He is 83 now, very gray and a bit saggy around the edges. But nearly 40 years after he first convened the Paris Peace Talks, Henry Kissinger is still playing the globe like a three-dimensional chessboard. And judging from the moves George W. Bush has been making lately, the president appears to be following the old meister’s advice on Iran. Kissinger’s bottom line: don't negotiate with Tehran until you've realigned the forces in the Middle East so that you're negotiating from a position of strength.
Bush is trying to realign, big time. In an extraordinary series of moves, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other U.S. officials have been seeking to create a united front of Sunni Arab regimes and Israel against Shiite Iran as part of an aggressive new approach to Tehran. Fed up with Iran’s recalcitrance in talks to curb its nuclear program, and reports of Iran’s alleged complicity in attacks inside Iraq, the Bush administration is engaged in diplomacy of truly Kissingerian complexity. This includes a new order, first reported by The Washington Post, to kill or capture Iranian operatives in Iraq; movement of a second carrier battle group to the Persian Gulf; intense pressure on banks and other financial institutions to cut off dealings with Tehran, and a new push for Israeli-Palestinian peace, among other initiatives. U.S. officials are investigating the possibility that Iran has been involved in attacks inside Iraq, including one in Karbala on Jan. 20. In that episode, Iraqis, wearing uniforms similar to those of American troops, killed five U.S. soldiers—allegedly with Tehran’s help. (Iran denies any involvement in attacks on Americans).
What is the ultimate goal of all these moves? Bush insisted again this week that he has no intention of launching attacks inside Iran over its infiltration of Iraq. And he said that when it came to Iran’s nuclear program—which has provoked existential fears of attack in Israel and deep worry in the Arab capitals over a perceived bid for Iranian dominance—he was still pushing for a diplomatic solution. "The message that we are working to send to the Iranian regime and the Iranian people is that you will become increasingly isolated, if you continue to pursue a nuclear weapon," Bush told National Public Radio last Monday.
Bush administration officials say they have become increasingly concerned that Iran is acting as though it now has the upper hand in the region. That is a complete turnaround from several years ago, when Tehran feared a menacing Saddam Hussein on one border and a hostile Taliban on its Afghan side. After the Bush administration obligingly took down both those enemies, and then grew bogged down in Iraq, Iran grew cocky. It also allegedly increased its support to Shiite militias that continue to generate new cycles of sectarian violence in Iraq. People inside the administration “have been saying that Iran has overplayed its hand and that we need to make sure that we also have some significant things Iran wants,” an administration official told NEWSWEEK “And that means dramatically increasing the pressure on the Iranian regime.”
In a little-noted op-ed piece he published last November in various newspapers, Kissinger sought to address this problem, counseling an approach very close to the strategy that Bush is now pursuing. Iran, Kissinger wrote, needs to be showed “that it is still a poor country not in a position to challenge the entire world order. But such an evolution presupposes the development of a precise and concrete strategic and negotiating program by the United States and its associates.” Kissinger noted that the “the Sunni states of the region—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the non-Shiite government of Lebanon, the Gulf states—are terrified by the Shiite wave.” The solution, he said, was to exploit that fear and to “rally” them into line against Iran. Rice appears to be trying to do just that. In a recent interview with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius , she referred to the strategy in the region as a “realignment.”
Kissinger also counseled a show of strength in the gulf. “America will need to reposition its strategic deployments, but if such actions are viewed as the prelude to an exit from the region, a collapse of existing structures is probable,” he wrote. Bush followed with an extra carrier group, and he nominated ex-carrier pilot Bill Fallon as commander of CENTCOM, the first Navy admiral to be appointed to that post.
A spokeswoman for Kissinger, Jessica LePorin, said he was traveling and could not comment but that he "is not part of the decision-making process on Iran policy." But there is little doubt that he is closely listened to at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In his recent book “State of Denial,” Bob Woodward called the aging diplomat a "powerful, largely invisible influence" in the administration, and the outside adviser whom Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney consulted more than any other. A White House spokeswoman said she "can't speak to specific conversations, but the president has talked about how he welcomes Secretary Kissinger's advice on a variety of foreign-policy issues."
Whether the strategy will work is another question. In an interview, Imad Moustapha, Syria's ambassador to the United States, said it was clear that several of the big Arab states would continue to go their own way and refuse to completely isolate Tehran. Saudi Arabia, for example, appears to be playing both sides of the fence. “We have seen how Saudi Arabia and Iran are cooperating to find a solution to the Lebanon crisis,” Moustapha said. Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi chief security adviser, met recently with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Larijani, in Riyadh and Tehran in an effort to prevent a civil war in Lebanon.
Officials from the gulf Arab states say they are reassured by the strengthened U.S. commitment to their security. But according to another diplomat from the region, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, ultimate success will depend on what happens in Iraq. “If the Americans start scheduling a withdrawal, that could change everything,” the diplomat says. There is also the danger of accidental war.
One big difference remains between Bush and Kissinger. The president is unlikely to segue into serious negotiations with either Iran and Syria even if he gets the upper hand. But Kissinger seems much more keen to do so. Moustapha, for example, says Kissinger has privately told him that Washington ought to be sitting down with Syria (a position the former secretary of State appeared to take in congressional testimony as well). But then, he is an old diplomat after all.