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Kissinger warns about the Iranian threat

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger talks to NBC about the state of the world today, the proliferation of nuclear warheads and what decisions the US must grapple with in the future.
/ Source: NBC 'Nightly News' contributor

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger spoke with NBC News about the state of the world today, the proliferation of nuclear warheads and what decisions the US must grapple with in the future.

Where does a nuclear Iran rank on a list of American security concerns?
It ranks very high, partly by accident. Partly by the fact that it’s the next country. And partly by the fact that it has a government that has demonstrated great hostility over a long period of time.  But our concern should be great, regardless of the government, essentially because of the government. Because each expansion of the nuclear club brings with it comparable countries who then feel they have to, that they are entitled to do the same thing.

Iran first of all has a terrorist capability but also it would bring with it Turkey, Egypt, similar-type countries and, at some point, the nuclear problem is going to get out of control, at some very early point. I would argue at this point. And so both for symbolic and practical reasons, a really big effort should be made to keep Iran from going nuclear.

Are you talking about a new domino effect?
Any foreign policy decision of significance has some domino effect, I know that’s a word that's not in good standing right now. So if one says domino and I’ve gone through the domino effect theory myself early — in an earlier phase of my commenting on international affairs — but I’m saying that we're focused on terrorism, and it’s a real problem, but we should be even more worried about a world of proliferation. And it really should be thought of both in relation to Iran but in relation to what we may face generally, because that is the world in which we may have to make major decisions in the foreseeable future.

You suggested the other week that it would essentially change everything about American policy.
In my own personal experience, the problem that concerned me most was not the headlines of the day. One way or the other, I thought, we would manage it, then make decisions that would move things in a certain direction that would then create its new reality. [That] which in my heart I had no answer, is how do you justify the use of nuclear weapons in a general nuclear war? And how do you not threaten to use these nuclear weapons and maintain American security?

How to strike that balance? Those were the anguishing periods of when things were creeping toward a possibility of nuclear confrontation and, on the other hand, to avoid it you could leave no question that you were willing to creep. Now this was a two-power world, which of the society whose calculations, we could more or less understand and it had a lot to lose. And we brought it out and all other administrations brought it out, this was not something peculiar to the administration.          

Now if you imagine a world of 30 nuclear powers, deterring each other by criteria, very hard to calculate, affecting us with their nuclear capabilities and the alignments they might cause. And the intentions they might generate from other observers of this situation. And if you add to it what we've already seen in the disposition of nuclear weapons by Pakistan, a friendly country. That, whose weapons in so-called private hands spread to Libya, North Korea, and we offer to Iran or we give them to Iran, then the possibilities of extreme action somewhere along the line, would rise.         

Supposing a nuclear weapon went off anywhere in the world, New Delhi, New York, Europe, and 100,000 people got killed, not 3,000. The trade center was relatively tame. People got killed in one place. The civic structure of the city was barely affected. All hospitals were operating. All social services were intact. It was a terrible tragedy, but if much of a town is wiped out and all social services collapse, two things happen: one, the impact on that society. But impact on the consciousness of people everywhere. Even today families wonder what may happen to their children under conditions of terrorism. But not yet accurately. But supposing they have to think that they really might loose everything in one minute. Totally unpredictable. You will get new demands on international relations in my view, for which we're not prepared anywhere in any country and then you might get demands that these nuclear weapons have to be brought under some international control.

I have no precise idea how to do all of this. I’m just saying it’s a different world then. Which in a way equalizes power by balance of terror and it’s a world we should try to avoid. So I’m more conscious of the problem than of the solution. I’m not saying I have a master plan for doing this. 

Do you think that if you look at red lines being crossed, is a nuclear Iran more destabilizing than nuclear Pakistan or North Korea?
A nuclear North Korea is slightly less destabilizing only because where it is and because of the low prestige of the country and the poverty of the country, but I would conceptually put North Korea in the same category as Iran. But I can think more easily on how to deal with North Korea because I think at the end of the day it is not conceivable to me that when Japan, the United States, and China agree, that they cannot bring a miserable country like North Korea that spends over 40 percent of its GNP on military and that has no real resources that we can not bring it to heel, then you can't even think of international order any more if you couldn’t do that. So there I think it’s just on the hopes of tactical dilemma with North Korea.  I think that somehow will be taken care of.

But [Iran is] tough because it has its big oil resources.  It’s a much larger population, it’s a much more sophisticated population, and it has all these ties into the Middle East and is a much greater symbol. So I think Iran is a very tough case for it.

How about something dramatic in the same way of Secretary Rice visiting?  That would change the dynamic.
Well generally for bold strokes. But when I went to China it was at the end of three years of reparations; I didn’t just pack my bags and go on a train and say, 'now next stop is China.' Secondly, you could calculate at that time that rationally there had to be common interest between China and us because the Soviet Union had moved 42 divisions to the Chinese border, they were engaged in all kinds of threatening acts. And if the Chinese government had any element of sanity, which we didn’t fully know at that time, they needed some anger outside of Asia, there wasn't anyone in Asia strong enough to counterbalance that.

With Iran I don’t yet see under conditions of good preparation, and if the Iranians say to us, 'look we agree with your analogies,' some analogies like this, but we have our own problems, we have our own security problems. And we have other issues, but if you can solve those we will fully meet your nuclear concerns.  I think we should then have a conversation.  

