Kissinger on Iran: Belts, Empires, and Getting it Wrong

by John Limbert

Henry Kissinger may be the grand old man of US foreign policy, but when it comes to understanding Iran, his analytical skills have begun to fade. In his NPR discussion with Scott Simon, broadcast Sept. 6, Kissinger got it monumentally wrong. One can only be grateful he is no longer making policy.

What is it about being national security adviser that leads to ill-advised “belt” meta­phors? In the late 1970s, President Carter’s adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski famously (and incorrectly) spoke of a geographic “green belt” of Islam that would defend the Middle East against Soviet aggression. It turned out that, if such a belt existed, its inhabitants in Iran and Afghanistan—no matter how much they disliked the Soviets—inflicted serious damage on the United States. In the Iranian case, they toppled one American president (Carter) and nearly brought down another (Reagan).

Now Kissinger is talking not only of belts, but also of Persian empires. He told NPR that Iran is a “bigger problem” for the US than the vicious Islamic State, which is commonly referred to as ISIS. “There has come into being a kind of a Shia-belt from Tehran through Baghdad to Beirut,” said Kissinger. “And this gives Iran the opportunity to reconstruct the ancient Persian Empire, this time under a Shia label.”

Nonsense. As a scholar of history and a Harvard PhD, Kissinger should know better. He once said that the United States had more common interests with the Islamic Republic than with many of its friends. That view is much more sensible than beating drums about some imaginary threat of a new Persian empire and a Shia belt.

No one has been so misinformed about Iran since Mitt Romney, during his 2012 presidential campaign, told us that “Iran needs its alliance with Syria to secure access to the sea.” Perhaps Harvard, where both these men studied, has some basic problem teaching Iran’s history and geography. It appears that Romney never realized Iran already has over 1,000 miles of coastline on the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman. As for Kissinger, he apparently never learned that there has been no “Persian Empire” ruling beyond the Iranian plateau for over thirteen centuries.

Persia in the ancient world was indeed a world empire and a threat to its neighbors. Its forces burned Athens (in the 5th century BCE), defeated Roman armies numerous times, and captured Jerusalem and attacked the walls of Constantinople (in the 7th century CE).

All that Persian rampaging was a very long time ago, although ruins from those days of glory still cover modern-day Iran. Iran today, whatever its pretensions, is far from reconstructing some ancient and mighty empire or weaving a belt out of Shia Muslims in Iraq and Lebanon. Thanks to the Shia religion, the Persian language, and some very inept foreign policy, the Islamic Republic today stands isolated in its region surrounded by peoples who share neither its language nor its sect of Islam. Rather than leading a new Persian empire that will once again storm the Acropolis, the Iranians today are more like the medieval Bretons: they speak a language no one understands and venerate saints no one has ever heard of. When Tehran attempted to use Shia Islam against Saddam’s Iraq during the bloody 1980-88 war, its efforts were an utter failure, and Iraq’s Shia Arab soldiers fought loyally for their country.

The Islamic Republic may be an unattractive regime that mistreats its people, declares war on its own intelligentsia, imprisons journalists, and creates gratuitous enemies among its neighbors instead of following its obvious national interests. If we speak of belts, however, we should speak of belts of Sunnis, Arabs, and Turkic peoples who keep Iran isolated in its region. That the fractious bumblers who run the Islamic Republic could ever revive a Persian Empire (based on Shia Islam or anything else) that disappeared over 1,300 years ago is nothing short of absurd.

— John Limbert, a retired Foreign Service Officer and scholar of Iran, is Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the US Naval Academy. He also earned his PhD in history and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard.

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  1. He might be the grand old man of foriegn policy but I’m sorry he is now the old senile man when it comes to US foriegn policy regarding Iran. He should not be given a platform in the media to speak about Iran!!

