Misha Japaridze / AP

The collapse of the Soviet Union freed both U.S. and U.S.S.R. policymakers to reveal how they really felt. In a series of extraordinary conferences in the 1990s, Soviet generals, intelligence officials, and diplomats came to the United States and Europe—a “limited" Soviet invasion, one joked—to narrate the history of arms control as they had experienced it. Those conferences, which have been documented in transcripts hosted by the nonprofit National Security Archives, shed light on a critical period of U.S.-Soviet strife, one that has important parallels to today’s conflict with Iran. I’ve read through those transcripts and spoken to living participants to get perspective on what the men involved—they were virtually all men—understood at the time.

—Matt Peterson

This story in 25 words: President Carter thought he could change the agenda with the Soviets, but his plan backfired and was overtaken by politics. Iran today may be similar.

A quick refresher on the history: When Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, he sought to build on a series of U.S.-Soviet arms control negotiations—the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks—carried out by his predecessors. Instead, the relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union devolved to one of the most dangerous points since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Carter’s new focus on human rights was poorly received by the Soviets. And although the two sides managed to sign an arms control treaty known as SALT II in 1979, it was never ratified by the U.S. Senate. Carter faced rising right-wing opposition at home, and was forced to pull the treaty from the Senate after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The following year, Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign painted Carter as weak in the face of Soviet aggression. But when Reagan won, he opted to abide by the terms of the unratified deal, as did the Soviets. Arms control negotiations resumed in earnest in his second term—a detail I’ll come back to later.

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Iran today little resembles the Soviet Union in 1980. Yet there are striking resonances in today’s politics with American and Soviet maneuvering around the SALT negotiations. “I’m not sure there are lots of general lessons from any of these processes, but what you get is some kind of wisdom,” said James Blight, a professor at the University of Waterloo, who, along with his wife and longtime collaborator janet Lang, led the organization of the conferences in the 1990s.

Who Sets the Agenda, and What’s On It

When President Barack Obama announced the Iran deal in 2015, he attempted to focus it only on Iran’s nuclear program. The deal, he said, “solves one particular problem, which is making sure they don’t have a bomb.” President Trump sees the relationship differently. Announcing the end of the deal, he put new items on the agenda. “The deal does nothing to constrain Iran’s destabilizing activities, including its support for terrorism,” said Trump. He suggested that Iran would need to negotiate over those broader aspects of the relationship as well.

Carter also had a broader set of points to raise with the Soviets. Early in his term, he repeatedly brought up human rights concerns. Although he didn’t explicitly link the issue to the arms control talks, the Soviets often saw them as connected. Sergei Kondrashov, a KGB general, described it as a kind of bad faith. “I would say that we had no doubts about the sincerity and convictions of President Carter in the area of human rights. But at the same time, I must tell you that we were also sure that this issue was brought forward for tactical reasons.” It felt like interference in internal affairs, he added. “We came to think that the human rights issue was being used to undermine our relationship, and to destroy SALT,” said Anatoly Dobrynin, the longtime Soviet ambassador.

Even on arms control, Carter’s team’s desire to go beyond the agenda agreed to in previous talks enraged the Soviets. The Americans had misjudged how much political capital the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, had personally invested in making those proposals stick. “Suddenly this new administration was toppling the whole structure he had worked so hard to build,” said Brezhnev’s interpreter.  

Even though the Soviets knew Carter’s preferences on these issues, they reacted badly to what was perceived as a one-sided agenda. “If we want to understand the fight we had for years with your administration, we have to look at your agenda,” said Dobrynin. “Wrongly or rightly, that is how we saw things. That’s why we were so angry, and didn’t even want to discuss your proposals.”

This decades-long history of negotiations over arms control shows that the issue is difficult enough on its own terms, said Dan Caldwell, a political scientist at Pepperdine who participated in the conferences in the 90s. Make the deal contingent on hostile states like Iran or the Soviet Union changing the whole suite of their bad behavior, and the chances of success decline significantly.

Who Drives the Politics, and What They’re Really About

With the Iran deal, no one knows—not Iran, not U.S. allies—how committed the Trump administration is to the notion of a renegotiated deal. Similarly, the Russians were never certain when Carter was truly negotiating in good faith, versus posturing for domestic allies and adversaries. Even American participants at the highest levels seemed perplexed that politics was driving the agenda. “Perhaps the most important lesson,” remarked Cyrus Vance, Carter’s secretary of state, “is how deeply events were influenced by the interaction between the domestic political situation in the two countries, of which we had only limited awareness at that time.”

