Crisis or opportunity?

THE letter of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran to President George W. Bush needs to be considered on several levels. It can be treated as a ploy to obstruct the United Nations Security Council deliberations on Iran’s disregard of its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

By Henry A. Kissinger

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Mon 22 May 2006, 10:25 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 1:37 PM

This consideration and the demagogic tone of the letter merited its rejection by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But the first direct approach in over 25 years to the US president by an Iranian leader may also have intentions beyond the tactical and propagandistic, and its demagoguery may be a way to get the radical part of the Iranian public used to dialogue with the United States.

Events will clarify which interpretation is correct. America’s challenge is to define its own strategy and purposes regarding the most fateful issue confronting us today.

The world is faced with the nightmarish prospect that nuclear weapons will become a standard part of national armament and wind up in terrorist hands. The negotiations on Korean and Iranian nuclear proliferation mark a watershed. A failed diplomacy will leave us with the choice between force or a world where restraint has been eroded by the demonstration of the inability or unwillingness of countries that have the most to lose to restrain defiant fanatics. One need only imagine what would have happened had any of the terrorist attacks on New York, Washington, London, Madrid, Istanbul or Bali involved even the crudest nuclear weapon: casualties in the tens of thousands, a breakdown of all civilian services, and public panic.

Of the two negotiations, the six-party forum of Japan, South Korea, China, the United States, Russia and North Korea on the Korean issue seems more advanced than the four-party talk among France, Germany, Britain and Iran. Last September, an apparent agreement in principle was reached in Beijing that North Korea will give up its nuclear programme if the other parties would provide adequate assurances of security, economic help in the post-nuclear period, and a substitute for the power generation allegedly lost by abandoning the nuclear programme. But each side has demanded that the other perform all its obligations before undertaking its own; a serious effort to discuss a concurrent schedule has been prevented by North Korea’s tactic of stringing out the hiatus between each session, perhaps to gain time for strengthening its nuclear arsenal.

With respect to Iran, there does not exist even formal agreement regarding objective. Iran has refused to agree to international control over its uranium enrichment programme, in the absence of which no control over a weapons programme is meaningful.

The public debate often focuses on whether the US is prepared to engage in bilateral discussions with Korea or Iran at all. With respect to Korea, that is a subsidiary issue. The six-power talks provide adequate opportunity for a bilateral exchange of views. What Pyongyang is attempting to achieve —and what the Bush administration has rightly resisted —is a separate negotiation with Washington outside the six-party framework. This would prevent other parties in the Beijing process from undertaking joint responsibilities. If bilateral talks replace the six-party forum, some of America’s present partners might choose to place the onus for breaking every deadlock on Washington, in effect isolating the US.

The same considerations apply even more strongly to bilateral negotiations with Iran at this stage. Until now, formal negotiations have been prevented by the memory of the hostage crisis, the Iranian support of terrorist groups, and the aggressive rhetoric of the Iranian president. Nor does the Iranian president’s letter remove these inhibitions. Nevertheless, on a matter so directly involving its security, the US should not negotiate through proxies, however closely allied. If America is prepared to negotiate with Pyongyang over proliferation in the six-party forum and with Iran in Baghdad over Iraqi security, it must be possible to devise a multilateral venue for nuclear talks with Teheran that would permit the US to participate —especially in the light of what is at stake.

An indefinite continuation of the stalemate would amount to a de facto acquiescence by the international community of the new entrants into the nuclear club. In Asia, it would spell the near-certain addition of South Korea and Japan; in the Middle East, countries like Turkey, Egypt or even Saudi Arabia could enter the field. In such a world, all significant industrial countries would consider nuclear weapons an indispensable status symbol. Radical elements throughout the Islamic world and elsewhere would gain strength from the successful defiance of the major nuclear powers.

The management of a nuclear-armed world would be infinitely more complex than maintaining the deterrent balance of two Cold War superpowers. The various nuclear countries would not only have to maintain deterrent balances with their own adversaries, a process that would not necessarily follow the principles and practices evolved over decades among the existing nuclear states, they would also have the ability and incentive to declare themselves as interested parties in general confrontations. Especially Iran, and eventually other countries of similar orientation, would be able to use a nuclear arsenal to protect their revolutionary activities around the world.

The argument on behalf of acquiescence in proliferation to the effect that new nuclear countries have always proved responsible in the past is not endorsed by experience. Pakistan proliferated its nuclear technology through the A Q Khan project; North Korea has been an active proliferator. In addition, the safeguarding of nuclear material on the territories of emerging nuclear countries is bound to be more porous and less sophisticated.

Diplomacy needs a new impetus. To be sure, the most intense diplomatic effort may be defeated by the obduracy of North Korea, the fanaticism of Iran and the lack of allied unity. Still, given the consequences of failure, a new look is in order. As a first step, the US and its negotiating partners need to agree on how much time is available for negotiations. There seems to be general, apparently uncontested, agreement that Pyongyang is producing plutonium for several weapons a year; there is some disagreement about progress in producing actual operational weapons in the absence of testing.

