Reset: Stephen Kinzer’s Vision of a New US Relationship With Turkey and Iran

Reset: Stephen Kinzer

Until quite recently, it seemed that Turkey had a clearly defined role in the Middle East, from the standpoint of US policy. They were the “good Muslims,” who were part of NATO, who contributed troops to US wars, and who had good relations with Israel.

In the past few weeks, therefore, some Americans may have been startled to see the government of Turkey seemingly playing a very different role. First, together with Brazil, Turkey negotiated a nuclear fuel swap agreement with Iran to defuse the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program and forestall a controversial US/Israeli push for new sanctions against Iran at the UN. Although the deal was very similar to one proposed by the Obama administration – and Brazil and Turkey had a letter from Obama encouraging them to press forward with the deal – Obama administration officials dismissed the deal and, far from being grateful to Turkey and Brazil, made a show of being angry. But instead of being chastened, Turkey and Brazil insisted their deal was good – invoking their letter from Obama to demonstrate their case – and insisted that the US should pursue it.

Meanwhile – with much more spectacular results, as it turned out – Turkey gave indirect backing to an international convoy of ships carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza in protest and defiance of the US-approved Israeli-Egyptian siege of Gaza’s civilian population. When the Israeli military attacked the convoy, killing nine Turkish citizens, Turkey threatened to break diplomatic relations with Israel unless Israel apologized, agreed to an international investigation of the attack and lifted the blockade on Gaza. Meanwhile, Turkey sharply criticized the Obama administration’s unwillingness to condemn the Israeli attack or to support an international investigation. In the wake of this high-profile confrontation, Egypt announced that it would leave its border with Gaza open indefinitely and went so far as to claim credit for having broken the blockade.”

Does Turkey’s new, more independent foreign policy represent a threat to America? Or might Turkey’s new policies present an opportunity for a new alignment that addresses and de-escalates the conflicts of the broader Middle East?

Since many Americans know little about Turkey, many may find it plausible when Liz Cheney claimed, “it looks like” Turkey is “supporting Hamas” in “wanting to destroy the state of Israel.”

It’s a very opportune time to hear from former New York Times correspondent and bestselling author Stephen Kinzer, whose new book “Reset: Iran, Turkey and America’s Future” is published today. Kinzer argues that the world has changed sufficiently since the cold war so that a fundamental rebalancing of US relationships in the Middle East, away from excessive attachment to the current policies of the Israeli and Saudi governments and toward greater cooperation with Turkey and Iran, would be in the interests of the United States.

Kinzer’s case for a new relationship with Turkey and Iran may strike many Americans as unintuitive, particularly in the case of Iran. But Kinzer’s basic point is that a strategic vision for the future isn’t merely an extrapolation from the present: it’s an ability to envision a future realignment that would be fundamentally different, just as President Nixon saw the possibility for a fundamentally different relationship between the US and China, based on “mutual interests and mutual respect,” as President Obama put it in his speech to the Turkish Parliament in April 2009.

Kinzer begins his case with the story of Howard Baskerville, the Rachel Corrie, if you will, of US-Iran relations: a young American whose life and death suggests the possibility of a different relationship between the US and Iran, one based on sympathy for Iranian national aspirations. Baskerville was a Presbyterian schoolteacher from Nebraska working in the city of Tabriz when royalist forces supported by Russia and Britain – who had agreed between themselves in 1907 to partition the country into spheres of influence – laid siege to the city during the Constitutional Revolution. Baskerville – like the nine Turks – was trying to break the siege when he was killed by a sniper in April 1909. Today, Kinzer notes, Baskerville is among the most honored foreigners in Iran: schools and streets are named after him; a bust of him is on display at Constitution House in Tabriz.

Another American in Iran in this period, whose contribution suggested the possibility of a different relationship between the US and Iran, was Morgan Shuster, appointed treasurer general of Persia by the Iranian Parliament in May 1911. The goal of his appointment was to assist the Iranian Parliament in resisting British and Russian control. Shuster argued that it was essential for the effective functioning of the Iranian state for it to be able to collect taxes – including from wealthy landowners under British and Russian protection. The Russians and the British had other ideas and, in December 1911, Russia demanded that Parliament dismiss Shuster in 48 hours and promise not to employ foreigners without the permission of the Russians and the British. When Parliament refused to comply, Russian troops occupied Tehran, and under Russian and British pressure, Shuster was dismissed.

In February 1921, in the face of widespread Iranian resistance to direct British control, the commander of British forces in Iran, Gen. Edmond Ironside, told Reza Shah that if he staged a coup, Britain would not object. Four days later, Shah successfully carried out a coup. Although Shah came to power with British support, he took some measures to limit British influence and when he tried to keep Iran neutral in World War II, Britain forced him to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Shah, in September 1941.

After the war, many Iranians wanted and expected more democracy and more freedom from British control and, by 1950, Mohammad Mossadegh was a key standard-bearer of these two ideas. When the American oil company Aramco made a 50-50 split of oil revenues with Saudi Arabia, Iranians demanded the same deal from the British-controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now known as British Petroleum.) But the British refused to raise Iran’s 16 percent share. In response to the British refusal to negotiate, in the spring of 1951, the Parliament voted to nationalize Iran’s oil and made Mossadegh Prime Minister.

