Tuesday, January 1, 2008

A 'China opening' to Iran?

By Jeremi Suri, The Boston Globe
Tuesday, July 24, 2007

In July 1971, Henry Kissinger, acting as President Nixon's special representative, secretly traveled to Beijing. Kissinger's voyage provided the basis for a dramatic opening in relations between the United States and China - two nations estranged from one another for more than 20 years.

Convulsed by internal upheavals and surrounded by regional threats, Chinese leaders viewed relations with Washington as a possible anchor for stability.

Beset by a deepening military quagmire in Vietnam, deteriorating relations with traditional allies, and pervasive protests at home, the White House was desperate for a diplomatic overture that would show some political promise before the upcoming presidential election.

Today, the historical parallels are striking. President Bush confronts a civil war in Iraq with no end in sight, American standing abroad has plummeted and domestic opposition to present policies is growing.

America's long time adversary, Iran, similarly contends with a clash of generations and worldviews at home, as well as a cast of external challengers, including the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN Security Council. Leaders in Washington and Tehran need one another. The White House should pursue a "China opening" with Iran.

Although Kissinger's insights from the Vietnam War have not helped in Iraq, his maneuvers with China do provide a model for navigating relations with Iran:

Open multiple channels of communication.

The most difficult impediment to new relations with old adversaries is history. China and the United States had no institutional or interpersonal basis for initiating a constructive bilateral relationship. Nixon and Kissinger took advantage of nearly every channel for communicating with Beijing. They enlisted diverse figures in Pakistan, Poland, Romania, West Germany, France, the Netherlands, and the Vatican to pass messages to the Chinese leadership. Getting discussions started required consistent, determined efforts in the White House.

Talk while fighting.

Opening a dialogue with an adversary does not preclude continued conflict. Kissinger and Nixon never believed that by engaging the Chinese leadership they had to forsake their strategic responsibilities in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea or South Vietnam. In fact, the United States reaffirmed its commitment to each of these governments as Kissinger traveled to Beijing in July 1971. The point of negotiations with the Chinese was to make these commitments more secure by insuring greater mutual understanding and respect.

Emphasize personal relationships.

Nixon and Kissinger understood that demonizing their adversaries diminished Washington's leverage. Despite their monstrous deeds, the Chinese leaders were smart and pragmatic. Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai recognized the same qualities in their American counterparts. The leaders of the two states worked to build respect despite their differences. Personal bonds allowed for a probing of possible compromises.

Avoid "total" solutions.

U.S. and Chinese leaders avoided discussion of overarching strategic solutions. They remained deadlocked on Taiwan, Vietnam and the Korean peninsula. Instead, they emphasized small steps - youth exchanges, the transfer of prisoners, avenues for trade. These symbolic agreements created a foundation for negotiations about security in later years.

Normalize the diplomatic process.

In the end, the opening to China illustrated the importance of process. Despite conflict, relations between Washington and Beijing improved because both sides felt a stake in maintaining dialogue. They committed to ongoing efforts at mutual agreement.

The present Iranian regime is as dangerous and violent as Communist China at its worst. To call for an opening to this regime does not deny this fact. Isolation and recrimination, however, do not make for effective policy. The history of improved relations between Washington and Beijing since 1971 provides reason to believe that discussions are possible between the United States and Iran.

At the least, an opening to Iran is worth a try. If it fails, the Bush administration will gain credibility for seeking to break out of the recurring cycle of violence in the Middle East. If it succeeds, it will mark a rare moment of foreign policy achievement for the Bush administration.

Jeremi Suri, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is author of "Henry Kissinger and the American Century." This article first appeared in The Boston Globe. [Tuesday, July 24, 2007 < http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/07/24/opinion/edsuri.php >]

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