Kissinger’s Dangerously Flawed Views on Iran

by Eldar Mamedov

There are few people in the universe of US foreign policy with the standing and prestige of Henry Kissinger. He is still actively giving his opinions and recommendations on critical diplomatic issues. All the more concerning, then, that on some of them his analysis is increasingly out of touch with reality. The danger is that the Kissinger’s imprimatur confers on some seriously flawed ideas an intellectual respectability that would otherwise have been lacking. Relations with Iran are a case in point.

In a recent article Kissinger warned that the defeat of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS or IS) would lead to a consolidation of an “Iranian radical empire” if the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and their “Shiite allies” in Iraq and Syria inherit the territory currently occupied by IS.

Whatever the reasons prompting someone with the reputation of preeminent realist to parrot this neoconservative mantra, the talk of a “radical Iranian empire” is utter nonsense, with dangerous implications if followed by the policymakers.

The reality that escapes Kissinger is that Iran’s regional policy is of a fundamentally defensive nature. Unlike other states in the region, Iran has no external security provider. While Turkey is a member of NATO and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and Israel enjoy an extensive security relationship with the US, Iran can only rely on itself. The war with Iraq, when almost the entire world rallied behind Baghdad against Tehran, has made Iranians painfully aware of this reality, and to this day deeply permeates their security thinking.

To neutralize or mitigate threats, Iran has cultivated a network of allies and proxies in the Middle East, which could be deployed as a forward defense in order to keep threats away from Iran’s borders. Contrary to the myth of the Shiite character of the new empire Iran is supposedly building, these forces are neither ideologically nor religiously homogenous: the spectrum spans from conventional Shiite Islamists like Lebanese Hezbollah to secular dictators like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to Sunni fundamentalists like Hamas and even to a flirtation with Wahhabi Qatar when the opportunity presented itself.

On the other hand, as the recent visit of politically prominent Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to Saudi Arabia has shown, Iran is very far from controlling the political life of what are supposed to be the integral parts of its “empire.” The government of Iraq, even if Shia-dominated, has never been Tehran’s puppet. Even if the majority of Iraqis are Shias, they are also Arabs, and it would be foolish to dismiss the potency of Arab nationalism.

There is no evidence whatsoever that the majority of Shias in Iraq—or other Arab countries where their presence is significant like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia—see themselves as part of a Persian-led “empire,” subscribe to the unorthodox velayat-e fakih (the rule of the religious jurist) import from Iran, or recognize the Ayatollah Khamenei, rather than, for example, Ayatollah Sistani, as their supreme spiritual and political authority. Any sympathy for Iran to be found in those countries is largely a product of severe domestic repression of the local Shias by the Sunni monarchies rather than an imperial Iranian design—a point that Kissinger conveniently neglects to mention.

Further to the west, Syria’s secular dictatorship has relied heavily on Iran for its survival. But Iran is not the only actor in the country. Assad’s regime also has close ties with Russia, who is on the same side as Iran in that country’s war but not with identical interests. And in Lebanon, although Hezbollah undoubtedly has close ideological and operational links with Iran, it is first and foremost a grassroots Lebanese organization: an ally, not a client, of Iran.

If Kissinger were right, then Iran would have been well on its way to imposing on the region the kind of top-down relationship enjoyed by the Soviet Union vis-à-vis its satellites in Central Europe after the defeat of the Nazi Germany. Yet, as the examples above suggest, Iran is simply not powerful enough to accomplish that even if it sincerely wanted to. As a result, Iran, like other regional players, has to adapt to a set of constantly shifting regional dynamics at least as much as it contributes to shaping them. Iran is an opportunist rather than an imperial power.

