Kissinger's Foggy Lens on Iran

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

Henry Kissinger has thrown his shoulder behind the so-called "push-back" strategy being applied to the new US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear program. Specifically, he's even given hawks in the lame-duck George W Bush administration a helping hand in countering the backlash sparked by the NIE's most inconvenient finding - that Iran is not currently pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

Despite the decades which have passed since he served in the Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford administrations, former US secretary of state Kissinger is still considered one of the most prescient US observers of global affairs. His recent opinion pieces published in The Washington Post go a long way in fanning the flames of a perceived Iranian nuclear threat - at least at the level of American public opinion - now that much of the fear has been extinguished by the NIE's findings.

In his opinion column titled "Misreading the Iran report, why spying and policymaking don't mix," [1] Kissinger refers to the various aspects of the still-confidential NIE report that, according to wire reports, is some 140 pages long and has had only several pages of its conclusions released to the public.

Clearly, Kissinger is much more than a former official or present-day White House consultant. He wields tremendous influence on Washington's foreign decision-making in light of his long track record within the American foreign policy machine. His privileged access to the entire NIE report allows Kissinger to avoid what he refers to as "misinterpretations" and insist that the report is in broad agreement with the main conclusions of the previous US intelligence reports on Iran.

According to Kissinger, the 2007 NIE report does not actually contradict, but rather confirms, the 2005 report that stated with confidence that Iran was actively pursuing nuclear weapons. The former report "holds that Iran may be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon by the end of 2009 and, with increasing confidence, more warheads by the period 2010 to 2015".

Relying on both the NIE reports, Kissinger then provides his supposedly novel insight: "If my analysis is correct, we could be witnessing not a halt of the Iranian weapons program - as the NIE asserts - but a subtle, ultimately more dangerous, version of it that will phase in the warhead when fissile material production has matured." But doesn't this contradict his earlier statement that that two of the three main components of the nuclear weapons program have not been halted in Iran?

This is, in fact, so typical of Kissinger. He's long made a virtue out of rehashing old ideas and assumptions as refreshingly new simply through linguistic acrobatics intermixed with calibrated obfuscation. Such rhetoric is swathed in additional, artificial layers of semantic ambiguity and "double talk". Worse, Kissinger's trademark has long been to simultaneously embrace contradictory ideas and yet escape serious scrutiny in a thick fog of semantic wordplay.

As a result, Kissinger can be everything to everyone these days. He's at once an avid advocate of serious disarmament and also a powerful voice for a "strong American military" and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's reliance on its nuclear arsenal. He's an enthusiastic supporter of various arms limitation treaties and also a reasonable voice for their reconsideration. He's a proponent of post-Cold War, post-hegemonic America and, equally, a principal architect of American primacy in the new global milieu (not to overlook his own singular contributions to the thesis of a "new Cold War" in the Middle East in recent publications in the Arab press). It's nothing new: during the 1970s, Kissinger went to Baghdad and promised that the US would do everything possible "to reduce Israel's size", when, in fact, he never even waved a finger in that direction.

Kissinger now writes opinion columns about the perils of nuclear weapons without ever repudiating his earlier views. For example, in 1957, he wrote that "with proper tactics, nuclear war need not be as destructive as it appears".

Of course, none of this is particularly surprising. In declassified US government documents from 1969, Kissinger voices vehement criticisms on US intelligent estimates on the military threats posed by the Soviet Union. At the time he attributed much more bellicose intentions and "strategic perspectives" to Moscow than proved to be the case. It's all part of a consistent pattern of this old Cold Warrior who continues to view the new Middle East realities through the same Manichaeanism: polarized Cold War lenses. It is no surprise that today, as in the past, Kissinger demonstrates an uncanny ability to present contrary ideas with ease.

In his Washington Post opinion piece Kissinger accepts as verified fact the 2007 NIE's claim that Iran halted a secret nuclear weapons program in 2003, in response to the US's post-September 11, 2001, military offensives in the region. The scenario poses the question that, after Saddam Hussein's downfall, is it unreasonable to assume that Iran concluded that restraint had become imperative?

Just a few lines further, Kissinger "conjectures" that Iran continues on the relentless path of nuclear weapons buildup following the prescriptions of deterrence with regard to "American regional aspirations". The poor logic of assuming that Iran stopped thinking about US deterrence in the very year when the US invaded Iran's neighbor, escapes Kissinger. But, does that mean "nuclear deterrent"?

The answer is a resounding "no" for a variety of reasons. Among them is the fact that Iran is not blind to the overwhelming fire power of the US, as well as the fact that short of having a "second strike capability" it is rather futile to think of a nuclear shield against the American threat. The ability to have such capability, on the other hand, is beyond the means and resources of Iran, which has little to worry about from other countries in the region in any case. For example, Israel is out of area and does not represent a locked-down hostile power as is the case with Israel-Arab conflict, and Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is entirely directed against its traditional foe, India, and will be so for the foreseeable future.

Furthermore, a number of Iran's "near neighbors" such as Ukraine and Kazakhstan have "de-nuclearized" themselves, which is equally beneficial when seen through the prism of Iran's national security calculations. Besides, Iran considers itself a revisionist regional and global power of a different kind. Iran's leadership envisions a nation that pioneers "ethical foreign policy" and seeks a revised and more just global order, away from the present ossified hierarchies, including the nuclear hierarchy that, in the words of Iran's president, reflects a past era.

The biggest flaw in Kissinger's "push-back" is its defective understanding of the nature and purpose of Iranian power. He, along with a host of other American pundits, misreads Iran's might as a mirror-image of American power on a reduced scale. As a result, all the vices attributed to US power, such as hegemony and domination, are recycled with respect to Iran, albeit with the caveat that it is also a sectarian Shi'ite power. Clearly, the purveyors of "push-back" do not want to emphasize the NIE findings that undermine their charges of gross misconduct on Iran's part.

What is also troubling is Kissinger's advice that US officials and policymakers stop using intelligence reports as public justifications. This represents a disservice to the America where the rules of democracy mandate the perpetual public justification of the government's domestic and foreign policies. This is especially true now, at a time when the false rationalizations for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 brought to light the serious pitfalls of incorrect intelligence. It is often a deciding factor in how history renders war or peace.

The history of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East is a solid example of how faulty intelligence has fueled war after war. At times, this has been done deliberately. For example, in 1990 when the US reportedly did not take the threat of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait seriously, and in retrospect may have done so as part of a careful scenario for action. Another example is a conflict inseparable from Kissinger: Vietnam and the secret US military incursions into Laos and Cambodia that occurred under his watch. Historian Howard Zinn has shown that despite the official US government's denial, its sensitivity to "public opinion" actually played a large role in ending the US military presence in Vietnam. [2]

Kissinger's commentary shows that he is not only out of step with America, but also with the emerging and complex realities of the Middle East. It's time for Henry Kissinger to stop viewing the world through a Cold War lens.


1. Henry Kissinger, Misreding the Iran report Washington Post, December 13, 2007.
2. Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States. Harper Perennial (April 1, 2003).

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.


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