Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future by Stephen Kinzer offers an original view on the United States’ Middle East policy. The main innovative, though arguably controversial insight of the book is that the United States needs to revaluate its strategic alliances in the region. The author envisions Turkey and Iran as the two strategic long-term partners of the United States in the Middle East. The author provides a good, if not quite thorough review of formation and evolution of modern Turkey and Iran. He displays a keen understanding of the situation in both countries at the turn of the 20th century. The book argues that the emergence of the social order and the leaders that enforced it were as much a product of the local circumstances as they were of external dynamics.
In Turkey, Ataturk was the response of the shrinking remains of the Ottoman Empire to the crushing defeat at the hands of European powers and the threat they posed to the survival of a viable and independent Turkish state. The reversal of fortunes that was masterfully engineered by Ataturk earned the latter a quasi prophetic aura among the Turkish public at large. That paved the way for him to enact the sweeping reforms that set the tone for decades to come. He viewed the humiliating defeat of the Ottoman Empire not just as a military setback, but as an inevitable result of ignorance, decadence and fanaticism. The Ottoman Empire, and not just the political structure, but all social and political sentiment associated with it, had run its course, had been defeated and needed to be buried in history. Consequently, the reforms he enacted, such as the adoption of the Latin alphabet, the banning of religion from public life, aimed at cutting all ties with the Ottoman past. The only way that modern Turkey could prosper, he though, was by adopting the institutions and the technology of the victorious West. This was not negotiable. The little resistance to this approach was crushed mercilessly.
Much like Ataturk, Shah Reza Pahlavi was the only individual with the energy and the ruthlessness necessary to overcome the opposition and rule the slippery Iranian landscape. Much like Ataturk, he was unequivocal in his belief that the only way to a modern Iran passed through emulating the West. He also implemented similar measures with comparable ruthlessness.
For all their similarities, the two countries were set apart by crucial differences. First, Ataturk was sophisticated and extremely well read, while Shah Reza was, compared to him, unrefined. While Ataturk accepted the role of passive icon and let Inonu govern the country in the last years of his life, Reza got more violent and unpredictable. As the author puts it: “Ataturk built institutions, faded gracefully from power, and set his country on the path to liberalization. Reza did not.”
The second major difference was foreign influence, or better put, its overwhelming role in determining most everything in Iran and its near absence in determining anything in Turkey. The career of Reza started and ended with the British. He succeeded in setting Iran in a path to modernity, but he never managed to shake off the British influence. His ruled by brute force and had no wide popular support. Ataturk, on the other side, for all the Western influence, was a local product. He made his reputation as a fearless commander by stopping the British advance in the Battle of Gallipoli, which has ever since been a distinct moment of national pride for the Turks. His managing, against all odds, to retain Anatolia in its entirety for the emerging Turkish state was a triumph achieved despite of foreign intervention, and one all Turks could identify with.
This difference set the stage for the divergent paths of both countries in years to come. Turkey had its fair share of unrest, culminating with 4 coups, roughly one for every fifteen years after the death of Ataturk. Modern Turkey is still defined by his legacy and the reaction to it by different segments of the society. But Turkey’s development after Ataturk was virtually free of foreign intervention. The Cold War re-enforced the isolationism vis-à-vis the region preferred by Ataturk and it did limit Turkey’s foreign policy options, but in no significantly different way than for other countries. The dynamics that, until the end of the 80’ies, prevented Turkey from developing into an open, democratic country were distinctly domestic.
Iran, on the other side, suffered the curse of its natural resources and had to suffer continuous foreign intervention. The one instance of intervention with fateful consequences not only for Iran, but for the whole region, was the overthrow of Mossadegh by the British and American intelligence services. He was intent on setting Iran on a more open path, similar to the one charted by Menders in turkey after his electoral victory in 1950. However, increases sovereignty and transparence required a fairer deal for the sharing of the oil revenues with the British, which the latter were not willing to accept. This resulted in the coup of 1953, which set the tone for the relationship between Iran and the West for decades to come. The West could not be trusted. The way Iranians came to see it, self-determination and democracy for Third World countries were nice decorum, to be done with when contradicting the economic interests of Western powers.
However, the author continues, despite the distrust towards the United States’ foreign policy, Iranians share a deep appreciation for what the values United States have come to represent, a liberal democracy being the most prominent among them. Furthermore, despite the obvious shortcomings of the Iranian democracy, governments are still elected. Elections are contested, but that is due to the fundamental belief that they ought to be fair, while in other Middle Eastern countries they are expected to be rigged, and thus, go uncontested.
The author argues that Turkey and Iran are farther along the road to become democratic countries than any other country in the Middle East. They respond to the aspirations of their citizens than and they share the same values and feelings with the United States on democracy, rule of law and human rights. As such, they should be the long-term partners of the United States in the region. The author briefly looks into the alliances of the United States with Israel and Saudi Arabia and argues that, besides putting their money on Turkey and Iran as strategic partners, the United States should re-evaluate their relationship with the former two.
I personally find the general argument courageous, if a bit premature. There is no doubt that Turkey has increased its value as an ally and has emerged as a potential strategic partner for the United States. In fact, the words used by leaders of both to describe their relationship have been “model partnership”. The two can build on their Cold War alliance and expand the partnership to reflect changes realities in Turkey and in the region. The multi-lateral approach of the Turkish foreign policy during the last decade has made a model partnership a desirable reality, despite the latest disagreements over Iran and Israel.
The relationship between Iran and the United States, on the other hand, is a bit more complex. It is true that despite the beating Iran gets in the United States’ media, Iranians are by and large sympathetic to the U.S. and what it represents. But the domestic situation in Iran is too hard to forecast, and the feeling of reciprocal distrust between the two governments deeply entrenched. I feel that the United States needs to do more to encourage democracy in Iran without necessarily appearing sympathetic to the regime of Ahmedinejad. The situation in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the Cold War can act as a helpful parallel; while the official policy was that of contained conflict, the citizens in the communist bloc aspired to what the United States stood for, and the soft power of this appeal played a significant role in the unraveling of communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The United States needs to understand the tectonic tension in the Iranian society and make all they can to strengthen the hand of the democratic forces rather than use a language of conflict that plays into the hands of the hardliners.
I do agree with the author that there is a lot that the United States can do to help democracy in Iran. But it is too early to talk about a new regional ally. That will depend on the pace of the reforms in Iran, and on the new equilibrium after the eventual regime change. If there is going to be a change anytime soon, that is.