The Next Steps With Iran

The Washington Post Henry A. Kissinger July 31, 2006

Negotiations Must Go Beyond the Nuclear Threat to Broader Issues

The world’s attention is focused on the fighting in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, but the context leads inevitably back to Iran. Unfortunately, the diplomacy dealing with that issue is constantly outstripped by events. While explosives are raining on Lebanese and Israeli towns and Israel reclaims portions of Gaza, the proposal to Iran in May by the so-called Six (the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China) for negotiations on its nuclear weapons program still awaits an answer. It’s possible that Tehran reads the almost pleading tone of some communications addressed to it as a sign of weakness and irresolution. Or perhaps the violence in Lebanon has produced second thoughts among the mullahs about the risks of courting and triggering crisis.

However the tea leaves are read, the current Near Eastern upheaval could become a turning point. Iran may come to appreciate the law of unintended consequences. For their part, the Six can no longer avoid dealing with the twin challenges that Iran poses. On the one hand, the quest for nuclear weapons represents Iran’s reach for modernity via the power symbol of the modern state; at the same time, this claim is put forward by a fervent kind of religious extremism that has kept the Muslim Middle East unmodernized for centuries. This conundrum can be solved without conflict only if Iran adopts a modernism consistent with international order and a view of Islam compatible with peaceful coexistence.

Heretofore the Six have been vague about their response to an Iranian refusal to negotiate, except for unspecific threats of sanctions through the United Nations Security Council. But if a deadlock between strained forbearance by the Six and taunting invective from the Iranian president leads to de facto acquiescence in the Iranian nuclear program, prospects for multilateral international order will dim everywhere. If the permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany are unable jointly to achieve goals to which they have publicly committed themselves, every country, especially those composing the Six, will face growing threats, be they increased domestic pressure from radical Islamic groups, terrorist acts or the nearly inevitable conflagrations sparked by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The analogy of such a disaster is not Munich, when the democracies yielded the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, but the response when Mussolini invaded Abyssinia. At Munich, the democracies thought that Hitler’s demands were essentially justified by the principle of self-determination; they were repelled mostly by his methods. In the Abyssinian crisis, the nature of the challenge was uncontested. By a vast majority, the League of Nations voted to treat the Italian adventure as aggression and to impose sanctions. But they recoiled before the consequences of their insight and rejected an oil embargo, which Italy would have been unable to overcome. The league never recovered from that debacle. If the six-nation forums dealing with Iran and North Korea suffer comparable failures, the consequence will be a world of unchecked proliferation, not controlled by either governing principles or functioning institutions.

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