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In Search of Lost Time

by DAN GEIST in New York

24 Aug 2010 05:43Comments

Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future (Times/Henry Holt), by Stephen Kinzer

061110-5.jpg[ IDÉ ] Inertia is an underrated force in foreign affairs. Fear of the unknown, force of habit, laziness -- they each reflect its power. They can each, as well, continue to keep two diplomatically wedded countries bound together even when shifting interests suggest separation be given a trial. Inertia has secured the vows of many a mediocre marriage, across living room and ocean alike.

In Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future, Stephen Kinzer employs the analogy of wedlock to describe one of the world's most peculiar alliances: "Saudi Arabia and the United States still share interests -- though not nearly as fully as they did during the cold war -- but their societies share precious little in the way of values. This is a marriage gone wrong, with spouses who sleep in the same bed but have different dreams. If it does not change, it will lead both parties to grief." (It must be imagined that the author meant "greater grief.") Sadly, just because it is time to get out of bed doesn't make it easy. If 9/11 was an insufficiently loud alarm, it is difficult to conceive what might shake these mismatched partners out of their stupor.

Kinzer's thesis is that it is time, past time, for the United States to pursue partnerships in a broadly defined Middle East with two new allies, Iran and Turkey, with which it shares both many strategic interests and deep-seated democratic values. (Kinzer, a foreign correspondent of many years for the New York Times and Boston Globe, served as Ankara bureau chief for the Times.) In turn, he calls for a major reconfiguration of relations with America's primary allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Forged during the cold war, those two partnerships are still mired, he says, in the now-outmoded interests of that era. In the case of the former, he argues that ties should be loosened so the kingdom -- optimistically transcending all sorts of inertia -- can make its own way toward a more democratic society. As for the latter, he calls for the United States to impose a comprehensive, detailed peace plan on Israelis and Palestinians. For all its boldness, this proposal is more plausible. Nothing rivets the presidential purpose like epic legacy's conceit. And if the plan were artfully designed to induce an equilibrium of dissatisfaction, there could well be sufficient international pressure to ensure its shared acceptance. Here, Kinzer more carefully addresses the many inertia-related factors that have impeded progress, and prescribes a remedial jolt by the one party able to deliver it.

But what about Hamas? Indeed. In Kinzer's vision, the influence of the new troika he proposes could presumably be leveraged. Of Turkey, he writes, "No other nation is respected by Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Taliban while also maintaining good ties with the Israeli, Lebanese, and Afghan governments." Those ties with Israel have been strained by the flotilla fiasco, which occurred after Reset went to press, but they are far from broken. As for Iran, it "can tame militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, which would contribute to Israeli security, help stabilize Lebanon, and dramatically improve the prospects for peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors." The question of Iran's capacity to "tame" Hamas at this point is intriguing and not one into which Kinzer delves. The question of how far the United States and Iran are, or should be, from building a relationship where such moves might even be considered is pivotal to his thesis, but the answer he provides is murky.

The problem lies not in the prose. Kinzer is a clear and engaging writer. Much of the book is devoted to telling the stories of the democratic and nationalist movements in Iran and Turkey during the 20th century. "From their long struggles," Kinzer writes, "both people have developed an understanding of democracy and a longing for it, that makes them good soulmates for Americans." For Western readers who seek a basic introduction to Iran's Constitutional Revolution and the progressive premiership of Mohammad Mosaddegh, Kinzer tells the stories well. Providing the future soulmates some moments of nostalgic bonding, he focuses on the involvement of individual Americans in the Constitutional Revolution and how the United States itself was an "inspiration" for Iranian democrats of the early 20th century, "a former British colony that had thrown off its chains and advanced to glorious self-rule, just as Iran hoped to do." In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the United States again played an admirable role in helping Iran, as well as Turkey, resist being drawn in behind the Iron Curtain.

