Politics & Policy


"Diplomacy" with Iran means ignoring what its leaders are saying.

Just before Thanksgiving, Henry Kissinger addressed the Iran question in the traditional language of realpolitik, and I’ve been procrastinating on my response. I’m always reluctant to disagree with him, in part because he is so very smart and experienced, and in part because I am most grateful for his many acts of kindness to me, and because I like him so much personally. Whenever we’re together he tells me I’m totally right about the war and above all about Iran, and consequently when he writes something that is pretty much totally at odds with what I’ve said, I suspect I’ve misunderstood him.

Kissinger treated Iran as a nation seeking geopolitical advantage, and he dealt with the nuclear question in that context: “Iran’s nuclear program and considerable resources enable it to strive for strategic dominance in its region.”

Then, in a single sentence, he leaped to a global framework, in which ideology overwhelms national considerations: “With the impetus of a radical Shia ideology and the symbolism of defiance of the UN Security Council’s resolution, Iran challenges the established order in the Middle East and perhaps wherever Islamic populations face dominant, non-Islamic majorities.”

That is indeed the proper context, since Iran’s Supreme Leader, whether Khomeini or Khamenei, claims to be the sole legitimate guide for the entire Muslim world. Both of them speak in the name of a Shiite revolution that far transcends mere national ambition. If you want to understand what radical Islam is all about, you can’t do better than memorize the words of the Ayatollah Khomeini at the time of the hostage crisis, way back in 1979: “We do not worship Iran. We worship Allah,” he declared, “For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land (Iran) burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.”

Kissinger finesses this central fact, which lies at the core of the Iranian Revolution. After tiptoeing up to it, he slides back into the traditional language, as if Khomeinist Iran were a traditional nation-state. The rest of the essay mostly addresses the nuclear question alone, and how “diplomacy” can and should deal with it. It’s a peculiar discussion, based on at least one totally unknowable assumption. “Teheran sees no compelling national interest to give up its claim to being a nuclear power,” he says, quite rightly, but then launches into the unknown, “and strong domestic political reasons to persist. Pursuing the nuclear weapons program is a way of appealing to national pride and shores up an otherwise shaky domestic support.”

Lots of people say that sort of thing–that the Iranian people really want their government to have nuclear weapons–but I don’t know why they say it. It seems to have been entirely sucked out of their left thumb. There is no reliable polling data to support it, and the anecdotal “evidence” is all over the lot.

Common sense would seem to dictate that we take the leaders of the Islamic Republic at their word. They do not think of themselves as national leaders, and they despise patriotism (“another name for paganism” does not bespeak national pride). At one point Kissinger suggests that Western “diplomacy” must be aimed at convincing the Iranian leaders that they should think of their country in traditional terms, and not as a “crusade.” This is rather like trying to use negotiations to convince the Pope that he should think of himself as the Duke of Vatican City rather than as the Vicar of Christ.

Kissinger’s refusal to acknowledge the religious and revolutionary nature of the Islamic Republic is of a piece with the scores of diplomats who insist that negotiations will eventually tame the Islamic Revolution. It won’t work. Only the defeat of the Islamic Republic can accomplish that goal, because that would demonstrate that the mullahs do not have divine support for their global jihad.

There’s something about diplomats, no matter how brilliant, that leads them to see a world that never existed, and most likely never will. The past results achieved by the grand master of diplomacy were often disappointing. Kissinger attempted to tame the Soviet Empire by constructing “détente,” which probably extended the life of the Communist superstate by a decade or more; it took Ronald Reagan to bring it to an end. Kissinger attempted to negotiate peace between Israel and its enemies, thereby spinning out a grand illusion–the misnamed “peace process”–that has created a cottage industry for negotiators but an expanded war for the citizens of the region. The illusion that “diplomacy” can accomplish anything worthwhile with the Islamic Republic of Iran will only intensify the mullahs’ conviction that killing Americans is both divinely sanctioned and a winning strategy.

The limitations of this dangerous mindset have recently been described by Mattias Küntzel, reflecting on the shock experienced by Bruce Laingen, the number two diplomat in the American embassy in Tehran, when he was taken hostage by the Iranians in 1979:

Bruce Bowden invokes the shock that the first encounter with real Islamism represented (to our diplomats). He describes how “the entire professional frame of reference” of embassy charge’ d’affaires Bruce E. Laingen had to be overturned. Before the hostage-taking, Laingen possessed, in Bowden’s expression, “a constitutional bias toward hope.” He strongly believed that “things were getting better (in Iran)” and put all his trust in “the power of polite dialogue between nations.” Laingen was, in Bowden’s words, “bewildered” by the events of November 4. “Why? To what end?” he wrote in his journal four days after the seizure of the embassy.

It is eerie to watch Condoleezza Rice evince the same frame of mind today, 28 years later. No matter how much evidence of Iran’s determination to destroy or dominate us, no matter how many times Khamenei or Ahmadinejad leads the chant of “Death to America,” no matter how many American fighters and Iraqi citizens are killed as a result of Iranian support for the terrorists, she and the Kissingers of this world continue to convince themselves that things are getting better, that Iran shares our goals for peace in the region, and that if we only make one more generous offer, the whole unpleasant situation will work out for the best.

It is not so. They are not like us, and they do not share our dreams. Diplomacy will not tame them. Only our victory will.

Faster, Please. Our kids are getting killed every day by these people, and we’re next on their list.

Michael LedeenMichael Ledeen is an American historian, philosopher, foreign-policy analyst, and writer. He is a former consultant to the National Security Council, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense. ...


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