Menace à Trois: Alliances with Iran and Turkey? Please.

26th Jan 2011

Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future
Stephen Kinzer (New York: Times Books, 2010)

Stephen Kinzer’s Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future might be a must-read if we lived in an alternate universe. As with most easily offered solutions to long-running problems, its general proposition is ostensibly alluring. To navigate its way through the intractable morass of Middle Eastern politics, Kinzer writes, the United States should form alliances with two strategically crucial Muslim countries: Turkey and Iran. Such a “partnership” would be “the tantalizing ‘power triangle’ of the twenty-first century.” Furthermore, the US should trade in an older pair of alliances with the status quo regional powers of Saudi Arabia and Israel, whose usefulness has grown thin now that the Cold War is over.

It would of course be wonderful if the United States could find a way to forge better partnerships with Turkey and Iran, since doing so might one day bring about the stability, economic productivity, and greater political freedom that Kinzer says he wants to see blossom across the Middle East. But as with any alliance, a prerequisite for such an entente is shared policy goals, never mind values. Unfortunately, we live not in the world of Stephen Kinzer’s imagining, but one in which a group of apocalyptic, terrorist-sponsoring mullahs rule Iran and increasingly emboldened Islamists hold the balance of power in Turkey. As long as this is the case, Kinzer can argue all he likes for a Washington-Ankara-Tehran axis, but one will never transpire.

None of this is to say that five or ten years down the line Iran’s repressed Green Movement might not replace the mullahs with a government that treats its own people humanely and doesn’t foment war and chaos across the region. Or that the ever-prideful Turks, realizing that their failure to move further toward EU membership is as much their own fault as it is the fault of Europeans, might not reconsider their recent overtures to rogue regimes in Iran and Syria, get over their aversion to acknowledging the Armenian genocide, and stop supporting Hamas against Palestinian moderates. Were both revolutions to unfold—and it would require nothing less than revolutions (not necessarily violent) in both countries for such dramatic changes to take place—then Kinzer’s strategic vision might have some heft to it. Yet as things currently stand, a scenario in which the US replaces Saudi Arabia and Israel for Iran and Turkey is fantastic, to say the least, and calling upon the United States to effect such policy changes regardless of the nature of the governments in Tehran and Ankara is delusional, if not downright dangerous.


The bulk of Kinzer’s book consists of a potted political history of Turkey and Iran in the twentieth century. Kinzer sets out to show that these two nations have the longest and deepest histories of democratic engagement in all the Muslim world; in Turkey, that democracy is enduring if imperfect, and in Iran it has been repeatedly thwarted by authoritarians (the Shah) or messianic religious fundamentalists (the mullahs). While the author acknowledges—in passing—the internal brutality, external aggression, and vicious anti-American rhetoric of the present Iranian government, he sees such behavior as but a distraction from the grand goal of achieving a lasting alliance. “Reaching an accord with Iran would not be easy, for cultural as well as political reasons,” he allows. “It might well require the emergence of a new regime in Tehran.” Might well?

Similarly with Turkey, Kinzer ignores so many of the facts that militate against his thesis that it’s hard to know where to begin. In his paeans to Turkey’s greatness and potential for world leadership, he never mentions its ongoing denial of the Armenian genocide or its brazen attempts to blackmail the US Congress from passing a resolution recognizing the massacres as such, nor the fact that its border with Armenia remains closed and the two countries still do not have diplomatic relations. Turkey’s 1974 invasion and ongoing occupation of Cyprus—its instantiation of the puppet “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” regime is recognized by no one but itself—goes similarly unmentioned. While the Erdogan government’s “Zero Problems” approach to the region is laudable, one would expect Turkey to at least resolve the very pressing problems in its own neighborhood before the United States begins to entertain its pretensions to international influence.