Kinzer's history, while motivational, is no whitewash. Where the soulmates' past turns sour, he does not shy away. The story of the coup engineered by the CIA under President Dwight Eisenhower that removed Mosaddegh and led Iran from democratic reform into dictatorship remains a maddening one. At different points, Kinzer offers quotations from two well-known American figures that each, in their very different ways, reveal the damage America did its own soul thereby. The first comes from William O. Douglas, who visited Iran before the 1953 coup during his tenure as a Supreme Court justice:

When Mossadegh and Persia started basic reforms, we became alarmed. We united with the British to destroy him; we succeeded; and ever since, our name has not been an honored one in the Middle East.

The second comes from a man who was then leader of the free world and an advocate of "moral" foreign policy:

"Mr. President, do you think it was proper for the United States to restore the Shah to the throne in 1953 against the popular will within Iran?" a reporter asked President Jimmy Carter at a news conference during the hostage crisis.
"That's ancient history," Carter replied.

What was barely history at all, let alone "ancient," was the marriage -- exemplary in its mutual lust -- between the recently deposed dictator, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, and, in Eisenhower's own phrase, the American military-industrial complex: "By the mid-1970s," writes Kinzer, dozens of U.S. arms manufacturers, "including Grumman Aerospace, Lockheed, Bell Helicopter, Northrop, General Electric, McDonnell Douglas, Westinghouse, and Raytheon, had large and busy offices in Iran."

The Islamic Republic of Iran can now lay proud claim to its own homegrown military-industrial complex, the all-in-one package that is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. While Iran claims self-sufficiency in many areas of arms manufacture, it remains reliant on its foreign friends for combat aircraft and air defense technology. Could there be a chance for some true soulmates to get together here?

Kinzer's dreams are much loftier, of course. But might they possibly be achieved in the current circumstances, or any soon foreseeable? And at what price? Here is where the murk descends. It's a familiar gloom -- reality.

All of Kinzer's storytelling is in service of a heartfelt and valid point: There is in both Turkey and Iran a rich republican and democratic tradition that make them potentially strong partners for the United States -- much stronger and truer, for instance, than Saudi Arabia. In his final chapter, Kinzer summarizes all the good reasons for the United States and Turkey to build a deeper partnership. The rationales are persuasive and much like those that prompted Turkey's drive to join the European Union, yet at a remove from the gyre of economic and cultural fears into which that process has been pulled. Kinzer's case is solid here, though due respect for inertia prohibits overoptimism.

Reset concludes, then, with the United States and Iran. The potential strategic benefits to the United States of a major accord would be manifold: Iraq -- stabilized. Afghanistan -- pacified. Those irksome militant groups -- "tamed." Russian influence -- counterbalanced. Anti-Israeli rhetoric -- tempered. Relations with Muslim world -- improved. Al-Qaeda -- crushed. It's an encouraging list.

When Kinzer turns to Iran's incentives for striking a deal with the United States, reality descends. Of Iran, he writes, "It craves legitimacy." A nebulous motivation at best, and Kinzer does not specify what shape he imagines a U.S.-furnished legitimacy would take. Perhaps because at the same time that he advocates attempts at forging a partnership now, Kinzer declares that the United States "must do nothing to undermine Iran's brave democratic movement." How do you provide a repressive regime the legitimacy it craves without doing that? If Kinzer has figured out how to have it both ways, he doesn't share the recipe.

"It has security needs that only the United States can meet." There's no such thing as too secure, but the fact is, the United States has already taken care of Iran's biggest needs. As he writes, "[D]uring the presidency of George W. Bush, the United States deposed the two regimes in neighboring countries that were Iran's most bitter enemies: Saddam Hussein's in Iraq and the Taliban's in Afghanistan. With its rivals gone, Iran quickly emerged as a regional power with hegemonic ambition." Kinzer is obviously aware of the irony as a historical matter, but apparently not as it affects his own grand vision: There is so much less now that Iran might want in terms of security from the United States. Assurance against an Israeli attack? But such an attack would likely occur only if Iran made much clearer steps toward weaponization than it ever has...and that a U.S. accord would ever permit. Given its increasingly strong regional position, the regime would be well positioned in any broad negotiation to pursue other objectives.

