Reset: Stephen Kinzer's Vision of a New U.S. Relationship with Turkey and Iran

Until quite recently, it seemed that Turkey had a clearly defined role
in the Middle East, from the standpoint of U.S. policy. They were the
"good Muslims," who were part of NATO, who contributed troops to U.S.
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 U.S./Israeli push for
new sanctions against Iran at the U.N. 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 U.S. 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
U.S.-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 claims
that "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
" was published Tuesday. Kinzer argues
that the world has changed sufficiently since the Cold War so that a
fundamental rebalancing of U.S. relationships in the Middle East, away
from excessive attachment to the current policies of the Israeli and
Saudi governments and towards greater cooperation with Turkey and
Iran, would be in the interests of the United States. [Kinzer will be
speaking about the book in a free webinar
Friday; here
are some other upcoming Kinzer appearances.]

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 U.S. 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 U.S.-Iran relations: a young American
whose life and death suggests the possibility of a different
relationship between the U.S. 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 U.S. 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,
General Edmond Ironside, told Reza Shah that if he staged a coup,
Britain would not object. Four days later, Reza Shah successfully
carried out a coup. Although Reza 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 fifty-fifty 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, and 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 U.S.-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 towards Iran today, they bear a strong
resemblance to the policies adopted by Britain and the U.S. towards
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 twenty-five 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,
U.S. intervention in Iran did not cease. It is believed by many
Iranians that the U.S. 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 that "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 September 11
attacks, Iran actively collaborated with the U.S. against al Qaeda and
the Taliban in Afghanistan, common foes. The State Department produced
a report saying that the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. and Iran is quite realistic, should the
U.S. choose to pursue them.

And Turkey is uniquely positioned to act as a bridge, not just as a
bridge between the U.S. and Iran, but between Israel and the Arab
countries, and potentially, between the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. and Iran would weaken Al Qaeda, their common foe.

- Improved relations would open up new opportunities for economic
cooperation.

U.S. presidents have rejected compromise with Iran because the U.S.
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 U.S. does. The
smart policy is to acknowledge this fact, just as Nixon's policy
acknowledged the regional power of China.

When the U.S. and China signed the Shanghai Communique of 1972, China
was engaged in behavior that was at least as offensive to the U.S. as
anything that Iran is doing today. China was supplying weapons to the
anti-U.S. 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 U.S. 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 non-issue to the U.S. to one in which the U.S. 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 U.S. and Iran
over Iran's nuclear program, the world will become a fundamentally
different -- and much better -- place.

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