Sunday, February 13, 2005

Kissinger on Iran

Henry Kissinger is one of the great commentators on international affairs of our time. His analyses are typically marked by a disciplined clarity of thought as well as eloquence of expression. Complaints that his memoirs are self-serving may be legitimate, but they are full of valuable insights for the student of geopolitics and remain to this day the finest account of foreign policy thinking and implementation during the tumultuous Nixon and Ford administrations. His classic Diplomacy is a must-read for anyone interested in the topic.

Kissinger writes today in the San Diego Union-Tribune on diplomacy and nuclear proliferation vis-a-vis Iran. This piece, however, is disappointing.

Discussing the European diplomatic initiative to counter Iran's development of nuclear weapons capability, Kissinger contrasts "the European approach to international relations via law and multilateral institutions vs. the alleged American propensity for pressure", leading to a theme that runs prominently through out his corpus:

[T]he alleged conflict between conciliation and pressure is as unreal as it is standard. Diplomacy is about demonstrating to the other side both the consequences of its actions and the benefits of the alternatives. No matter how elegantly phrased, diplomacy by its very nature implies an element of and a capacity for pressure.

The idea that the tools of diplomacy includes both sticks and carrots characterized Kissinger's practical -- as well as theoretical -- approach to foreign policy. Remember d├ętente?

But there's something missing here. How do you offer carrots to a party that you've all but vowed to destroy? True, the President has not explicitly stated that 'regime change' exhaustively characterizes the administration's Iran policy, and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has stated that a military attack on Iran "is not on the agenda", but in his state of the union speech President Bush did identify Iran as "the world's primary state sponsor of terror" and said directly to the Iranian people "as you stand for your own liberty [i.e., the overthrough of the ayatollahs], America stands with you."

The statement regarding Iran's involvement in terrorism is, to the best of my knowledge, true, and the priniples informing the President's direct statement to the Iranians are core to our self-understanding as a nation (and if the President is right, critical to our survival). But how does this rhetoric position us to encourage Iran to halt development of nuclear weapons capability?

In the short term, it probably helps. As Kissinger points out, the limited progress the Europeans have been able to achieve with Iran is probably due more to the implied threat of American belligerence than to European conciliation. But if we are to ever get beyond the puffery of European diplomatic initiatives, what can America offer the ayatollahs? If you assume the ayatollahs would be only interested in concessions that support the regime (as opposed to the people of Iran -- an obviously realistic assumption), than anything meaningful the U.S. could offer would undercut our stated principles and bring our resolve into question.

There may be one exception to this -- the U.S. could offer a no-attack guarantee if Iran complies with counter-proliferation measures. This kind of negative offer isn't really in tension with our claim to support Iranian dissidents, and such a guarantee would certainly be of interest to the existing regime. But there's a problem with it: why would the ayatollahs choose to entrust their security vis-a-vis the U.S. to the U.S. when they are probably thinking they can guarantee their own security once they are in possession of functional nuclear weapons? They see the difference in how the U.S. deals with a non-nuclear capable threat (Iraq) and a nuclear capable threat (North Korea), and probably identify the acquisition of nuclear weapons as the critical component of their long-term security.

This issue is the elephant in the room that Kissinger doesn't address in today's piece.


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