In the newest edition of Foreign Affairs, Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol has a review of Stephen Kinzer’s latest book, Reset: Iran, Turkey and America’s Future.
The former New York Times journalist’s previous book, All the Shah’s Men, is a must-read account of the CIA orchestrated 1953 coup that unseated a secular democratic Iranian government in favor of returning the Shah to power. Kinzer demonstrates how those events, which most Americans know little about, led to a radical blowback 25 years later when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini created the Islamic Republic.
In his latest volume released this summer, Kinzer argues for a radical shift in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Iranians and Turks both have democratic inclinations and vibrant middle classes to support civil society, he notes, as well as a disdain for Sunni radical groups like Al Qaeda. According to Kinzer, the United States should form a strong alliance with these countries to promote democracy and combat extremism.
In his review, Akyol notes this argument may be construed as “counterintuitive” because of Turkey’s recent assertiveness and the heightened U.S.-Iran tensions over the nuclear issue. Nonetheless, he considers Kinzer’s rationale for resetting the alliances as “a long-term project”with “ample grounding in the modern history of the region.”
Since Akyol is Turkish, his review naturally focuses on that corner of the triangle. Following is a section from the review on Iran, reproduced in full with my emphasis:
CARROTS ARE FOR DONKEYS
Still, Kinzer’s power triangle could not emerge in today’s world. Iran, he writes, “would have to change dramatically” and turn into a democracy before such an alliance could be formed. How that would happen — a truly daunting question — is unclear, but in the meantime, Kinzer proposes a twofold strategy: engage with the current regime as effectively as possible and wait for the day when the country’s democratically minded (and, as he calls them, “reliably pro-American”) masses make their way to power.
Engagement, of course, is already the Obama administration’s stated policy, but Kinzer urges Washington to be bolder, that is, to launch “direct, bilateral, comprehensive, and unconditional negotiations” with Tehran. Nixon’s diplomatic breakthrough with communist China, he reminds readers, came at a time when Beijing was supplying weapons to North Vietnamese soldiers, who were using them to kill Americans. “Nixon did not make good behavior a condition of negotiation,” Kinzer notes. “He recognized that diplomacy works in precisely the opposite way. Agreement comes first; changes in behavior follow.”
Kinzer also criticizes the tone of current U.S. diplomacy, which does not give the Iranians what he thinks they are really looking for: “respect, dignity, a restoration of lost pride.” This makes a so-called carrot-and-stick approach to Tehran counterproductive. That “may be appropriate for donkeys,” Kinzer writes, “but not for dealing with a nation ten times older than [the United States].” The key to turning Iran from foe to friend is not to make Iran’s regime feel more threatened; it is to make it feel more secure.
Even then, there are many imponderables about Iran, and the current regime may be unwilling to partner with the United States no matter the tone of U.S. overtures. Kinzer’s only advice here is for the United States to avoid being emotional, “do nothing that will make that partnership more difficult to achieve when conditions are right,” and, if negotiations do begin, make “no concessions to Iran’s regime that weaken Iranians who are persecuted for defending democratic values.” Yet Kinzer leaves unclear how that delicate balance could be maintained and offers little guidance for policymakers looking for a more practical road map.