DAVID IGNATIUS: Kissinger’s model for a stable Iran builds on history

By David Ignatius

CAMBRIDGE – Nobody can predict where the process of negotiation with Iran is headed, but here’s what I’d like to see: A broad dialogue that brings the rising power of Iran into a new security system in the Middle East in exchange for Iran’s commitment not to build nuclear weapons.
If you’re looking for a lucid explanation of how such a framework could be built, I recommend an unlikely source: It is Henry Kissinger’s doctoral dissertation, “A World Restored,” published in 1957. The book analyzed how the statesmen of early 19th-century Europe created a new security architecture that brought post-revolutionary France – the destabilizing, upstart power of its day – into an accommodation with Britain and the other status-quo powers through the 1815 Congress of Vienna.
I heard Kissinger discuss these issues recently when he visited Harvard for a conversation that filled the university’s largest auditorium. A graduate student, Jessica Blankshain, asked the former secretary of state about his thesis, written 55 years ago, and quoted his admonition that a statesman’s job is to harmonize the just with the possible. Later, at a dinner given by Harvard President Drew Faust, Kissinger talked about how the 1815 reconstruction of Europe might be a model for drawing Iran into a new and more stable Middle East.
The event was moving. It offered Kissinger, at 88, a platform for reflection about the costs of war and the challenges of diplomacy. “If the statesmen of 1914 had known what the world would look like in 1919, would they ever have gone to war?” he asked the students. Of course not, but as Kissinger observed a few moments later: “In office, you have to act as if you’re sure what you’re doing. You don’t get rewarded for your doubts.”
Back to Iran, and the process of reconciling revolutionary nations with status-quo powers. What Kissinger explored in his dissertation was the creation of a new “concert of Europe” in 1815, after the Napoleonic wars, through the diplomacy of Austria’s Count Metternich and Britain’s Lord Castlereagh: They were “statesmen of the equilibrium, seeking security in a balance of forces. Their goal was stability, not perfection.”
The upheaval of today’s Middle East is surely comparable to the disorder in Europe that followed the French revolution and, under Napoleon’s banner, spread military turmoil across the continent. The Middle East still hasn’t absorbed the Iranian revolution of 1979, let alone the Arab Spring that is shaking the Sunni world. It’s a region begging for a new concert of nations that accommodates conservative monarchies and new republics.
Kissinger’s description of revolutionary Europe might have been written about the Iran of the ayatollahs: “It is the essence of a revolutionary power that it possesses the courage of its convictions, that it is willing, indeed eager, to push its principles to their ultimate conclusion.” Such ascendant powers can be checked only by a system that accepts their rise and limits the most harmful effects.
Restoring the old order is impossible, now as it was in 1815. But we can imagine a different order that establishes new lines of legitimacy and collaboration. The diplomacy that enables such transformations is “the art of restraining the exercise of power,” wrote Kissinger of his protagonists, Metternich and Castlereagh. About modern Iran, Kissinger has observed, the essential requirement is that it behave like a nation rather than a cause, operating in a rules-based system of nations. Once this happens, Iran can be a force for regional stability, not disorder.
David Ignatius writes for The Washington Post. His email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.