Talk Boldly With Iran

By David Ignatius
Friday, June 23, 2006

Sometime in the next several months, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or a senior colleague is likely to sit down at a negotiating table with representatives of the Islamic Republic of Iran. As she prepares for these meetings, I suspect Rice is reviewing the most famous instance of America talking to an enemy: Henry Kissinger's secret opening to China in the early 1970s.

A new window has just opened on Kissinger's secret diplomacy with the National Security Archive's publication of the eyes-only memoranda summarizing some of his most sensitive discussions. Reading these transcripts is a reminder that Kissinger's diplomacy was, to use a modern expression, "outside of the box."

As a diplomatic emissary, Kissinger was almost recklessly frank -- gossiping, teasing, wheedling, flattering. In a June 1972 meeting with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, Kissinger described Senate Democratic leader Mike Mansfield as "monastic," Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern as "professorial" and his own foreign policy bureaucracy as "pro-Soviet." Even the wily Zhou was obviously charmed by Kissinger's seeming willingness to broach any subject. It conveyed the useful sense that in the U.S.-China opening, nothing was off-limits. He told Zhou at one point: "We achieve secrecy by saying so much that no one knows what is true."

Running through Kissinger's discussions was the same fundamental tenet of foreign policy realism: Rational nations act in their self-interest. Their diplomacy is driven not by emotion or abstract moral principle or past practice but by the bedrock of mutual interest. In his discussion with Zhou, for example, Kissinger was startlingly frank about America's willingness to subordinate Vietnam: "We believe that the future of our relationship with Peking is infinitely more important for the future of Asia than what happens in Phnom Penh, in Hanoi or in Saigon."

I asked Kissinger this week what lessons he would draw for the new U.S. engagement with Iran from his own diplomatic experience. Kissinger said he didn't want to give public advice to Rice, but he said that as a general proposition, the United States should seek to find common security interests with Iran -- stressing that a strong and prosperous Iran doesn't threaten the United States so long as the Iranians refrain from reckless and destabilizing actions.

"Iran has to take a decision whether it wants to be a nation or a cause," Kissinger explained. "If a nation, it must realize that its national interest doesn't conflict with ours. If the Iranian concern is security and development of their country, this is compatible with American interests." If Iran connected with the global economy, he argued, it could soon become a regional economic powerhouse, comparable to South Korea.

Kissinger noted that America's good relations with Iran while he was secretary of state during the early 1970s were based on U.S. national interest rather than on the personality of the shah or the domestic political system in Iran. "There is no rational reason why America should be a threat to the national security of Iran," he said. "It is in our interest to have a stable country and a prosperous country. If it went in the direction of South Korea, that would be in our interest." But he cautioned: "If the Iranian interest is to destabilize the region, then it will be difficult to come to an agreement."

On the nuclear issue at the heart of the U.S.-Iran dialogue, Kissinger argued that the Iranians must recognize that nuclear proliferation threatens their own security as much as that of the United States or Israel. Wherever the nonproliferation line is drawn, it will seem unfair to countries that don't yet have the bomb, he said. "But if the process isn't stopped, it threatens every country, including the proliferators."

Thinking about Kissinger's opening to China, it seems to me that one clear lesson for the Bush administration is that it shouldn't be overly cautious in its engagement with Iran. It's time to talk, and if the Iranians will agree to the West's appropriate precondition that they halt enrichment of uranium, then all issues should be on the table. You can't have an opening that's constricted. What's needed is a broad discussion of whether the security interests of Iran and those of the United States and its allies can be linked.

Here's the pitch that you can imagine Kissinger making: Iran's hopes of becoming a major power can be achieved only by halting its nuclear program and working with the United States to stabilize Iraq and the wider Middle East. I hope Secretary Rice is preparing a similar presentation. If that seems like an impossible goal, think how far China has come in the few decades since Zhou was coaxed and cajoled by Henry Kissinger.

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