they kept at it.

Gorbachev broke the ice with a February announcement proposing a narrower but still significant treaty banning intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF), leaving SDI off the negotiating table. Reagan, battered by the growing Iran-contra scandal, leapt at the opportunity, announcing three days later that Shultz would travel to Moscow to work out a deal. As Frances FitzGerald wrote in “Way Out There in the Blue”: “Journalists and historians of the period have speculated that Gorbachev’s decision to break the linkage came from a sense of weakness of his own position. … But the fact was that the spell of SDI had been lifted.”

Was the resulting INF treaty a “better deal” because Reagan got to keep SDI? Conservatives may say yes now. A lot of conservatives in 1987 didn’t think so.

By eliminating the mid-range nukes, the Soviets gave up more warheads than the Americans. But the deal involved dismantling West German-based nuclear weapons that could reach Moscow in minutes.

The National Review’s William F. Buckley fought hard to defeat the treaty’s ratification, later telling Reagan biographer Lou Cannon for the book “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime” that he was “disappointed” Reagan reduced arms without considering “whether Europe was really more safe.” Four Republican presidential candidates opposed it. Senate conservatives such as Jesse Helms told Reagan to his face they planned to challenge it with amendments.

It wasn’t just the deal’s particulars that worried conservatives. It was the entire move toward peaceful coexistence. The New York Times reported in January 1988 that the conservatives’ “larger object is to frustrate Reagan's push for broader accommodation with Gorbachev.”

How did Reagan respond? By accusing the right with being hell-bent on war. In a December interview with television news anchors, Reagan fired this rhetorical shot:

“I think that some of the people who are objecting the most and just refusing even to accede to the idea of ever getting any understanding, whether they realize it or not, those people, basically, down in their deepest thoughts, have accepted that war is inevitable and that there must come to be a war between the two superpowers. Well, I think as long as you've got a chance to strive for peace, you strive for peace.''

That’s awfully similar to what President Obama had to say to critics in his press conference last week:

“What I haven’t heard is, what is your preferred alternative? … There really are only two alternatives here: Either the issue of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is resolved diplomatically through a negotiation, or it’s resolved through force, through war … If the alternative is that we should bring Iran to heel through military force, then those critics should say so.”

Obama or his secretaries of state may never have stormed out of a meeting like Reagan did. But the U.S. and its allies did call off talks for 15 months after a January 2011 meeting because they refused Iran’s demand for preconditions. Reagan made offers to the Soviets that went nowhere in his first term as well, but then the political dynamic shifted when new leadership arrived in the form of Gorbachev. Same for Obama with the Iran’s election of President Hassan Rouhani.

The main difference between Reagan and Obama’s paths was that only one had consistent coordination with our allies. Reykjavik’s wild proposals were being improvised on the fly. Western European leaders were shaken to hear Reagan was blithely entertaining the loss of their nuclear security blanket. Once cooler heads prevailed, our allies were looped in for the successful INF talks. In contrast, the Iran negotiations were international from the beginning, including Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.

The main similarity is that they both kept talking.

What we don’t know yet is how the respective deals will compare in their impact on our negotiating counterparts.

Former Reagan aide Ken Adelman recently argued in the book “Reagan at Reykjavik” that the insistence on SDI drove a panicked Gorbachev to “push his reforms to the brink of disaster, and over.” But as arms control expert Michael Krepon argued, Adelman fails to account for Gorbachev’s shift in thinking about SDI after Reykjavik. In fact, Gorbachev got what he wanted from the INF treaty: an end to an escalating arms race straining his budget. Despite that diplomatic victory, the internal upheaval he unleashed proved to be too much for him to contain.

Iran appears to be experiencing similar internal tensions brought on by economic distress, in this case fueled by harsh sanctions. Like the INF treaty, the nuclear deal provides a measure of relief. Conservatives today may be inclined to believe that it gives our adversary an undeserved lifeline. Maybe tomorrow they will be claiming Vienna was the moment when Iran fell. 

Bill Scher is a senior writer at Campaign for America's Future, executive editor of LiberalOasis and a contributor to RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.

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