Applying Kissinger’s Lessons to Transformational Diplomacy with Iran

Henry Kissinger and Donald Trump

by Thomas Buonomo

As the Trump administration seeks ways to avoid war with Iran while defending U.S. national security interests, it should devise a strategy intended to effect a transformation in U.S.-Iran relations, rather than continue with an approach focused solely on applying maximum pressure to yield improbable concessions.

The collapse of the Iran nuclear agreement has demonstrated that although transactional diplomacy was politically expedient, it could not withstand the animosity generated by regional conflicts. Foreign policy decisions by both sides concerning Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq led the U.S. and Iran to gravitate back toward conflict with each other. The Trump administration unnecessarily accelerated this return to a completely hostile dynamic. The nuclear issue, nevertheless, would have returned to the fore under any administration, Republican or Democratic, due to the inherent shortcomings of the nuclear agreement.

What realistic alternative is there to increasing economic sanctions in the improbable hope that it will precipitate regime change primarily from within? Although regime change effected through economic pressure and covert measures is certainly attractive, there is a high probability that it could inadvertently lead to war or a replacement of the current Iranian government with an even more belligerent one.

In their book Kissinger the Negotiator: Lessons from Deal-Making at the Highest Level, James K. Sebenius, Ambassador R. Nicholas Burns, and Robert M. Mnookin distill the wisdom former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gained from his years of experience leading highly complex international negotiations with America’s adversaries. A few lessons from them may be helpful for devising potential solutions.

Evaluate and reevaluate your fundamental premises.

In their book Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies, President Trump’s short-lived National Security Adviser, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn and co-author Michael Ledeen asserted, “Tehran’s war against the West is not based on a desire for territory, or on real or imagined grievances; it is rooted in the nature of the Islamic Republic…”

This seeming ignorance or failure to comprehend the very real grievances Iran has against the U.S. would logically lead one to conclude that Iranian leaders are, tautologically, hostile toward the U.S. because their ideology dictates it. In reality, Iranian views of the U.S. stem to a great degree from Iran’s trauma and are not necessarily impervious to change, though current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will remain highly resistant to it.

Likewise, senior Trump administration officials—including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence, and Trump himself—have accused Iranian leaders of genocidal intent toward Israel and even Jews broadly. Yet Iran has one of the largest populations of Jews in the Middle East outside of Israel. Although Khamenei has consistently expressed his unacceptable intention to forcibly impose a one-state solution on the Israeli-Palestinian problem, this is an important distinction from Trump officials’ more diabolical characterizations.

An accurate assessment of Iranian leaders’ policies and the motivations behind them are essential to any possibility of a moderation in U.S.-Iran relations.

Khamenei indisputably aspires to return Jerusalem to Muslim control, as he and his predecessor have consistently articulated and acted on. What is less broadly understood is that Iranian leaders also feel themselves threatened by Israel. This is counterintuitive to most Americans, accustomed as they are to viewing Israel and the Muslim world in terms of a contest between David and Goliath. Although this was the case at its founding, “David” is now nuclear-armed and has the most powerful conventional military in the region, not to mention an American “Goliath” of its own backing it effectively unconditionally.

Iran’s Supreme Leader fears that, as Israel’s power grows, so will its efforts to establish Israeli economic, cultural, political, and military dominance throughout the region with U.S. support. These fears may be hyperbolic but they are not entirely irrational, as the Israeli government’s brazen discarding of the two-state solution has made apparent.

Take the long view.

Ambassador R. Nicholas Burns noted in his memoir The Back Channel: “Even a sweepingly effective attack on the Iranian [nuclear] program, Obama believed, would only set back the Iranians by two or three years. They would undoubtedly regroup, take their program fully underground, and very likely make a decision to weaponize, with wide popular support in the aftermath of a unilateral U.S. or Israeli strike.”

This would necessitate preemptive regime change and military occupation to form and stabilize a new state not hostile to the U.S. Suppressing the resulting insurgency would be far more costly than the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and could trigger Russian military intervention.

The U.S. should support regional governments’ efforts to limit Iran’s power projection as well as Iranian political elements pursuing liberal democratic reforms. It should also keep in perspective that a transition in power to a new Supreme Leader is probable within the next five years, which may open up unforeseeable diplomatic opportunities. As long as Iran does not make a dash toward nuclear weapons or imminently threaten to severely disrupt the global economy, there is no justification for an escalation to full-scale war.

Evaluate the potential for a multi-front negotiation campaign to achieve your target deal, paying special attention to the “home front.”

Saudi Arabia’s alignment with Israel against Iran has essentially neutralized any serious pressure from the Arab-Muslim world on the Israeli-Palestinian issue for the time being. This shift has emboldened the Israeli settler lobby and made it impossible to achieve compromise between the U.S. and Iran on this issue.

An “America First” strategy would factor in the moral hazard of continuing to indulge this lobby, which will not only increase the probability of a U.S.-Iran conflict but also exacerbate violent extremism throughout the broader Muslim world.

Be both empathetic and assertive.

Sebenius et al., analyzing Kissinger’s art of the deal, advise negotiators to, “Strive to understand your counterpart’s perspective, and demonstrate this understanding as you build rapport and relationships—while asserting your own needs and interests.”

As former Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized in his memoir: ‘There must be a sense of genuine, mutual respect underlying this negotiation,’ [Sultan Qaboos, the leader of Oman] told me. ‘If the Iranians feel bullied or condescended to, they will walk away at once.’ …Despite huge substantive differences [our negotiations with Iran] were always cloaked in a mantle of respect. It made all the difference.”

Reconsider the traditional “start high, concede slowly” approach to negotiation.