Carter’s diplomats felt penned in by domestic opposition to their arms-control plans, and thought the Soviets were exploiting their weakness. When the Soviets publicly snubbed Carter’s early outreach, making them vulnerable to Republican criticism, “you kicked us in the teeth,” said Les Gelb, a senior American diplomat. But some Russians viewed this as a convenient excuse. “We got a little bit suspicious,” said Dobrynin, of attempts by the Americans to ask for concessions that would get the deal past legislators such as the hawkish Senator Henry Jackson. “We were told, ‘Look here, the fellows on the Right—Mr. Jackson or some others—will be against it. So, let’s do this.’ It was unbelievable.’”

The Soviets were right to worry. American politicians pay little price for using national security to score points. “Most Americans don’t care about foreign policy most of the time, unless they perceive their interests as threatened,” said Caldwell. The Cuban Missile Crisis gave way to major arms control deals because Americans felt viscerally at risk from nuclear war. But by the time Reagan came to office, he—much like Trump—talked openly of using nuclear weapons. Alarmed activists led a public-awareness campaign. “That public pressure had something to do with people turning around in the second Reagan administration,” said Caldwell. Iran’s potential nuclear weapons, by contrast, are a much smaller problem for the U.S., which means narrow interests have an easier time driving the national agenda.

What Makes a Deal Stick

Supporters and opponents of the Iran deal have argued over whether it should have been a formal treaty, which requires support from two-thirds of the Senate, instead of a less binding political agreement. The Carter-era history shows that something greater is at play: the fragility of American executive power.

As it became clear that SALT II would not pass the Senate, Soviets lost faith in the Carter administration. By 1979, “the political situation was really—at that stage—it was beyond the control of the administration,” said Viktor Komplektov, a veteran diplomat. And yet the deal lived on in a strange afterlife, since both side’s leaders decided not to breach the terms they had agreed to, although there was little to hold them to that promise.

Though that deal held, American presidents are becoming better known for their willingness to break deals. And other countries are keenly aware how fickle the American executive can be. On the Slate Gabfest this week, the journalist Max Fisher described what U.S. allies see as “a long-term American pattern dating back 20 years,” he said. “People are starting to get the sense that this is not a one-time, Trumpian aberration, that this is a kind of true face of America, and this is who we are.”

European countries are trying to keep the Iran deal alive without Washington, as Yasmeen Serhan has reported. But while the Europeans can keep the deal on life support, they can’t fully revive it. That would require getting the American public on board. Popular disinterest has left arms control deals at the whim of the American executive, for good or ill. President George W. Bush was able to withdraw from a Soviet-era arms deal, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, even though it was approved by the Senate, because Americans largely didn’t care about arms control during his time in office.

Now, President Trump is able to do as he wishes with the Iran deal because he faces little risk of a public backlash for going back on America’s word. No one is going to lose an election over the Iran deal. Even if Trump were to make a deal with North Korea, a future president could sacrifice the arrangement to score domestic points, regardless of its merits.

While There Are Talks, There’s Hope

The 1990s conferences demonstrate that even the fiercest opponents can lay down their arms, if temporarily. As Dobrynin recounted, “I would not like to leave the impression for the future historians that detente was a complete failure in Soviet-American relations. Today all we have discussed is failure. It was only another five years before we had another detente.” The arms control process, and the contacts developed through it, helped the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. overcome one of the darkest periods in their relationship.

But the Americans and Soviets talked regularly at the highest levels. Iran and the U.S. presently don’t even exchange ambassadors. And the nuclear deal is the only diplomatic game in town. That mirrors the worst period of U.S.-Soviet relations under Carter, according to Dobrynin. “By the end of the Carter administration, there was very little left on our bilateral agenda. There was really only one small link—the SALT talks—which we tried to maintain as a bridge between us. But when it failed, we had nothing left—only contradictions. That was a very dangerous situation.”

The U.S. and Iran could talk their way back to a new agreement. But, as Blight warned, “the real issue here is war.” With the two sides aggrieved and barely talking, a military incident could easily spiral out of control. Only days after Trump backed out of the Iran deal, Iran and Israel were in direct, if limited, conflict. It’s not necessary for any side to plan for war for one to come. As Alexander Bessmertnykh, a former Soviet foreign minister, put it, “In real life, so it appears, events, our relations and our policies depend more on accidents, coincidences and acting on very little real knowledge of what is going on. We have been through so many crises in this way.”

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