Ghost stories usually are harmless, but this one haunts the world by making a nuclear catastrophe more likely. The Jackson-Vanik amendment became law in 1974 during the Cold War, and punished the Soviet Union for its lack of free emigration, particularly of Soviet Jews. It did this by withholding most-favored-nation status and hindering economic cooperation in general. With millions of former Russian Jews living in the United States and Israel, some (but not enough) ask why Jackson-Vanik still applies to Russia. Worse, it is an unnecessary irritant to Russian-American relations that impedes cooperation on Iran’s nuclear program, and leaves many Russians believing that the United States is still infected with hatred bred during the Cold War.
Just yesterday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov spoke of relations between our two nations in the following words:
We will be moving forward, but I cannot guarantee it will continue to be so in the foreseeable future. That is the main task and puzzle in our relations with the U.S. … For instance, we still have not been rid of the notorious Jackson-Vanik amendment. … What is needed is simply for the U.S. to the find political courage and will to resolve this issue. I think this per se would become an important impetus toward further expansion of the new base in relations between Russia and the U.S.
According to the article, “Ryabkov also thanked, on behalf of Russia, a number of U.S.-based Jewish organizations actively campaigning for the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment.” This shift is notable since the American Jewish community was one of Jackson-Vanik’s main supporters during the Cold War.
The connection to Iran’s nuclear program was spelled out earlier this year in TIME magazine by Dimitri Simes, himself a 1973 Soviet Jewish emigre, and now president of the Nixon Center:
There is no mystery of what might make Moscow more cooperative on Iran. Far-reaching sanctions [on Iran] would cost Russia billions. To compensate Russia, Washington would need to facilitate greater economic cooperation, and as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has stressed on several occasions, this would require canceling the Jackson-Vanik amendment and helping Russia gain membership in the WTO. However, these moves would face opposition in Congress. The Administration has indicated that this would be the right direction to take but has not yet made an effort to make that happen.
Simes also co-authored an article last year which illuminates the source of the danger. After explaining how dangerous the ghost of Jackson-Vanik can be, the article concludes:
At the heart of our current rocky relationship is the dangerous triumphalism that has shaped U.S. international strategy since 1993. Throughout this period, a majority of America’s political leaders and its wider foreign-policy elite have held firmly to the arrogant yet naive view that the United States could shape the world order without the consent of other major powers and without creating a backlash against America and American leadership.
In Greek mythology, such hubris always led to nemesis. Let us be on our guard lest the same occur in the nuclear age in a catastrophe of mythic proportions, but of ultimate reality.