To prevent Iran from successfully reclaiming its oil, Britain ordered all British oil technicians to return home; mounted a boycott campaign to make sure oil technicians from other countries did not come to Iran; persuaded oil companies in other countries, including the US, to refuse to buy any oil Iran produced; imposed a naval blockade on Iran to prevent tankers from entering to pick up oil; froze Iran’s accounts in London; and stopped exporting key commodities to Iran. Sound familiar?

These measures, of course, brought tremendous economic hardship to Iran. Unemployment and poverty increased. But the Iranian government under Mossadegh refused to capitulate to British pressure. Britain tried its hand at “democracy promotion” – bribing members of Iran’s Parliament to support a no-confidence notion against Mossadegh – but their plotting was discovered, and Mossadegh shut down the British Embassy, sending home all the British “diplomats” – including the British spies who had been assigned the task of overthrowing him. The British turned to the Truman Administration, but Truman wasn’t interested in promoting regime change in Iran, believing that the impasse was largely due to excessive British greed. But the incoming Eisenhower administration was easily sold on the idea of promoting regime change.

How did CIA operative Kermit Roosevelt orchestrate the coup that ousted Mossadegh? Today it would be called “democracy promotion,” and perhaps it would be funded by the so-called National Endowment for Democracy. Roosevelt bribed “newspaper columnists, mullahs and members of Parliament” to denounce Mossaedegh; they called him “an atheist, a Jew, a homosexual, and even a British agent,” Kinzer notes. Roosevelt hired a street gang to rampage through Tehran, “firing pistols and smashing windows while shouting, ‘We love Mossadegh and Communism!'” Then, Roosevelt hired a second street gang to attack the first one, “seeking to portray Mossadegh as unable to control his own capital city.” A mob of several thousand, unaware that it was acting under the direction of the CIA, converged on Mossadegh’s house. Military units began shelling the house. Hundreds of people were killed. Mossadegh was arrested and imprisoned for three years, followed by house arrest for life.

If Truman’s view had won out rather than Eisenhower’s, and the US had not overthrown Mossadegh, perhaps today we would know Mossadegh as a George Washington of Iran. The “murder of Hamlet’s dad” of the Kinzer story is that, instead of supporting a George Washington of Iran, we overthrew him, because he nationalized Iran’s oil. And the central question of the Kinzer story is not avenging the death of Hamlet’s dad, but trying to rectify it, with the goal being that the end of the story not be a stage littered with bodies, but a negotiated agreement and a new relationship.

To illustrate the enduring impact of the coup on US-Iran relations, Kinzer relates a story told by Bruce Laingen, the senior American diplomat held hostage in Iran after students took over the US embassy in 1979, motivated in part by fears of another US-backed coup. One day, after Laingen had spent more than a year as a hostage, one of his captors visited him in his cell. Laingen exploded, shouting that this hostage-taking was immoral, illegal and “totally wrong.” His captor replied: “You have nothing to complain about. The United States took our whole country hostage in 1953.”

Yet, in response to a reporter’s question in February 1980 about the coup – almost a year before Laingen’s interaction with the guard – then-President Carter said, “That’s ancient history and I don’t think it’s appropriate or helpful for me to go into the propriety of something that happened 30 years ago.”

If it’s true, as many are fond of saying, that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” then an obvious corollary would be that those who want to repeat history have a vested interest in keeping history off the table of discussion. And when one considers the policies being advocated by the likes of The Washington Post editorial board toward Iran today, they bear a strong resemblance to the policies adopted by Britain and the US toward Iran in 1953: sanctions, “democracy promotion,” regime change.

In his speech in Cairo a year ago, President Obama acknowledged US involvement in the 1953 coup, the first US president to do so. “In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government,” Obama said.

Of course, the US intervention did not end with the 1953 coup; for the next 25 years, the US strongly backed the shah’s autocratic rule. Kinzer writes: “With the United States firmly behind him, the shah became an absolute dictator.” Several members of Congress raised questions about human rights; they were told that the shah had made “important changes” and there was a “gratifying trend” toward respect for dissent. But as Kinzer notes, Amnesty International observed in 1975 that “no country in the world has a worse record in human rights than Iran.”

Meanwhile, President Carter, who had claimed that “human rights is the soul of our foreign policy,” had this to say to the shah in late 1977: “Iran, under the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world. This is a great tribute to you, your Majesty and to your leadership – and to the respect, admiration and love which your people give to you.” A year later, throngs of Iranian were chanting: “Death to the American Shah!” And in January 1979, the shah fled.

But even after the shah fell, from the point of view of many Iranians, US intervention in Iran did not cease. It is believed by many Iranians that the US had a hand in Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade Iran in 1980. What is beyond dispute is that the US vigorously backed Iraq during the war, at a time when “American intelligence officers knew that Iraqi commanders would employ chemical weapons” against Iran, according to an August 2002 report in The New York Times, which noted, “Iraq’s use of gas in that conflict is repeatedly cited by President Bush … as justification for ‘regime change’ in Iraq.”

