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  By Greg Thielmann

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In an op-ed published by the Wall Street Journal Wednesday, former Secretary of State George Shultz suggested applying tips from former President Ronald Reagan for negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program.

In considering Reagan’s signal arms control achievement, the INF Treaty of 1987, which eliminated an entire category of nuclear weapons, there are some parallels worth considering. The principal Soviet incentive for reaching agreement then was to avoid the stationing of 572 U.S. nuclear missiles in Europe. A negotiated settlement was only achieved after the missiles began to be deployed into five NATO countries within range of the Soviet Union. Similarly, serious negotiations with Iran have begun only after the imposition of crippling sanctions on Iran by the United States, the European Union and the UN Security Council.

It is also the case with the Soviet Union then and Iran now that the beginning of serious negotiations coincided with the coming to power of new reform-minded leadership in Moscow and Tehran. Creative diplomatic initiatives to achieve win-win solutions – like the 1982 “Walk-in-the-Woods” agreement of lead INF negotiators Paul Nitze and Yuliy Kvitzinskiy and the October 2009 nuclear fuel swap agreement proposed to Iran by the United States – were rejected in capitals (Moscow and Washington in 1982; Tehran in 2009).

It is an open question, however, whether substantial progress could have been made earlier in both cases. President Reagan’s initial reluctance to negotiate with the Soviet Union, which he described as the “empire of evil” and President George W. Bush’s hostility toward Iran, which he characterized as part of an “axis of evil” in January 2002, critically delayed diplomatic progress on nuclear issues.

Rather than providing the “useful guide to negotiating” recently summarized by George Shultz, the Reagan administration record actually offers far more cautionary examples of what the United States should avoid doing with Iran.

Often overriding the counsel of Alexander Haig, George Shultz, “Bud” McFarland, and Paul Nitze, Reagan’s circle of hardline advisors obviated any chance of exploiting realistic opportunities for arms control progress. It was the Pentagon of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Assistant Secretary Richard Perle and the CIA of Director William Casey, which influenced White House security policy during Reagan’s first term far more than did Secretaries of State Haig and Shultz.

Likewise, the more objective assessments of intelligence community professionals were disregarded. History has found the “Team B” assessments that drove Reagan security policies to have been consistently wrong. The ideological blinders worn by the policy principals help explain why Reagan and his advisors were so slow to recognize the opportunities presented by the new Soviet leadership team of President Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Shevardnadze that took over in the spring of 1985.  The U.S. President even had to be persuaded by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that Gorbachev was someone with whom he could do business!

Even when he finally became convinced that a US-Soviet arms control agreement on INF could serve U.S. interests, Reagan sacrificed the chance to also secure a historic strategic arms reduction agreement under the influence of the SDI chimera. The 50 percent reductions in strategic arms proposed by Gorbachev at Reykjavik in 1986 would have to wait several years for Reagan’s successor to deliver.

Fortunately, President Obama appears to be following a different playbook than the Gipper’s.

This time, the president is more heavily influenced by his Secretary of State than Reagan was by Shultz. And unlike during the Reagan years, the heads of Obama’s Defense Department and State Department have usually been traveling on the same trajectory.

This time, the president is basing his policies on more objective and realistic threat assessments regarding Iran than did Reagan with the Soviet Union. And this time, the president has a better grasp of critical details of the Iran nuclear challenge than did Reagan in understanding the Soviet military.

Let us hope therefore that, this time, the U.S. will be able to seize a time-limited opportunity to enhance U.S. security through an Iranian nuclear agreement rather than squandering a chance to reduce strategic arms as Reagan did in the 1980s. Mr. President, please leave the Gipper’s negotiating playbook on the shelf where it belongs.

Greg Thielmann is a senior fellow of the Arms Control Association, and former office director for strategic, proliferation, and military affairs in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. He also served as State Department adviser to the U.S. delegation at the opening of the INF negotiations in 1981.