Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Turkey and Iran: America's true allies in the region?

Yesterday I got to attend one of the many "launches" of Stephen Kinzer's new book: Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future - the one hosted by HasNa (apparently, he had been going around various think-tanks and organizations over the past two days, actively promoting it). Certainly, the title speaks for itself and, just as in all book presentations, the major idea was to sell without giving away much of the content. Despite that, however, Kinzer did make a substantial presentation, outlining his views on the current and future U.S. policy in the Middle East.

As the author himself stated, Einstein's definition of insanity lies at the core of his perspective: "doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results." According to him, the United States has found itself in such a situation, since its Cold War policies and approaches in the Middle East have remained largely unchanged, while the strategic interests and the facts on the ground are transforming fairly rapidly.

In a nutshell, the major underlying theme in the book - as presented by Kinzer - is the need for the U.S. to recognize that Turkey and Iran hold the key to America's (as well as Israel's) true, long-term, interest in the region: stability.

Iran is important since it has effectively become the regional superpower: politically, economically, militarily, and even socially (owing much to Americans themselves, who helped by ousting Saddam). Given its size and influence, then, Iran can be the kingmaker in many issues that involve American interests in the region. Therefore, Kinzer said, it is absolutely crucial to bring Iran to the negotiating table, and show true good will from the American side. "Countries make security concessions only when they feel safe," he pointed out.

Turkey, in its turn, can play the role of the key mediator between the two, as well as between Israel and others, especially given its increasing influence over the past several years in the region and around the world.

Kinzer also emphasized that both these countries are perhaps the only ones in the Muslim world that have the true potential for becoming true democracies, given their past experience and socio-political culture. Interestingly enough, he said he believes that if Iran's religious cloak is removed, it stands an even greater chance of becoming a genuinely democratic nation than Turkey. He further clarified that he was referring to the somewhat different understanding of the concept that exists in Turkey: namely, the "guided democracy" approach (i.e. supported by the military establishment). Kinzer also talked about the Iranians' general lack of an extremely nationalist strain in politics (referring to the population at large, and not the current President), which is essentially at the core of the Kemalist legacy.

Talking about Iran, Kinzer also made sure to point out that Iranians are an extremely pro-American society: exceptional in the region, if not the entire world. "American pop culture is huge there. The Internet culture is huge." He suggested that the explanation for that is the increasing recognition among Iranians of what they are missing in terms of socio-political and economic freedoms in their own country, while it is not the case in Turkey, for instance.

Kinzer said the key challenges for the U.S. to handle are its own short-sightedness and rashness of acting on emotions. He suggested that America undermines its national security by disregarding the long-term implications of its current actions, as well as by indulging in wishful thinking as to what the Middle East should look like. Instead, the U.S. should start operating in the "real world": recognize the status quo as it is and try working within the given circumstances. The Iranian regime is here to stay, Kinzer said, and the U.S. "needs to deal with it as it is." Waiting for "the right time" is wrong, since it might be a long wait.

The greatest highlight of his talk for me, however, was his reference to the underlying cultural differences between the U.S. and the Middle East. He said, "Americans don't really know how to translate what the Middle East is saying." Here, he suggested the example of the 2009 Presidential Elections in Iran and his own observations about perspectives from Iranians. According to him, most of the people he talked to believe that change is inevitable, but that it will happen some time in the future, when sufficient momentum and right circumstances coincide. Thus, for Iranians who have a history that goes back 2,500 years, taking time for a gradual transformation is quite understandable, Kinzer said. Americans, on the other hand, are "very positivist and impatient" and strongly cling to what he calls the "can-do mentality", which requires immediate, even if unsustainable, results. (Here I can't help but recall Fisk's reference to most of the American policies in the Middle East as "the band-aid approach".)

He reiterated that by doing so, the U.S. is actually undermining its own goals and interests, since its policies intensify the anger and make the region all the more explosive. "We need some big thinking. Some new ideas." But the American foreign policy establishment, according to the author, does not want to listen to its true allies in the region, since taking advice does not correspond to "the American way of thinking."

It is also noteworthy that Kinzer called for more, what seemed to be, public diplomacy. He said it is important to think beyond the "narrow spectrum of acceptable options", and switch from a "regime-to-regime" approach to one that considers the people of these nations. Thus, a hostile American policy toward Iran (or, especially, a military action) will "kill the biggest strategic asset in the region": the pro-American sentiment. He said the U.S. needs to involve, rather than marginalize hostile regimes, since that will expose the cracks to their own publics and thus, facilitate an organic process of change. Such an approach would be more viable in the long-term, as opposed to attempts to "impose democracy" in places where its natural pace simply needs more time.

Kinzer concluded his talk by quoting the famous Sufi poet Rumi: “Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open?” I don't believe his book can provide an answer, though.



  1. Is he insane????

  2. heh. no. he's just point blank blunt... and VERY conscious in terms of realpolitik.

  3. Hey! When did you change your blog format? I like it!

  4. hehe, thanks! a couple of days ago. trying to get back "on track". no success so far... :((