“Our world, however, advances only as a result of strategic vision,” Kinzer writes. “First must come a grand concept, a destination; once the destination is clear, all parties can concentrate on finding the way to reach it.” This Marxist-cum-Hegelian view of world history is wack. How does one, exactly, convince Iran—a country led by fundamentalist clerics awaiting the return of the Twelfth Imam—that its “destination” should be the same as America’s? Kinzer appears to believe that “engagement” with Tehran is all that is needed to convince it of the error of its ways. He produces a page-long list of the “advantages that might emerge from a new understanding between the United States and Iran,” among them, that Iran can “assure long-term peace in Iraq,” “help stabilize Afghanistan,” and “tame militant groups like Hamas and Hezollah.” The only reason Iran comes off as the solution to so many problems, however, is because it causes so many problems. Running what amounts to a regional protection racket, Tehran has participated in the killing of coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and the funding of radical movements across the Middle East. Euphorically imagining Iran’s potential role as a stabilizing force is akin to saying that reaching an “understanding” with a mass-murderer, without altering this individual’s immoral behavior, could broker a decrease in homicides.

Kinzer doesn’t explain how the US could persuade Iran to stop behaving in the way it has for the past three decades, other than vaguely recommending that American policymakers “recognize Iran as an important power with legitimate security interests.” His explanation as to why this sage advice has been ignored over the past three decades, by presidents from both parties, is equally trite; those who take a hawkish line on Iran, he believes, are motivated by a “desire for vengeance” over the 1979 hostage crisis. Kinzer faults Jimmy Carter for believing “that the shah was a bad man . . . [who] could be redeemed and transformed into a good one.” But if such a sanguine belief was erroneous about the Shah, how is it any less credulous when it comes to the far more brutal mullahs?

Elsewhere, Kinzer writes that “Many Americans see Iran the way their grandparents saw Germany, as a bad actor that causes nothing but trouble.” It’s hard to blame these unnamed American simpletons when the current president of Iran does his best to imitate Adolf Hitler.

As he did in his earlier book, All the Shah’s Men , Kinzer whitewashes the history of the 1953 coup against Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq, blaming the CIA for the overthrow when in fact the country’s clerics—who later instigated the 1979 revolution—played a more significant role. (Kinzer acknowledges Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s apology to Iran over the CIA’s role in the 1953 coup, but says it wasn’t sufficient because she coupled the prostration with some criticism of the regime’s terror sponsorship.) Kinzer distorts history elsewhere to make his rosy prospect of an Iranian-American rapprochement seem more feasible. He clings to the 2003 “Swiss Fax” meme, which purports that the Bush administration ignored an offer from the Iranians (transmitted through the Swiss embassy in Tehran) that Iran would cease support for terrorism, end its nuclear weapons program, and recognize Israel if the United States stopped trying to destabilize the regime. Trumpeted primarily by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, two disgruntled former CIA and NSC officials now notorious as the most shameless apologists for the Iranian regime in Washington, the proposal was written primarily by a meddlesome Swiss diplomat; the Iranian government had little to do with it. Kinzer, like others who insist that peace between Iran and America has failed only because of the intransigence of the previous administration (and its fear of “engagement”), ignores that the US conducted high-level talks with Iran throughout the Bush years.

That Kinzer would argue that America “loosen ties” with Saudi Arabia (which, whatever its depredations, has at least proposed a way by which the Arab world would formally recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state) in exchange for ties with Iran (whose president has repeatedly called for Israel’s destruction) calls into question how this man was a senior foreign correspondent at our nation’s paper of record for so many years. His assertion that the Arab-Israeli impasse is “the most overwhelmingly destabilizing of all the world’s conflicts” displays a stunning ignorance of world affairs; it is the sort of claim that could only be made by the ideologically blinkered or those utterly unaware of the Congolese civil war (which has resulted in more than three million deaths and torn central Africa apart), the entire history of Pakistan, or the past decade of nuclear brinksmanship on the Korean peninsula. Like other proponents of “linkage theory,” which posits that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the deus ex machina of world politics, Kinzer argues that the United States must “impose” a solution upon the parties because the “internal dynamics of their societies prevent them from reaching that goal.” To be clear, Kinzer’s idea of realistic diplomacy is that Israel, the only functioning democracy in the Middle East, should have a solution to its long-running problem with the Arab world forced upon it, but that Iran, a vicious theocracy that literally and figuratively rapes its own people, have every whim accommodated.

In “resetting” their relationship with Iran, Kinzer warns, Americans must not “fall into the trap that has soured their relationships with some other countries: making deals between ruling elites that exclude the citizenry.” How the United States is to achieve an entente with a tyrannical regime that does not fall victim to this outcome is of course as unknowable as it is impossible, and the most glaring blunder in this ill-informed and deeply flawed work.

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