The differences between Cuba and Iran are obvious. The two countries, while on the same planet, are located on two opposite sides of it — one in the western hemisphere, the other in the eastern. One is a communist regime, officially atheist, imposed on a Catholic population; the other is the spearhead of Islamic radicalism. One is a small island nation that poses no threat to the United States; the other is an Asian juggernaut, exporting terrorism in the region and openly threatening Israel and the United States with destruction.
But one thing they do have in common: both Cuba and Iran have entered into a process of rapprochement with the United States, which both have publicly reviled for decades. The diplomatic move toward normalization has been slow and fraught with difficulties, but the untiring efforts of the Obama administration to bring these two pariah regimes into peaceful engagement with the U.S. and the world has borne fruit. In the case of Cuba, restoration of diplomatic relations has happened; in the case of Iran it may be a fait accompli, but now everything hangs on whether the U.S. Congress will go along with the Iran nuclear agreement.
There is, however, one notable difference in the way the two countries are treating the United States during this delicate transitional period.
Cuba’s recent 62nd anniversary of Fidel Castro’s opening offensive that brought down U.S.-backed leader Fulgencio Batista in 1953, normally a showcase for anti-American rhetoric, was barely recognizable. The defiant chant of “Yankee, go home!” had finally gone home.
Instead of the bombastic anti-imperialism tirades of the now-retired Fidel, Cubans heard the bland, conciliatory tones of the keynote speaker, Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, hailing re-establishment of diplomatic relations as the culmination of a first step that began in December.
To be sure, formal diplomatic relations does not mean we are now friends again. As Ventura noted, the economic embargo against Cuba has yet to be lifted, and Cuba also wants the return of territory held by the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. President Obama has asked Congress to end the embargo but faces opposition from the Republican majority, and Guantanamo remains an untouchable for many on the Hill. There is also the issue of some 60 political prisoners, as well as freedom of speech and censorship of the press.
But the two countries have decided that these issues do not justify being enemies. So the Cuban government has made the significant gesture of toning down the anti-American speechmaking. For most Cubans, who have heard this stuff year-in and year-out, it is probably a meaningless ritual anyway.
Iran is different. Iran has devoted two years of arduous diplomatic effort to reach an agreement with the U.S. and allies over its nuclear program. Like Cuba, it has suffered greatly from economic sanctions and is weary of being a pariah state.
Yet, unlike Cuba, Iran does not tone down the rhetoric. Iran continues to be Iran, vowing death to America and death to Israel. Even as the hard-earned rewards of the nuclear talks hang by a thread, by just a handful of votes in the U.S. Senate, the Iranian leaders continue to fulminate about their determination to go on with the policy of “helping our friends” in the region. Who are those friends? Hizbullah and Hamas and the Houthi, of course.
At first glance their behavior seems bizarre. Even if Tehran’s agenda would be just that, to “fleece” the West, as Sen. Corker put it, to take its billions in unfrozen funds and use it for conventional and ultimately unconventional terrorism, why advertise it?
A closer look makes it clear that for Iran, keeping up the public rhetoric against the United States isn’t only a way to keep its domestic populace happy; it is part of its foreign policy.
Clearly, the Iranians see no risk in doing so, and the satisfaction taken in mass “Hate America” rallies and repeated warnings that Iran will continue its terrorist rampage through the Mideast is evident. It is having your cake and eating it, too — by giving in to some of the Western demands for restrictions on its nuclear program (if only on paper), and at the same time shouting defiance at every opportunity.
When Secretary of State John Kerry took questions at the Council on Foreign Relations last Friday, he was asked: “Because we are integrating Iran back into the global community, did you ever ask them to no longer call for the destruction of Israel?”
“Yes,” replied Kerry. “I also told them that their chants of ‘Death to America’ and so forth are not helpful, are pretty stupid. So we absolutely discussed those things.”
Kerry did not say what the Iranians said to that, if those were the words he used, but we can assume that it was absolutely the equivalent of “mind your own business.”
What are we to conclude? The road to normalization with Cuba has a good chance of success. Significant progress has been made, and there is a mutual desire to continue the process.
But in the case of Iran, even if the deal goes through and actually does what it says it will do, relations with Iran will remain hostile. In the foreseeable future, this country will likely continue to pose a real threat to America as well as Israel.