“We have enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world ten times over,” Kennedy is said to have told Khruschev, alluding to America’s missile superiority.
Khruschev replied: “We only need to do it once.”
True or not, the destructive power of nuclear weapons was uppermost in the minds of negotiators in Vienna, when diplomats from Iran and six world powers concluded an agreement yesterday that will lift sanctions on Iran, while placing strict limits on its nuclear programme for more than a decade.
US president Barack Obama said the agreement would prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear bomb, while his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, said a new phase had begun in his nation’s relations with the rest of the world.
Foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who led Iran’s delegation in Vienna, described the agreement as a “win-win” solution.
Not everyone agrees. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the agreement, calling it a “capitulation”, fearing that it could lead to a nuclear-arms race in the Middle East. That’s rich coming from the leader of a nation that started the race 50 years ago. Israel now possesses an underground nuclear arsenal — estimated at 80 warheads, on a par with India and Pakistan — yet continues to deny its existence.
However, Israel has reason to be nervous, as it has most to lose if Iran succeeds in having sanctions lifted, while continuing to develop a nuclear-weapons programme.
One of Iran’s avowed aims is the destruction of the Israeli state and it continues to fund Lebanon’s Shi’a Islamist militant group, Hezbollah, whose leader, Hassan Nasrallah, forecasts that “a rich and strong Iran will be able to stand with its allies in the region”.
But Israel’s fears extend further. Until now, it has faced no serious competition over its strategic alliance with Washington, but a prosperous Iran, enjoying renewed good relations with the US, would challenge that.
The deal is being hailed as an historic compromise that will stop the spread of atomic weapons and avert a major new conflict in the Middle East.
Francis Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, described it as “a sign of hope for the entire world”.
That assessment might prove overly optimistic. The whole deal could come unstuck if Iran reneges on any part of it. One of the reasons the talks were held in the Austrian capital is that it is the headquarters of the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the key arbiter of the deal.
If it is not up to the job and the deal actually makes it easier for Iran to acquire nuclear-weapon capability, the consequences could be catastrophic, not just for Israel, not just for the Middle East, but for the world.