But we're not really trying...
Well this is sort of a good-cop, bad-cop problem. In our government there are 2 schools of thought, as far as I understand. There's one school of thought that believes that creators of these problems, and especially the Iranian problem, is to overthrow the government. And then if you can get regime change, you have a more benevolent government, your fears will be less. And if you're lucky, and I think more than lucky in that case, they will want to do away with nuclear weapons.  The other side of that argument is, first of all, I don’t know how easy it is, to replace that government and whether that can depend on a policy decision of the United States. And I don’t know whether the successive government is willing to give up nuclear weapons.

Why would they, there's no indication...
And therefore we would have a problem with a more liberal government, then we would be more restrained from bringing pressure on them. So, one debate which will undoubtedly have to take place is between regime change advocates and those who believe in other processes.  Right now it is not yet an issue because we are at an initial phase, which I’ll agree with and let the Europeans see what they can get. We are really ... we are not in the negotiation, but we are part of the negotiation in the sense that the principal incentive the Iranians have to be flexible is fear of what America might do if they were not flexible.  

Describe the good cop / bad cop...
I think it’s pretty coherent, and I think it’s in place, but there're two problems down the road. Problem one is:  When do you know it has failed?  How do we decide that? On the Iraq question, it was precisely the issue in which we and Europeans...

The second question is presuming that we agreed that it has failed, how do we, what methods of sticks and carrots are then available in the next phase? And when we reach these phases, we have to decide ourselves, whether regime change or negotiation. Negotiation may be leading to a showdown.  It’s the appropriate strategy.

But you think there's time to work all this out?
Time is against us. The first decision in my opinion that we have to take and the first factual judgment that we have to make is the answer to your question, how much time do we have?  That hopefully is a largely technical question.  We ought to get, and this is something we should do with our allies, we ought to get the leading scientists of each government together, give them all the intelligence we have and say, 'Where are we?' And at what point this is irreversible. And then everything has to be geared to a point short of irreversibility.

Some kind of a grand bargain, similar to way the Chinese wanted something?
For Iran it isn’t so hard to get respect; Iran is not North Korea.  If I were, as a professor, talking to students, I could say grand bargain, what interest do they have, what interest do we have? Historically they bargained under the shah, and even before, the idea was the threat to Iran’s survival does not come from the United States, it comes from neighboring countries.  That’s because of geography, history, contiguity, so therefore, America has no national interest in impairing the independence of Iran. So it’s not hard for us to give assurances in almost any form on security, you could even imagine cooperating with Iran on security.             

So that bargain should be doable if they're genuinely willing to give up nuclear weapons, but if they use the negotiations just as a subterfuge to, to do what the North Koreans did ... after the very edge of the agreement so that any day they could break it and be in the nuclear field, then it becomes much more complicated. At some point it has to lead to negotiations between Iran and us, there's no doubt about that.

How important is Putin?
Russia in many ways has much more to lose from the nuclear program in Iran in the short term than we do. Because the contiguous Muslim republic of the Soviet Union of Russia could be and probably would be directly affected by such a technological capability. So, in my view, and even a little more than view, I believe Putin does not want the nuclear capability in Russia and we have to understand, he went through a sort of, dance, in which he was trying, as so many do, to get the economic benefits of giving them nuclear power while retaining the ability to control the product of the nuclear power. He went too far along the first track about 2 years ago. But in my view he has started pulling it back by requiring that all the plutonium that is produced has to be reprocessed inn Russia and it was agreed to by Iran.

So I think that this is a positive move by Russia. Russia will have to face, as we will have to face — what'll we do if none of this works? Because after all, they could refuse to deliver the latest quantity, fully processing or any number of things.  My gut feeling from a slight knowledge of Putin is that if it came to a showdown, Russia for its own interests, not for love of America, would probably support us. Probably more than the Europeans.

Do you feel that this problem is under-attended to in the world today?
In any government, there's always a tendency that the urgent drives out the important. There're 50 cables you've gotta answer on attacks on Humvees in Iraq and similar things, and one of the hardest things to get organized in any government, including when I was in government is you tell somebody its a problem. And now, start thinking about it, and to keep that exercise from becoming an academic paper, you can get planning papers written, that nobody reads. You have to build the process of thinking about the future into the attention span of those who will have to make the decisions, because if you don’t, you just have a theoretical exercise laying around and some document.

And the consequences?
Government in some ways needs to prepare itself like athletes do, in the sense that the reason athletes keep repeating, is so they can do them almost automatically and don’t have to think too much. I think governments have to think about their problems before they are on them. Because when the problem actually arises, and there's usually total confusion as to what’s going on and then you spend more of your time collecting facts. At least that’s my experience.

And so it’s very important to do conceptual thinking, but the temptation is to slough it off to some academic type and not really build it into uh, into your system.  That’s a problem for any administration. I tried to solve it when I was there by having the policy planning chief in every day-to-day decision so that the operators knew that if they wanted something done, he could be an ally. But there're other ways of doing it.

What’s going through your mind on 30th anniversary of withdrawal from Saigon?
Well, I’ve written about it.  For me it’s a great sadness. It’s, I mean, journalists know the protests. I know the people who dedicated themselves to making it.  In all public mythology people talk of failure. To me the problem is how heartbreakingly close we came to success on at least two occasions, one at the end of the Johnson administration, the other at the end of the Nixon first term.

And my deep conviction that we did it to ourselves, that we could not mobilize, enough to pull it by the best people. To go that, that difficult road, maybe we shouldn’t have gone in, in the Kennedy and Johnson administration, but you can't turn these things off like the television channel. To me it’s a sadness but I don’t participate in the debates and I don’t go around accusing people.  But some day we will have to analyze it and ask ourselves how we got into it and what led to the major turning points. And what were the major turning points.