A lesson from Cuba to Iran

President Obama stated that the United States and Cuba have struck a deal to open embassies in their respective capitals

Joyce Karam

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In a historic announcement yesterday from the White House, President Obama stated that the United States and Cuba have struck a deal to open embassies in their respective capitals. It seems that U.S. President Barack Obama has one eye on Havana and another on the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Tehran in Vienna.

The Obama declaration on a sunny day in Washington came as the P5+1 and Iran’s negotiators were grappling with verifications and inspections, in an attempt to reach a comprehensive deal with another old adversary of the U.S. and before the July 9 Congress deadline. But unlike Havana, Tehran’s regional behavior and deteriorating relations with all the GCC countries and Turkey, constrains the longterm prospects of any deal (if reached) and makes the Cuba model closer to Eastern Europe than the Middle East.

Cuba vs. Iran

Obama’s triumph in reestablishing relations with Cuba could not have happened without the gradual integration of the Castro regime in the inter Latin-American system. Just few hours before Wednesday’s announcement, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff hailed from the White House, the U.S.-Cuba thaw calling it a “very decisive milestone in U.S. relations with Latin America.”

Cuba’s regional trajectory in the last two decades offers a key lesson to Iran: nuclear programs and proxy militias bring about neither peace nor economic prosperity

Joyce Karam

The end of the 55-year adversarial policy between the U.S. and Cuba is step B in a process that the Castro regime has undertaken since the end of the Cold War in 1991. The Cuban government faced with economic pressure had no choice but to open up economically and politically to Latin America and Europe, as well as terminate its nuclear ambitions and slowly abandon the empty rhetoric against the West and Washington. This stands in contrast with Iran whose supreme leader still resorts to “Death to America” chants to rally his supporters and is engaged in an unprecedented number of conflicts across the Arab world.

Cuba’s regional trajectory in the last two decades offers a key lesson to Iran: nuclear programs and proxy militias bring about neither peace nor economic prosperity, only a political shift and a change in behavior can translate into a realignment on the international stage. In that sense, and absent of a major modification in Iran’s regional behavior, the nuclear deal if reached will remain strictly an arms control agreement with economic benefits. The Cuba model remains unrealistic with Iran given its destructive behavior in the Middle East, by supporting the Assad regime, funding sectarian militias across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and seeking a bigger role in Yemen.

Cuba’s “normalization” process within the Western hemisphere, granted it a seat at every presidential inauguration in Latin America in the last twenty years. Also, Havana’s participation in several regional summits starting with the Ibero-American summits in 1991 and normalizing ties with all of the countries in Latin America stands at complete odds with Iran’s path in the Middle East. Iran is seen as a threat and a disruptive player among its GCC neighbors, and is excluded from most of the major summits whether the topic is Arab-Israeli peace, inter-Gulf relations or the Geneva conferences on Syria. In contrast Cuba’s role was instrumental in mediating conflicts such as the border dispute between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, and recurring tensions between Colombia and Venezuela.

Rethinking the Revolution

The Cuba transformation was also prompted by the dire economic crisis that hit the country in the 1990s forcing Raul Castro to implement economic reforms and open the island’s economy to trade and investment from the European Union, Latin American countries and China. The communist era that brought Fidel Castro to power is gradually fading as property laws change, the talk on exporting the revolution is history, and as the political charged environment against the West dissipates.

In that context, the wind of political change in Cuba away from the communist revolution does not have an equivalent yet in Iran. The regime in Tehran is more determined to pursue and expand the Islamic revolution that brought it to power in 1979, to a point that one presidential adviser declared Baghdad as the new capital of “the Iranian empire.” Iran’s hegemonic ambitions across the Arab world and increasing influence in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq are in line with the revolution’s core principles and not against it. While a nuclear deal could go a long way in offsetting Tehran’s program, it won’t mark the end of the revolution or cripple its powerful elite. Iran’s delicate playbook is designed as such today to implement a balance with the West, agreeing to discuss nuclear matters, but without letting go of regional expansionism and the ideological pillars of the revolution.

Also, the negotiations with Iran are targeted to contain the nuclear threat, while the process with Cuba is aimed at international recognition and normalization. There is a long determination on the part of the international community that the embargo on Havana has failed and it’s been voted down 17 times at the United Nations General Assembly. In contrast, the sanctions on the Iran have international backing, and will be ramped up if no deal is reached in Vienna.

Deal or no deal with Iran on its nuclear program next week, the Cuban model underscores the significance of regional integration as a bridge to transform international relations and end hostilities. Iran’s success at changing its global standing and ending its isolation, will be as dependent on modifying its regional behavior as it is on curbing its nuclear ambitions.


Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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