  2. Right idea – wrong application.
    If Kissinger had referred to Turkey then he would have made far more sense.
    Who said in 2012 “Whatever we lost between 1911 and 1923, whatever lands we withdrew from, we shall once again meet our brothers in those lands between 2011 to 2023”, referring to the World War I era and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and went on to say “We shall break the mould shaped for us by Sykes-Picot,” a year later ?
    Answer: Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s new Prime Minister (former Foreign Minister and Chair of the AKP) who is directly answerable to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s recently elected President, who clearly shares the same aspirations as his Prime Minister.
    Maybe Kissinger meant to say Turkey and not Iran/Persia?
    It is easy to get confused at his age.

  3. What can be expected from someone past his prime? Too bad that the American population is saddled with these old “cold warriors” still today. They sit in their own Ivory towers, replaying the days of glory when they held sway. Just another bumbler in the many halls of the neocon empire. I’m sure he got paid to perform this latest gig, by one of the political rightmeisters?

  4. Many thanks for this breath of fresh air, which is very unusual these days in any comments about Iran by most US pundits. The nonsense about a “Shia belt” was first concocted by King Abdullah of Jordan and his neocon friends in the United States when the toppling of Saddam Hussein led inevitably to the rise of the suppressed Shia majority in Iraqi politics. Sunni countries, especially Saudi Arabia, have never forgiven the United States for the loss of their client in Iraq whom they had sponsored by tens of billions of dollars during his eight-year long war against Iran, including the gassing of Iranians and the Kurds. Saudi Arabia has refused to recognize any post-Saddam Iraqi government and has not sent an ambassador to Iraq.

    Brzezinski’s misconceived “green belt” gave us the Islamic revolution in Iran, and the Mujahidin and the Taliban and eventually the Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The new “Sunni belt”, allegedly to stop the “Shia belt”, has given us Al Qaeda in Iraq, the mayhem in Syria and now the barbaric ISIS. As you point out, the Iraqis are Arab nationalists first and Shi’ites second, and their Shi’ism is not the same as Iran’s either. They follow Ayatollah Sistani rather than Ayatollah Khamenei, and when Nuri al-Maliki was warning against foreign interference he was referring as much to Iran as to the United States.

    One point which most pundits, including Kissinger, fail to understand is that the so-called Shia revolution has long passed its sell-by date and has lost its appeal not only to the Shiites in the region but to the majority of Iranians as well. All independent opinion polls show that only a tiny minority of Iranians, in single digits, are religious or support the mullahs. Finally, there is a real chance for the United States and Iran to resolve their differences and reach a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and start a new chapter in their relations, rather than to repeat neocon mantras about the “Shia belt”, Iran’s “nuclear ambitions” and a new Iranian Empire. It is ironic that the mullahs have done all in their power to undermine the glory of ancient Iran and even to stop millennia-old Iranian festivals, such as Nowruz and Mehregan. To think that these people wish to revive the Iranian empire is laughable and a sign of total ignorance of what is really happening in Iran. As Rumi says, “prejudice makes one blind”.

  5. Kissinger may be out of his milieu with Iran, and his suggestion that Iran is a ‘threat’ plays into the hands of those who would sabotage any nuclear deal with Iran, when it high time we normalized relations with that country. Though, had he referred instead to Iran’s growing influence through its geopolitical alliance with Iraq, Syria and the Hezbollah in Lebanon, and its developing ties with its other immediate neighbors both bilaterally and through organizations such as SCO of which it will soon be a member, or the stabilizing effect it would have in a presently chaotic region, especially if the stigma we have placed in it were removed, would he have been wrong?

    Furthermore, let’s be frank, he has the blood of many dead people on his hands in nations such as Vietnam, Chile, Argentina, Pakistan, East Timor, etc., but he and Nixon did lead the country to a rapprochement with China, something inconceivable at the time- in the beginning, even he himself is reported to have questioned it- and it is a major positive accomplishment of his career. Moreover, he meets with Putin frequently, as Putin himself has so noted, and does have a handle on U.S. Russia relations in a way that our Administration is sorely lacking. I’d suggest one read his March 5, 2014 Op-Ed in the Washington Post titled: “Henry Kissinger: To settle the Ukraine crisis, start at the end” – and that especially the President and his misguided Administration read it to reorient our policy. Unfortunately, up to now it is advice they and the mainstream media have studiously avoided.

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