Friday, November 17, 2006

Kissinger on Iran

An exclusive with the Khaleej Times? That is the only place I could find this editorial in google news. I can only guess a mainstream western news source will pick this piece up later. Henry Kissinger gives his opinions on how the US should deal with Iran in the post-Hussein Middle East.

Kissinger's opinion piece concludes that the United States must retain leverage over Iran. Presumably this leverage should take the form of some military presence - preferably in Iraq but failing that elsewhere - that could threaten Iran. Without that leverage, Iran will not make the other changes Kissinger wants Iran to be induced to make.

What are those changes? We get a lot of vagueness on this issue. That is not just an issue of Kissinger - most Western commentators on the Middle East have a stubborn habit of refusing to say Israel when they mean Israel.

Iran challenges the established order in the Middle East and perhaps wherever Islamic populations face dominant, non-Islamic majorities.

Huh? Iran challenges the established order in France, Canada or the United States where there are non-Islamic majorities? Why not just say Israel? There is a non-Islamic political if not demographic majority in Lebanon at the moment - but anywhere in the world, except in the region of Israel, the United States would be a prime advocate of demographic majorities translating into political majorities. That is kind of what democracy means.

Kissinger presents Iran's opposition to Israel as unnatural, the result of Iran perceiving itself as a cause and not a nation. This false idea seems to be gaining currency. A democratic Egypt, Jordan or Saudi Arabia, secular or not, would have very similar policies towards Israel as Iran and it would have very different policies than what we see now. Even if there was a regime change in Iran, if Iran remains at all democratic it will not change its policies towards Israel. Nor would an Iran that is at all democratic change its demand for both enrichment and a theoretical capability to produce nuclear weapons.

Kissinger expresses the hope that through confrontation the United States can pressure Iran into accepting that it is a poor country that cannot influence the world order. Now Iran is too poor to have much influence on Brazil's relations with Argentina. But Iran is not that poor for its region. Israel's leaders seem unanimous that Iran actually does have the potential to influence the regional order to Israel's disadvantage.

Kissinger mentions without arguing the US position that Iran must not only be prevented from getting a nuclear weapon, it must be prevented from having any technology that would give it a theoretical capability to get a nuclear weapon. This is an extreme position that is at odds with the text and the spirit of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That position is seen as an extreme position by many, maybe most, informed observers of the dispute over Iran's nuclear program. It is unfortunate if typical that Kissinger does not explain the reasoning behind his position.

Israel's deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh recently fleshed out the argument:

In the most dramatic comments to date by a senior government member on the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program, the former IDF brigadier-general described an untenable scenario of Israel "living under a dark cloud of fear from a leader committed to its destruction."

He said he was afraid that, under such a threat, "most Israelis would prefer not to live here; most Jews would prefer not to come here with their families; and Israelis who can live abroad will. People are not enthusiastic about being scorched."

Thus the danger, Sneh elaborated, was that Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would "be able to kill the Zionist dream without pushing a button. That's why we must prevent this regime from obtaining nuclear capability at all costs."

Israel is threatened by Iran even having the theoretical capability of making a weapon, even if Iran never actually makes the weapon. The United States, following Israel's lead, has declared that Iran having technology that would give Iran a theoretical weapons capability to be unacceptable.

Iran's neighbors say the opposite. The Saudis and Egyptians have publically said that they are not threatened by an Iranian nuclear program, even including enrichment, as long as Iran does not actually build a weapon. Russia and China have said the same, the point of no return is when Iran actually builds a weapon. Iran having a theoretical capability to build a weapon, according to Sneh, would kill the Zionist dream. But the capability would not kill the Saudi, Egyptian, Russian or Chinese dream. Iran having that theoretical capability would certainly have no impact on the American dream, unless you consider the role of Israel's defender to be part of the American dream.

Kissinger does what most Western commentators do on this issue. He mentions theoretical capability to build a weapon, then mentions actual weapons, then starts using these two very different concepts interchangeably. For example, he says Russia will take a stronger stand than Europe to prevent Iran from being nuclear capable. This is would probably be true if the issue was Iran having an actual weapon, but by that point in the piece Kissinger feels free to use one term to mean the other. To the degree Kissinger is aware his is doing it, it is dishonest, but it seems to be an entrenched habit or reflex.

Another entrenched habit is confounding negotiations with accepting arbitrary US prerequisites for negotiations. Iran consistently says it is willing to negotiate measures to strengthen the safeguards preventing Iran from diverting nuclear material to use in making bombs. Iran will not suspend its own enrichment research as a prerequisite for talks. Kissinger presents this as Iran's unwillingness to negotiate. Again, it is dishonest if Kissinger is aware he is doing it.

Kissinger presents the sanctions package presented by Europe as "minimal sanctions". These are essentially the same sanctions imposed on North Korea after North Korea's nuclear weapon test. In the context of Iran, which has not diverted any nuclear material away from peaceful processes and for which there is no evidence that any weapons program exists at all, the presented sanctions seem more like maximal sanctions. Either way, Kissinger is right that Iran will not be dissuaded from gaining enrichment technology by these maximal or minimal sanctions.

Kissinger's bottom line is that the United States must confront Iran until Iran no longer poses a threat to the world (Israel). The point of those calling for negotiations with Iran is that Iran may be willing to make Iraq much less expensive for the US in exchange for concessions regarding either the nuclear program or the US unilateral sanctions. An understanding is nearing consensus that any help Iran gives the US in Iraq would not be free and talks would allow Iran and the US to discuss prices.

Those advocating negotiations think once prospective agreements are actually spelled out by both sides, maybe an agreement will emerge that both sides see as beneficial. Kissinger's position that the US should continue its policy of pure confrontation with Iran is sure to prevent any mutually beneficial agreement from being reached. But at this point staying the course on Iran would not do much to restrain Iran's growing power in the region.

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