Estimates on how close Teheran is to producing a first nuclear weapon range from two to 10 years. Given the risks and stakes, this gap needs to be narrowed. Any consideration of diplomatic pace must take account of the fact that, in 2008, governments in both Russia and the US will change; this will impose a hiatus on diplomacy while the governments are preoccupied with transition and, in America, restaffing the Executive Branch.

The next step is to recognise the difference between multiparty negotiations and a preferred strategy of regime change. There are no governments in the world whose replacement by responsible regimes would contribute more to international peace and security than those governing Pyongyang and Teheran. At the same time, none of the participants in the existing or foreseeable forums will support a policy explicitly aiming for regime change. Nor can the governments of Iran or North Korea be expected to acquiesce in their own overthrow as part of a diplomacy designed to achieve their nuclear disarmament. Inevitably, a negotiation on nuclear disarmament will involve compensation in security and economic benefits in return for abandonment of nuclear weapons capabilities and is, in that sense, incompatible with regime change.

Focusing on regime change as the road to denuclearisation confuses the issue. The US should oppose nuclear weapons in North Korea and Iran, regardless of the government that builds them; the present governments magnify the danger, but America’s opposition to nuclear weapons in Korea or Iran is —or should be —generic.

The diplomacy appropriate to denuclearisation is comparable to the containment policy that helped win the Cold War: no preemptive challenge to the external security of the adversary, but firm resistance to attempts to project the adversary’s power abroad and reliance on domestic forces to bring about internal change. It was precisely such a nuanced policy that caused President Reagan to invite President Brezhnev to a dialogue within weeks of labeling the Soviet Union as the evil empire.

On Korea, progress requires agreement regarding the political evolution of the Korean peninsula and of Northeast Asia. The expectation that China is so reluctant to see nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula —and therefore ultimately in Japan —that it will sooner or later bring the requisite pressure on Korea has so far been disappointed. This is because China has not only military concerns but also geostrategic objectives on the Korean peninsula. It will try to avoid an outcome in Korea that leads to the sudden collapse of an ally, producing a flood of Korean refugees into China as well as turmoil on its borders. For these reasons, a strategic dialogue with Beijing must be an important component of a negotiating strategy that also addresses Pyongyang’s desire for security.

Though America is represented in the six-party forum by an exceptional diplomat in Christopher Hill, periodic engagement at a higher level is needed to confer the necessary direction to his efforts. The objective should be an understanding regarding security and political evolution in Northeast Asia that requires no changes in sovereignty as part of the process of denuclearisation but leaves open the prospect of Korean unification through negotiations or internal evolution —much as was done at the European Security Conference in Helsinki in 1975 with respect to Germany.

Parallel considerations apply to the case of Iran. The current negotiating forum is highly dysfunctional. Three European countries in close coordination with the United States are acting partly as America’s surrogate. China and Russia do not participate in the negotiations but are involved when their consequences go before the UN Security Council —a procedure enabling Iran to play the nuclear powers off against each other.

A more coherent forum for negotiation would combine the three European nations with the US, China and Russia as the countries most directly affected and in the best position to act jointly in the Security Council. This would permit elaboration of the one hopeful scheme that has emerged in Iranian diplomacy. Put forward by Russia, it is to move certain enrichment operations out of Iran into Russia, thereby preventing clandestine weaponisation. The new, broader forum could be used to establish an international enrichment programme applicable to future nuclear technologies to curb the looming specter of unchecked proliferation.

Obviously, nuclear proliferation cannot be prevented simply by multiplying negotiating forums. The experience with existing conferences demonstrates the capacity for procrastination and obfuscation. To be effective, diplomacy must involve a willingness to provide clear penalties for obstruction. Only after we have created the requisite negotiating framework and explored all aspects of diplomacy should the issue of military measures be addressed. But neither should force be rejected in principle and for all time before we know the circumstances in which this surely last of all resorts should be considered.

The issue before the nations involved is therefore similar to what the world faced in 1938 and at the beginning of the Cold War: whether to overcome fears and hesitancy to undertake the difficult path demanded by necessity. The failure of that test in 1938 produced a catastrophic war; the ability to master it in the immediate aftermath of World War II led to victory without war.

The debates surrounding these issues will be conducted in the waning years of an American administration. On the surface, this may seem to guarantee partisanship. But thoughtful observers in both parties will know that the consequences of the decisions before us will have to be managed in a new administration. The nuclear issue capable of destroying mankind may thus hopefully bring us together in the end.

Henry A Kissinger, a former US secretary of state, is considered the architect of US foreign policy during the Cold War

More news from