Iran despises weakness

Iran’s nuclear programme and considerable resources enable it to strive for strategic dominance in its region. With the impetus of a radical Shi’ite ideology and the symbolism of defiance of the United Nations security council’s resolution, Iran challenges the established order in the Middle East and perhaps wherever Islamic populations face dominant, non-Islamic majorities.

The five permanent members of the security council plus Germany — known as the “Six” — have submitted a package of incentives to Tehran to end enrichment of uranium as a key step towards putting an end to the weapons programme. They have threatened sanctions if their proposal is rejected. Iran has insisted on its “right” to proceed with enrichment. Reluctant to negotiate directly with a member of the “axis of evil”, America has not participated in the talks.

Recently Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, has announced a reversal of policy. The United States — and she herself — would join the nuclear talks, provided Iran suspends its enrichment programme. But Tehran has so far shown no interest in negotiating with the United States, either in the multilateral forum or separately.

Tehran sees no compelling national interest to give up its claim to being a nuclear power and strong domestic political reasons to persist. Pursuing the nuclear weapons programme is a way of appealing to national pride and shores up an otherwise shaky domestic support.

The nuclear negotiations are moving towards an inconclusive outcome. The Six eventually will have to choose between effective sanctions or the consequences of an Iranian military nuclear capability and the world of proliferation it implies. Military action by the United States is extremely improbable in the final two years of a presidency facing a hostile Congress. But Tehran surely cannot ignore the possibility of a unilateral Israeli strike.

The argument has become widespread that Iran (and Syria) should be drawn into a negotiating process, hopefully to bring about a change of their attitudes, as happened, for example, in the opening to China a generation ago.

A diplomacy that excludes adversaries is clearly a contradiction in terms. But the argument on behalf of negotiating too often focuses on the opening of talks rather than their substance. The opening to China was facilitated by Soviet military pressures on China’s northern borders; rapprochement between the United States and China implemented an existing common interest in preventing Soviet hegemony. But if, at the end of such a diplomacy, stands an Iranian nuclear capability and a political vacuum being filled by Iran, the impact on order in the Middle East will be catastrophic.

Understanding the way Tehran views the world is crucial. The school of thought represented by President Ahmadinejad may well see Iranian prospects as more promising than they have been in centuries. Iraq has collapsed as a counterweight; within Iraq, Shi’ite forces are led by men who had been trained in Tehran.

Democratic institutions in Iraq favour dominance by the majority Shi’ite groups. In Lebanon, Hezbollah, trained and guided by Iran, is the strongest military force. In the face of this looming Shi’ite belt and its appeal to the Shi’ite population in northeast Saudi Arabia and along the Gulf, attitudes in the Sunni states — Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia — and the Gulf states range from unease to incipient panic. This may explain Ahmadinejad’s insolent behaviour on the occasion of his visit to New York. His theme seemed to be: “Don’t talk to me about your world order, whose rules we did not participate in making and which we disdain. From now on, jihad will define the rules.”

The self-confident Iranian leaders may facilitate a local American retreat in Iraq, but only for the purpose of turning it into a long-term rout. The argument that Iran has an interest in negotiating over Iraq to avoid chaos along its borders is valid only as long as the United States retains a capacity to help control the chaos.

There are only two incentives for Iran to negotiate: the emergence of a regional structure that makes imperialist policies unattractive, or the concern that, if matters are pushed too far, America might yet strike.

So long as Iran views itself as a crusade rather than a nation, a common interest will not emerge from negotiations. To evoke a more balanced view should be an important goal for US diplomacy. Iran may come to understand that it is still a poor country not in a position to challenge the entire world order.

Today the Sunni states of the region are terrified by the Shi’ite wave. Negotiations between Iran and the United States could generate a stampede towards pre-emptive concessions, unless preceded or at least accompanied by a significant effort to rally those states. In such a policy, Iran must find a respected, but not dominant, place. A restarted Palestinian peace process should play a significant role, which presupposes close co-operation among the United States, Europe and the moderate Arab states.

Iran needs to be encouraged to act as a nation, not a cause. It has no incentive to appear as a deus ex machina to enable America to escape its embarrassments, unless the United States retains an ability to fill the vacuum or at least be a factor in filling it. America will need to reposition its strategic deployments, but if such actions are viewed as the prelude to an exit from the region, a collapse of existing structures is probable.

A purposeful diplomacy towards Iran is important for building a more promising region — but only if Iran does not, in the process, come to believe that it is able to shape the future on its own, or if the potential building blocks of a new order disintegrate while America sorts out its purposes.

© 2006 Tribune Media Services Inc 2006 Henry Kissinger.

Henry Kissinger, a former Secretary of State of the EEUU.