For the sake of argument, however, let’s imagine for a moment that Kissinger is right, that a “radical Iranian empire” is indeed in the cards, and that such a nefarious development must be prevented at all cost. Although he doesn’t say so directly, Kissinger is implying that the US has to ensure the survival of IS to balance the “Iranian empire.” Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), a close ally of President Trump, already muttered an idea along these lines in the wake of the IS-perpetrated terrorist attacks in Tehran in June this year. Although not even Iran uber-hawks support Rohrabacher’s loathsome views, this idea, when endorsed by someone of Kissinger’s stature, could become much more influential, especially in the current climate of demonization of Iran in Washington.

Although Iran is certainly not sinless, there is no reason to single it out as a uniquely malign influence in the region. And under no circumstances should the US even consider supporting or tolerating in any way a vicious terrorist organization like IS. To the contrary, its imminent defeat should be used by all responsible actors in the region and beyond as an opportunity to start talks on a truly inclusive, multilateral regional security arrangement, with the legitimate interests of all states on board. Nothing is to be gained by the perpetuation of zero-sum games of the sort advocated by Henry Kissinger in his latest, misguided essay.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.

*This article was modified on August 11, 2017 to reflect Dana Rohrabacher’s party affiliation.

Eldar Mamedov

Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.



  1. Excellent article. How ever, you say that it is not clear why Kissenger is mouthing these anti- Iranian views .I have some thoughts on the evolving ME situation and the tilt against Iran and pro Saudi, which I have expressed in the attached blog.

    President Trump’s new Middle East Peace Initiative.

