I was listening to a podcast I found on my computer. It was an interview from the How We Got Here podcast from PRI's The World. Dated February 25, 2010, Marco Werman interviewed Stephen Kinzer about his book Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future. There were many intriguing facts and opinions that I'd like to share. Unfortunately, the podcast is no longer available on the internet but I will try to share helpful links.
As I said, the podcast from PRI is no longer available, but I did find this interview on YouTube at the Harvard Book Store:
Stephen Kinzer argues that America needs to work harder on strategic vision that emphasizes good strong relations with two key countries: Turkey and Iran. He believes that there is a potential power triangle in Middle East with a partnership between Turkey, Iran, and the United States. One would think that Iran wouldn't work and that Turkey is too independent to be counted on, but he gives very good arguments.
He states that a good partner for any country has to fulfill two qualifications:
- Long-term strategic goals are the same as your own or roughly comparable
- The partner needs to be a place where the society shares the fundamental values of your own country.
For instance, Saudi Arabia would not measure up because Saudi society has absolutely nothing in common with the United States.
Turkey and Iran have societies that are democratically oriented and therefore very much in line with our own. This makes them very interesting potential partners with the U.S. in the coming century. Kinzer goes on to say that partners have to treat each other a certain way:
- it is important to treat a partner on a equal basis
- a real partner is one you listen to
- a real partner is one whose advice you follow
The U.S. doesn't always do this. For instance, Kinzer pointed out that in the Cold War, we liked partners who were more subservient and did what we said.
However, he says that the great obstacle to this construction is that American policymakers have an aversion to original thinking. There are certain paradigms in our policy towards the Middle East and we are frozen in those paradigms. We don't see anybody thinking strategically in the long run about where we want to be in some decades from now in the Middle East. He believes that we have to conceptualize a big picture.
Getting to the big picture, he shows why Turkey and Iran are such good partners for us. He talks about the history and the society and politics of these countries.
What has contributed to Turkey's success in its 80-year history is that it has managed to evolve with the times. The modern Republic of Turkey was created by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.
It was founded by the Father of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
In the beginning, the government was a dictatorship as the countries around it were. Later democracies were becoming popular in the area and so it moved to democracy. When globalization became widespread, Turkey deregulated much of its society and entered the global society. In the modern era, when Islamic fundamentalism and religious society involvement in the government started heating up, now we have a government that is more religious than secular. This is the strength of Turkey. It is able to evolve, able to withstand tensions and confrontations.
The modern government has one foreign policy: to have zero problems with its neighbors. And they did that. (Please remember that the podcast is dated 2010 before the Syria Crisis.)
One of their strengths and assets is the fact that they are able to talk to groups of people, countries, factions, etc., across a remarkably broad range, broader than the groups the U.S. can talk to: Israel and Hamas, Iran and the U.S., Russian and Georgia. When the Turkish Foreign Minister lands in Pakistan, all factions are eager to talk to him. Turkey can play a role that makes it a valuable partner for the U.S.
When it comes to Iran, we may have to wait for the current regime to change or evolve to work with them; however, it does not change the fact that there would be great value with a partnership with them. The strategic goals of Iran do not change as governments change.
Iran is eager to see a stable Iraq and Afghanistan. They want to see a stable and nuclear-free Middle East. They do not want to see Russian influence in the Middle East. Additionally, Iran's oil industry needs massive investment and the U.S. is well placed to provide that.
These congruences don't change as the governments change. In the long term, we ought to see a partnership with Iran as a place we want to get to. We have more in common with Iran in terms of strategic values and social values than we do with many of our traditional allies in the Middle East.
Iran is not a natural enemy of Israel. In the past, Iranians have had remarkably good relations with Israel. If you look further back in history, relations between the Persians (Iranians) and the Jews (Israel) have been quite strong for thousands of years.
It is even described in the Bible. The great King Cyrus of Persia liberated the Jews from their Babylonian overlords, he freed them and sent them back to Israel and Jerusalem, and he even helped them build the Temple.
Iranians - let's not forget - are not Arabs. They are not necessarily on the same wavelength as Arabs when it comes to dealing with Israel and Kinzer doesn't see any reason for a built-in hostility.
Democracy in the Middle East
Only one other Muslim country in the Middle East can claim a democrat heart that beats passionately as in Turkey, and that is Iran. Only one other country that might emerge to rival or even surpass Turkey's level of political freedom and that is Iran. In the last hundred years, only two countries in the Muslim Middle East have spent that period working towards democracy and that is Turkey and Iran.
All past experience shows that democracy only thrives and grows after a long period of acclimation. You cannot impose it as we are trying to do in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Turkey and Iran, it has been developing for over a hundred years. It is seen very much as a domestic product. The people there have decided on their own that it is something they want.
The Green Revolution in Iran shows just how passionately they feel about democracy.
The Gezi Park protests in Turkey of earlier this year show how the Turks feel.
People in these communities believe strongly that their governments need to be accountable and responsive to their people.
Nobody in Egypt (pre-Arab Spring) goes out in the streets to protest a fraudulent election. It's just assumed that elections will be fraudulent. In Saudi Arabia, one of our allies, we don't even expect elections at all.
Mr. Kinzer states that this shows just how much Iranians are thirsting for democracy. They know what democracy is, they want it, and it's seen as something that's coming from within, not something being supplanted artificially from the outside. He believes that the consciousness of what democracy is and what democracy means is infinitely higher in Iran, than in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran, after all, has had a constitution for a hundred years -- and all during that period they have been having elections.
Now, these elections haven't always been fair, the institutions haven't always been followed. Nevertheless, over a period of generations, Iranians have deeply assimilated it. What is a political party, what is a parliament, these are things Iranians understand and expect. Democracy is not just elections, democracy is a whole way of dealing with life, the world. Iranians have understood this over a period of a hundred years.
I really enjoyed this podcast. It got me thinking. We do have a lot in common with these countries. In these countries, the frameworks, the structures of democracy are very similar to ours. Our societies are very similar. We all have similar education structures. Higher education is very important in all three of our societies. All three of our societies encourage women to educate themselves.
The Turks and the Iranians are not tribal societies like other Muslim countries in the Middle East. They are used to thinking of themselves as countries. Many countries in the Middle East - like Iraq - are hodgepodges, created in the chaos following World War One. After all Britain and France, separated up the spoils after the War.
It is too bad that we have such bad relations with Iran. We can only blame ourselves for this. If we had not interfered with a democratically elected government in 1953, maybe the Islamic Revolution might never have happened. Maybe Iran would be more like Turkey. Who knows? Those are two big words: what if?
I also think we need to treat Iran and Turkey as our equals. So many Americans somehow think they are inferior societies. These are societies that have existed for thousands of years. The Turks descend from the Ottoman empire which was founded in the 13th Century; the Iranians come from the Persians who are even older, they were founded in the 5th Century B.C.! We are pikers compared to them.
I hope that one day we can deal with the Muslim world in a more honest and open way. I realize that terrorism makes this hard, but we really have more in common with the Muslims than we could think. We all - Jews, Christians, Muslims - venerate Abraham. We all believe that Moses was a prophet and honor the 12 Commandments. We have only recently come apart. Our problems from lack of respect and knowledge of our neighbors. Better education can only help both of our peoples.