Reset: Iran, Turkey and America's Future
by Stephen Kinzer
Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia
While the Barack Obama administration has achieved a "reset" to calm hitherto stormy relations with Russia, it is still adrift in the unforgiving terrain of the Middle East. Over the last two years, the United States has tried donning the roles of a neutral peace broker and a conciliator in this region, but the stalemates and dangerous face-offs have not died down. Chances of new wars that would embroil the US remain high in the Middle East, despite Obama's attempts to reach out to foes and restructure equations with allies.
Inferring from award-winning foreign correspondent Stephen Kinzer's new book, it appears that the main reason why the US continues to mope around without breakthroughs is its inability to "reset" toxic partnerships with Saudi Arabia and Israel. The author maintains that unless Washington inches closer to Turkey and Iran, while distancing itself from Saudi Arabia and Israel, the Middle East is doomed to repeat old patterns of war, terrorism, autocracy and despair.
Kinzer begins with a historical overview of popular struggles for democracy in Iran and Turkey, both of which were inspired and aided by the US. American sympathies for Iran's constitutional democracy movement go back to figures like Howard Baskerville and Morgan Shuster, a schoolteacher and a lawyer who lived in Iran and assisted anti-monarchical and anti-colonial movements at critical junctures before World War I. Iranians of that era saw the US as a benevolent anti-colonial foreign power that was unlike exploitative European imperialists such as Britain and Russia.
Around this time, radical Turks inspired by ideas of liberty and parliamentarianism challenged Ottoman absolutism. Mustafa Kemal's war against "backwardness" and concerted push for modernity by infusing principles like self-determination and citizenship had parallels to the career of George Washington in the US. In 1923, Kemal established the first ever republic in a Muslim country and transformed Turkish society along Western Enlightenment lines. He carved out a secular state, a novelty in the Middle East which was imitated by Reza Shah in Iran, albeit not with the same degree of success.
In the nascent Cold War years, the US was welcomed in both Turkey and Iran as a necessary democratic counter to Soviet expansionary designs. But the Central Intelligence Agency-orchestrated coup d'etat against Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953 sullied the American image irreparably. Kinzer captures the angry outlook of Iranians since that catastrophic blow as follows: "We had a democracy once, but you (Americans) took it away from us!" (pg 99)
Anti-American sentiment also rose in Turkey in the 1960s in response to the massive Cold War-induced US military presence in the country. A low-level civil war and repeated military coups in Turkey from the 1970s onward were serious setbacks to democracy that the US abetted in the name of containing communism. Washington enjoyed manipulating the pro-Western client regimes in Turkey and Iran (up to 1979), but it had scarce goodwill at the societal level in both these countries during the Cold War. Many Iranians who participated in the 1979 Revolution to overthrow the "pro-American Shah" ironically hoped for a return to the democracy the US had robbed from them in 1953.
In Ayatollah-ruled Iran, a strong democratic consciousness survives despite the stunting of civic life by an oppressive Islamist theocracy. Kinzer cites the spontaneous uprising after the disputed 2009 presidential elections as evidence that "Iranians, like Turks, grasp the essence of democracy and want the freedom that their Turkish neighbors enjoy." (pg 141)
The century-long experience of fighting for (and intermittently losing) democracy sets Turkey and Iran apart from their neighbors in the Middle East. Kinzer believes that the memory and yearning for democracy is most advanced in these two countries, making them "good soul mates for Americans." (pg 11) Shared political values and culture allow them to be more promising allies of the US than Riyadh and Tel Aviv. The "old triangle" (US-Saudi Arabia-Israel) has not yielded stability in the Middle East and has kept unleashing waves of violence and repression.
Kinzer proposes a new American grand strategy involving a fundamental shift away from coddling Saudi Arabia and Israel, states that have not served US long-term interests. During the Cold War, a tight alliance between Washington and Riyadh was sealed by oil, arms procurement and covert funding of anti-American movements around the world. This occurred in spite of what Kinzer characterizes as "the vast cultural and psychological chasm that separates Americans from Wahhabi Arabs". (pg 146) A society dominated by religious zealots who detest modernity, Saudi Arabia is the antithesis of the American way of life.
The US-Israel special relationship is, of course, underpinned by shared values, ideals and Biblical traditions, but Israel's importance to Washington during the Cold War stemmed from its Saudi-like role as a secret conduit for training and arming regimes and rebel groups that the US could not openly associate with. As "dirty war" contractors for the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia destabilized societies on a global scale. But with no superpower rivalry around anymore, argues Kinzer, the US has a chance to re-imagine its retrogressive relations with these two Middle Eastern powers.
The author contends that the optimal solution for democratizing Saudi Arabia would be for Washington to untie its intensely intimate camaraderie with the Zionist al-Saud family. This course will permit Saudi society to "mature in its own way, make its own mistakes, and find its own path". (pg 182)
To resolve the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Kinzer recommends that the US impose a peace plan of its own by drawing upon past UN resolutions. Such a bold move can only occur if Washington can overcome the "Israel-right-or-wrong mantra" in the American body politic. How the Obama administration or its successors can practically override the Israel lobby is perhaps too sensitive a topic for Kinzer to grapple, but such a path does hold clues to a more peaceful future in the Middle East.
In the past decade, Turkey has emerged as a hyperactive international peacemaker. Ankara's blending of Islam with democracy has lent it a newfound legitimacy in the Muslim world, which had previously dismissed it as an American lackey. Turkey's conscious reinvention after "decoupling" itself from the US has yielded substantial soft power benefits. Kinzer urges Washington to welcome this development instead of feeling irritated at the loss of an erstwhile stooge.
Although the Obama administration prematurely rejected the Turkish-brokered initiative to resolve the Iranian nuclear program crisis, it is in the US' best interests to be guided by Turkey on major outstanding problems in the region. Kinzer cautions against the typical American habit of not "listening to other powers", which could undo a potential recalibrated partnership with Turkey. Viewing Turkey as a vassal state and expecting it to be a "yes man" is now outdated, especially as it has widened its global reach as a problem solver after the European Union threw up insurmountable barriers to admitting it as a member.
Whether Washington likes it or not, Iran too has grown like Turkey into a major regional power in the last decade. An accommodation with the regime in Tehran serves American strategic interests, but such a deal must not come at the cost of crushing Iran's besieged civil society and pro-democracy movement. A lasting normalization of US-Iran ties may have to wait until moderate democratic forces find their feet in Iranian politics.
To generalize that the US has got it all wrong in the Middle East is easy and almost cliched. Correcting the imbalances in Washington's relations in the region requires a sea change in the domestic balance of power within the US as well as a mitigation of neo-imperial motivations in its foreign policy.
Kinzer's thesis of "reset", however out-of-the-box, is premised upon an uncritical and benign understanding of the nature and purpose of US foreign policy in the post-Cold War world. But his message that the US should carefully live up to expectations of nourishing democracy and freedom in the Middle East, without overly interfering in the region, is a decent and hopeful one....