Kissinger was not a proponent of diplomatic brinkmanship, according to Sebenius and his colleagues. They assess, “In Kissinger’s view, making extreme opening offers and conceding slowly toward one’s ‘real’ limits, and only when forced to do so, converted negotiations into a lengthy test of wills and stamina. While useful to demonstrate ‘toughness’ to a home audience…[it] risks needless impasse.”

Pompeo’s list of 12 demands, which Trump has discarded in favor of (his predecessor’s policy of) talks without preconditions, was simply unrealistic and unnecessary.

This is not to say the U.S. should not substantively promote political reform in Iran, but rather that if Iranian leaders experience a transformational shift in U.S. relations and their threat perception is alleviated as a result, they will likely moderate their policies of their own accord.

Thomas Buonomo is a Middle East expert whose writing on Iran has been published by the Atlantic Council, Middle East Policy Council, The National Interest, The Cipher Brief, RealClear Defense, The Hill, Lobelog, Cairo Review of Global Affairs, The National, The Daily Star, and elsewhere.

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  1. Iranians have no grievances towards anyone. The author is completely wrong.

    Iran is a peaceful non-violent culture, with thousands of years of glory to show to the world. Civilization was born in Iran, way before any violent religion came around.

    It is the Ayatollah regime, that has a laundry list of grievances to justify its own petty existence.

  2. Thomas Buonomo

    We are still avoiding the major obstacle here: US and her vassals are unwilling to strategically settle with Iran.

    Nixon was willing to strategically settle with China. That provided the context.

  3. The Iranian grievance is deeper than only supporting Saddam with chemical weapons. Design of coupe against popular government in 1953, then support of Shah to create a horrible security service ‘SAVAK’ to fight its own people. Design of agricultural land reform to restore his face after the coup against his people in price of millions of jobs and leading to large immigration and deep poverty around big cities.
    US had much more devastating effect on Iran than mughals did!

  4. Thomas Buonomo

    Currently, circumstances for US rapprochement to Iran, is not yet the same as it was with China. US rapprochement to China was out of ANY better choices. US was already and admittedly militarily and politically (at home) defeated in north and South Pacific. Post WWII US military adventurism namely in Korea and later in Vietnam badly diminished US resources and world view. US had no choice but to leave Vietnam and south pacific.US rapprochement to China and accepting her to UN was a major geopolitical decision to disallow penetration of soviet influence in South Pacific region when US forces leave the religion. In other words, Nixon kissing Mao’ ass was due to a geopolitical strategic necessity without any better choice.

    The case for rapprochement to Iran is not yet the same although more likely is becoming one of similar. With Iran, empowering Iran friendly forces making life difficult for the American military in the region, will eventually make defeated US military decide to leave the region just as she did in Vietnam. When that time comes, US again will not find any better choice for the security of the region other than kissing Iranian’ rear like they did with China in early 70s.

    As all indications have shown in this last few months, that point (US wanting to leave the region) has already started, and is accelerating ever since leaving JCPOA, this is the sole reason why so badly US wants to negotiate with Iran on issues other than nuclear file, namely ballistic missiles and the so-called Iran’ regional behavior.

    As I have come to understand Iran’ HISTORIC strategic thinking and necessities, for a real and equally beneficial rapprochement with Iran to take place, and to get Iran to negotiate on Regional matters, desperate sanctions and war threat are nonstarters and actually will diminish possibility of rapprochement since they increase distrust of Americans intentions.

    At this juncture, US and her puddles in Europe donot possess any good hand to threat Iran or make Iran to negotiate without they change their hegemonic behavior toward international law. Beside all that in mind, beneficial to Iran’s position, stupidly US and Europe have created a cold trade war atmosphere with both China and Russia, secondly in Iran’s benefit US and her allies have admitted losing wars in multiple battlefields in Iran’s regions of influence, thirdly Iran has politicly and militarily empowered independent groups that have challenged US/west policies and interests in the region.

    Now with all that in mind, if US doesn’t want increased china’ influence in Persian Gulf, North Indian Ocean, and direct access to Europe and Mediterranean sea via land routes, US will first need to recognize and accept Iran’s sovereignty independence and her national interests. Only within that concept and posture US will get Iran’s cooperation to not damage US’ long term interests in the western Asian region.

  5. A baseless article! Nixon’s Rapprochement with China was forced by the imperialists, capitalists who were the major anti-labor unions in the US in 1970’s. The transition of industries to China for low wages and breakup of the unions started by Reagan in 1980’s.
    There’s no comparison between the US/China relationship and that of US/Iran.
    Obama and Trump started to reversing of the process of industries transition to China and returning the industry back to the US. Obama accomplished the first phase of this policy by making the US independence of fossil fuel from the ME. Trump in return tried to accelerate the the process of bringing back the industries to the US by tax incentive which the industries didn’t show any interest in those tax savings. Then Trump tried and still trying to impose tariffs on the imported products made by the American companies in China and shipped to the US. Well imposing tariffs on Chinese made products by Trump did backfire and China’s retaliation caused the consumers in the US to force Trump to give it up.
    Next move by Trump is to disrupt the economy of China by increasing the price of fossil fuel. Since the Americans are not interested in being involved in another war in the ME, a war had to be initiated for the regional powers like Saudis and Iranians which it will definitely increase the price of fossil fuel for China! The agitation and creating tensions in the ME worked until the Houthies struck the Aramco facilities in SA’s eastern front. The strong message from Iran to the Saudis was very clear and strong. Don’t miss with us and if you do you will be gone in a few days! UAE got the message quickly and backed off from it hardline position. Sorry Charlie this last ditch effort also failed. Trump and Pompeo are checked and cornered. We can wait for Trump’s next move if he survives his domestic troubles?

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