But despite this history, Kinzer notes, after the 9/11 attacks, Iran actively collaborated with the US against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, common foes. The State Department produced a report saying that the US had a “real opportunity” to remake its relationship with Iran, a report endorsed by the CIA. But in January 2002, to the bewilderment of the Iranians, President Bush denounced Iran as part of an “axis of evil.” Nonetheless, a year later, Iran proposed comprehensive talks with the United States. Iran would ask the US to lift economic sanctions, guarantee Iran access to peaceful nuclear technology and oppose anti-Iranian terrorist groups. In exchange, Iran would accept “full transparency” in its nuclear program; end any “material support” for Hizbullah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad; increase its cooperation with the US against al-Qaeda; and accept Israel within its 1967 borders. But the Bush administration ignored the proposal.

It’s important to note that, while the president of Iran has changed since that 2003 Iranian proposal, the supreme leader – the final arbiter in foreign affairs and security policy – has not. This suggests that a similar negotiation might still be possible. Indeed, the recent successful negotiation by Brazil and Turkey with Iran for the nuclear fuel swap along the lines previously endorsed by the Obama administration also suggests that the prospect of meaningful agreements between the US and Iran is quite realistic, should the US choose to pursue them.

And Turkey is uniquely positioned to act as a bridge, not just as a bridge between the US and Iran, but between Israel and the Arab countries and potentially, between the US and the Taliban. For the last several years, Turkey has pursued a foreign policy of trying to improve relations with its neighbors and trying to help its neighbors improve their relations with each other. Turkey mediated talks between Israel and Syria. Turkey helped persuade Iraqi Sunnis to participate in the post-Saddam Iraqi political process. Despite the recent conflict with Israel, it’s still far and away the Muslim country with the best relationship with Israel, including a strong relationship between the two countries’ militaries. “No other nation is respected by Hamas, Hizbullah and the Taliban while also maintaining good ties with the Israeli, Lebanese and Afghan governments,” Kinzer writes.

Turkey has escaped from America’s orbit … Turkey’s new role, however, holds great promise for the United States. As a Muslim country intimately familiar with the region around it, Turkey can go places, engage partners and make deals that America cannot. What it has done to separate itself from the United States – refusing to allow American troops to invade Iraq from Turkish territory, for example, or denouncing Israel’s actions in Gaza – has enhanced its reputation in other Muslim countries. That strengthens its ability to influence them.

Some powerful Americans appear to believe that negotiating, reconciling and perhaps building a partnership with Iran would be a form of surrender. Henry Kissinger crystallized this view when asked how the US should deal with its Muslim adversaries:

“They want to humiliate us,” he said. “We need to humiliate them.”

But the goal of diplomacy should be to advance our interests, not to punish, Kinzer argues. None of the chief American goals in the Middle East, including stabilizing Iraq, achieving a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians and marginalizing al-Qaeda, are likely to be achieved without Iran’s cooperation. An isolated Iran is likely to be a spoiler. An integrated Iran could be a stabilizing power, a provider of security, a motor of economic development.

Kinzer lists some potential benefits of a new relationship with Iran, including:

  • Iran can do more than any other country to assure peace in Iraq.
  • Iran can help stabilize Afghanistan.
  • Iran can help moderate and broker agreements with groups like Hamas and Hizbullah.
  • An alliance between the US and Iran would weaken al-Qaeda, their common foe.
  • Improved relations would open up new opportunities for economic cooperation.

US presidents have rejected compromise with Iran because the US would have to recognize Iran as an important power with legitimate security interests. But Iran is already a regional power, Kinzer notes. That’s not going to change, no matter what the US does. The smart policy is to acknowledge this fact, just as Nixon’s policy acknowledged the regional power of China.

When the US and China signed the Shanghai Communiqué of 1972, China was engaged in behavior that was at least as offensive to the US as anything that Iran is doing today. China was supplying weapons to the anti-US insurgency in Vietnam. Nixon did not make “good behavior” a condition of negotiation. Agreement came first; changes in behavior followed.

During the presidential campaign, Senator Obama was articulating these ideas: don’t make as a precondition of the negotiation things that you are trying to achieve. But recently, the Obama administration seems to have reverted to the Bush administration’s policy, appearing to insist that Iran suspend the enrichment of uranium before the US and Iran have anything to talk about.

Yet, the presence of Turkey on the scene could be a game changer. In the last few weeks, we’ve gone from a situation where the siege of Gaza was a nonissue to the US to one in which the US is saying that the siege of Gaza must go. What intervened were a set of actions in which Turkey played an indispensable role. If Turkey can play a similar role with respect to the dispute between the US and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program, the world will become a fundamentally different – and much better – place.

(Kinzer will be speaking about the book in a free webinar Friday. Here are some other upcoming Kinzer appearances.)