    While on his recent visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel, President Trump, also announced that he would initiate another effort to bring about peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. In Israel, after meeting Prime Minister Netanyahu, he announced that Israel would be ready to negotiate peace with a serious and willing Palestinian partner. Sounds encouraging. Even more so since Candidate Trump had stated he no longer believes in a two-state solution to the Israeli- Palestinian problem and on coming to office would move the US Embassy to Israel to Jerusalem.
    On assuming office, President Trump appointed Mr. Jared Kushner his son in law, who is also Jewish, to be his special emissary on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Kushner, has made several visits to both Saudi Arabia and Israel and has reportedly cultivated a good relationship with Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), the new Crown Prince.
    Normally Kushner would have had an impossible task ahead of him. Israel has in the past, not agreed to any significant concessions to the Palestinians and Kushner cannot pressure the Israelis very much lest he anger President Trump’s supporters in the USA. The Arabs have also balked at any solution that favors Israelis blatantly and this had become a zero-sum game.
    However, we may be seeing some light at the end of this tunnel in the changing geo-political situation in the Middle East.
    Israel’s main interests are that of legitimizing its claim on Palestinian territory occupied by the settlers in the West Bank and establishing a “new normal”. To this end it needs to normalize relations with the Arab world. The nasty ongoing sectarian conflict in the Middle East could provide it a good opportunity to maximize its gains in any peace deal and come away with getting all it wants and giving up very little in exchange.
    President Trump’s interests coincide with those of the Israelis. He would like to be remembered as somebody who brought about a solution of this festering conflict, where numerous past Presidents have failed, without having to pressure Israel to make any significant concessions.
    For this strategy to succeed the US needs to soften up the Palestinians before they come to the negotiating table and neutralize their main supporters. In the past, these have included the Arab countries, including Syria and the Iranians.
    The current US policy in the middle east which targets Iran as the main enemy, a view shared by most Arab states in the neighborhood, underlies the new geopolitical architecture emerging in the middle-east and is very likely to get it the support that it requires from the Arabs.
    The Times of London reported on June 17, 2017 that-
    “Jared Kushner, has discussed an “outside-in” approach, by which Gulf states would improve ties with Israel as a prelude to a peace agreement — and full recognition of Israel by Gulf and Arab states. Saudi Arabia and Israel are in talks to establish economic ties, a dramatic move that would put the Jewish state on a path to normal relations with the bastion of Sunni Islam and guardian of the two sacred Muslim cities”.
    Although Israel has no fear of Iran from a purely military point of view, it has found Iranian support to be a problem since this enabled arms and other supplies being smuggled in to Gaza to support Hamas thru its proxies, notably Hezbollah. It also needs an air corridor over Saudi Arabia in case an attack on Iran becomes necessary. Just insurance to keep the Iranians in check! In the current environment, both seem within its grasp.
    Iranian support for Palestine is no longer guaranteed after the Palestinians have openly sided with the Saudis and against the Iranian in the ongoing conflict between the two in the Middle East. The improving Israeli-Saudi relations coupled with an aggressive anti Iran Saudi kingdom under MbS is likely to give it the air access it needs.
    Israel also has an interest in curbing/eliminating the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, since the Brotherhood has been a staunch supporter of Hamas which controls Gaza. However, these concerns are also shared by Gen. Assisi, the Saudis and the rulers of the Gulf States. This was brought out clearly a few years ago, when the Assisi Government shortly after seizing power in Egypt and at the insistence of the Saudis, closed the Al-Rifah crossing from Gaza to Egypt. This crossing had been opened by the Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood Government and had become the main supply line for the Gaza strip.
    Now Qatar one of the Gulf States, does provide significant aid to the Palestinians and the main funding for re-building Gaza after the Israeli invasion of a few years ago. Its refraining from outright condemnation of the Muslim Brotherhood, is also of concern to Israel. The London times report cited above goes on to say-
    “The possibility of closer ties with Israel would partly explain why Saudi Arabia and its allies have imposed a sweeping blockade on Qatar, to force the Gulf state to drop its support for Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood, an anathema to both Saudi Arabia and Egypt. ”
    With the Qatar blockade, the only possible holdout to the US sponsored peace deal has been neutralized. The remaining supporter, the Syrians, are in no position to help them.
    What could be the contours of the new deal? A return to the 1967 borders? Not by a long shot. It will possibly be an agreement, that preserves the present borders in the West Bank with minor adjustments to trade some land for the areas on which the Israelis have built settlements. In return Israel will agree to full statehood to the Palestinian authority.
    With pressure from all the above and no support from anybody, Mahmoud Abbas the President of the Palestinian Authority is likely to give in and sign on the dotted line. He will doubtlessly be reminded that Palestinian agreement at Camp David under the President Carter initiative resulted in creation of the Palestinian Authority and President Arafat’s walking out at the Clinton initiative resulted in no gains and a worsening of the situation. In effect, he will be told that “This is an offer he cannot refuse”.
    If he does sign, President Abbas will sell the rump state that he gets to his own people by blaming Hamas’s intransigent approach towards Israel which has resulted in lost opportunities.
    And, guess what- President Trump, Mahmoud Abbas, Mr. Netanyahu and MBS may share next year’s Nobel Prize for Peace!
    Your views would be appreciated.

  2. One must regret the utter rubbish coming from Henry Kissinger, regarding an Iranian “empire” resulting from the defeat of Isis in Syria.

  3. Thank you for the Excellent article!
    Not sure why this Zionist war criminal is given a platform to speak or write? Obviously those who support him as well are war criminals and they must be caught, tried and hanged if convicted!
    These A-holes never get it and humanity ought be embarrassed by having these animals amongst them!

  4. Henry Kissinger has done enormous damage both to the USA and the world. As an east European from a racist, minority sect, he has never been an American. We should have jailed him for crimes against humanity long ago.

  5. If we don’t support Iran in this fight against ISIS then we should NOT declare Iran a Terrorist state. We need to declare our stand clearly and show our support for those who are fighting the fight and bleeding for our security. Even Mr. Kissinger believe in “Enemy of my Enemy is my Friend”. However, Mr. Kissinger, an old Zionist is not able to make a clear choice here that would only benefit his country, but he is regurgitating BIBI’s language from the Zionist state. That is a shame. I never had much respect for the man. We lost in Vietnam and he can’t separate his legacy from that catastrophic event in American history.

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