And thus, the most revealing incentive: "Its government is unpopular, its economy is reeling from a combination of high inflation and low oil prices, its society is groaning under a host of social ills, its young generation is deeply alienated, and many of its most talented sons and daughters have either emigrated or hope to do so." These are substantial problems. None of them however, would directly be addressed by a security accord with the United States. Only indirectly is the link clear: With an accord, the United States and its Western allies lift their economic sanctions. Normalized trade resumes. The economy rebounds, as does the government's popularity. The reader makes the link only indirectly, because Kinzer leaves those conclusions largely unspoken -- perhaps because they draw Iran no nearer to the democratic form he truly seeks in an American partner. Among the benefits he lists for the United States in reaching a new understanding with Iran, he writes, "Iran's oil infrastructure is in pitiful shape and desperately needs modernizing that will cost billions of dollars; American companies are ideally placed to do the job." What he fails to note is that much of Iran's oil industry is now controlled by the Revolutionary Guards.

It's not that Kinzer is unaware of the murk, but that he sees a light shining beyond it, which experience should inform him is only a will-o'-the-wisp:

Opposition figures in Iran find themselves in a difficult situation in which there are no good options. The best of the bad options is for the regime to become integrated with the outside world, to be lured out of its fear, to build bridges to countries where debate, dissent, and protest are considered healthy signs of stability.

Elsewhere, Kinzer argues with conviction for the value of doing nothing -- which might sound like inertia, but, by contrast, often entails a thoughtful, deliberate choice: "The greatest service Americans could render to the cause of reform in Saudi Arabia would be to loosen ties between Washington and Riyadh. This is the one option the United States has never tried in Saudi Arabia -- or in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan or Lebanon; to allow politics to evolve without interference." The "special relationship" between the United States and the Saudi monarchy "has turned the United States into an enemy of Saudi reformers," Kinzer observes. Yet, though he admits that the "prospects are hardly bright," he advocates that the United States pursue a special relationship with Iran today, with the current regime, despite its passion and faculty for constricting democratic possibilities, despite the mounting sway over the economy that the Guards exert. But surely, given these facts, the United States should seek for now only the most circumscribed pact over nuclear concerns. Ah, if only there wasn't a grand vision to feed. It demands more. Reset: "The United States should aim for a global accord."

The author periodically concedes the melancholy fact of the murk, then hurtles along: "Even if no accord is possible now, the United States should recognize that in the mid- to long-term future Iran can be a highly valuable partner." Yes: "future," "can." Kinzer is evidently reluctant to accept what it means for his thesis that he must resort to holding out such carrots. This cake is precisely half-baked. From Saudi Arabia to Iran under the Shah to Iraq for a decade under Saddam Hussein, if the past six decades have demonstrated anything, U.S. special relationships with authoritarian regimes in the region have not brought their countries one step closer to democracy. Such intimacies have brought everyone little more than grief -- those in the weapons trade enjoying their customary exception. Sometimes doing nothing reflects not submission to inertia, but prudent acknowledgment of the real.

Past time that the United States seriously engaged with Iran? No. Past the time. Between 1997 and 2005, during the administration of President Mohammad Khatami, the United States had a potential partner, however imperfect, in Iran, one that deserved an effort. Succumbing to the force of habitual mistrust, an inert United States squandered the opportunity. Holding out for something better, it got something considerably worse. And so, this time, holding out is the proper thing to do. Past the time? Abide the time. We cannot know what the future will bring. We do know that, here, the United States is not the party to bring it. In consideration of Iran, now is not the time to consider a reset.

Dan Geist is a senior editor at Tehran Bureau. IDÉ is where ideas are discussed in the magazine.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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