Stephen Kinzer, former New York Times correspondent and author of several books, including All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror and Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. His latest book, just out last week, is called Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future.
We turn now to America’s role in a changing Middle East. Israel has set up an internal inquiry into its deadly attack last month on the Gaza-bound flotilla of humanitarian aid ships. The attack left eight Turks and one Turkish American dead. Meanwhile, Turkey, along with Brazil, negotiated a nuclear fuel swap agreement with Iran and then voted against a UN Security Council resolution last week that imposed another round of sanctions on Iran. Award-winning journalist and bestselling author Stephen Kinzer is out with a new book that looks back into history to make sense of some of these shifting alliances in the Middle East and to chart a new vision for US foreign policy in the region. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Stephen Kinzer, we’re going to come forward. Your theory, the thesis you’re putting forward in Reset, is that there could be a strategic alliance, a new power triangle, between the United States, Iran and Turkey. Explain the histories of these countries that makes you believe this and where the US could engage with them today.
STEPHEN KINZER: I start out from the principle that our policy toward the Middle East is really stuck in a vanished era. Our policies may or may not have made sense during the Cold War, but the Cold War has been over for more than twenty years. The strategic environment in the Middle East has changed tremendously. New threats to American and Western interests have emerged there, and new opportunities have also emerged there. But our policy is still stuck in a former era. We’re trying to deal with problems that don’t even exist anymore. We’re way back in time.
We need to be looking forward into the twenty-first century and figuring out how do we want to conform our policies toward the Middle East in a way that will be beneficial to us and produce the result that, in the long run, is going to be good for the United States in the Middle East, which is stability. The policies we’ve followed up to now have manifestly failed to do that. During all this period that the US has been a dominant force in the Middle East, we have wound up producing a region that is a pit of violence and hatred and terror and war. So, we’re in a situation like Einstein referred to, I think, when he defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. That’s what we’re doing in the Middle East. So I start from this premise, that we need to think big. We need to break out of this very narrow spectrum of acceptable opinions and try to think in a more creative, original way about what could the future of the Middle East look like. And the second basis for my ideas is that we’ve got to stop thinking about what to do next week and next month. We’ve got to start thinking about what to do in the decades ahead. This is something that the American foreign policy establishment is notoriously bad at doing. So I’m trying to make my contribution.
Here’s what I see. I think that in the future the United States needs to look for partners in that region. I think we’ve shown that we don’t fully understand the subtleties there, although we have this idea we get the Middle East, other countries don’t get the Middle East, including countries that are there, therefore our policies are the wise ones and foolish countries in that region that have other ideas are just ignorant and don’t know how really to resolve these problems.
So, who should be our partners? I believe when a country looks for partners, we should be looking for countries that fit two criteria. Number one, they should be countries that have long-term strategic goals that are relatively congruent with ours. But that isn’t enough. You also need one other thing, because alliances and partnerships that are based on just relationships between ruling elites, government-to-government alliances, often tend to be very weak, because those regimes with which we partner are often very unpopular in their own country. And then, since people don’t like their regimes, they see the US friendly with those regimes, then they don’t like us, either. So there needs to be a second basis for our relationship with our partners, and that is, you need to find countries to partner with whose societies are similar to your own. If you look around the Muslim Middle East, there are only two countries that fit those two criteria — long-term strategic goals similar to ours and societies that share values like ours — and those are Turkey and Iran.
Now, a partnership among those three countries right now would be difficult to achieve, although I think it might not be as difficult as some people imagine, if we really open our minds and try to be creative here. On the other hand, over the long run, I think, at the very least, we shouldn’t be doing anything that will make this partnership more difficult in the future. Turkey is producing a very interesting new approach to foreign affairs. They’re essentially telling the United States, "We share your values. We share your goals in this part of the world. We’re your military ally. We support the same principles that you support. But we have some advice on tactics for you. You can’t be so confrontational here. You’ve got to ratchet down your rhetoric and try to resolve some of the problems in this region through diplomacy and compromise and negotiation." America is not ready for that kind of advice yet, and that’s what really lies behind the friction of these last few weeks between Turkey and the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about Turkey, the United States and Israel. Talk about the US relationship — actually, interestingly, you talk about the US and their relationship with Israel and Saudi Arabia, and now you’re talking about an alliance with Turkey and Iran. But talk about the attack on the Gaza flotilla by the Israeli commandos and what this has meant for Turkey and Israel.
STEPHEN KINZER: There’s been a lot of talk recently about the Islamization of Turkish society, which I think is way overblown. What you’re really seeing is a more full expression of democracy, now that Turks are free to be what they want. At the same time, there’s been this parallel view, particularly in recent weeks, that Turkey is adopting kind of a more Islamic or Middle East-focused foreign policy and they’ve essentially become a "frienemy," they’ve flipped sides, they’re a potential defector from the coalition of the virtuous over to Iran and crazy Islamists. This also is way exaggerated.
What we’ve seen in the last few weeks between Turkey and Israel is not the result of some great surge of Islamist belief or anti-Israel passion in Turkey. In fact, Turkey and Israel have had very good relations over decades. Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize Israel when it was created in the late 1940s. The relationship between the two has been economic, it’s been political, and it’s even been military. So they have a long history. And even before the establishment of the state of Turkey, relations between Ottoman Empire and Jews were fantastic. Jews were flooding into the Ottoman Empire from Poland and Russia and from Spain and Germany for centuries. So there’s a long history there.
So why did this conflict emerge? I think it really is a function of what happened in Gaza. And it’s hard for us in America to realize what it’s like sitting in Turkey or somewhere else in the Middle East. You’re watching every single day on your TV what’s going on in Gaza. People are really focused on Gaza. And that project has been going on for well over a year now. Every time there’s an episode in Gaza, it gets replayed over and over. You remember that Turkey was negotiating a secret deal between Israel and Syria at the time of the Gaza invasion. And Turkey was shocked that just as this secret new breakthrough toward peace seemed like it was imminent between Israel and Syria, the Turks woke up one morning and found out that the whole thing had been blown up because Israel has just invaded Gaza. So the Turks were furious. They really felt betrayed. Last year’s blowup at Davos between the Turkish prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, and the president of Israel was not based on just a general hostility. It was specifically about Gaza. And this flotilla is not a Turkish attack on Israel. What it is is a statement by Turkey that we find the Gaza occupation intolerable. So, I think we should separate that particular episode — what’s been happening in Gaza over the last eighteen months — from the larger Turkey-Israel problem.
I think this relationship is not lost forever. I’d like to see both sides start to ratchet down their rhetoric now and try to pursue a more conciliatory policy, and I think that is possible, because what the Turks are really looking for is not the end of Israel or huge changes in Israel, what they’re looking for is changes in Gaza. If that can start to happen, I think this relationship can be repaired.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, what about Israel attacking this ship and killing eight Turks, one Turkish American? What made Israel, in its relationship with Turkey, think that they could get away with this?
STEPHEN KINZER: I think even friends of Israel in the United States are beginning to ask themselves, is Israel acting in ways that are really going to protect its long-term security, or is Israel acting in ways that actually endanger its long-term security? Israel is not going to be able to maintain its position in the Middle East indefinitely just by military means. I think the attack on the ship in the Mediterranean that was headed for Gaza was an expression of Israeli desire to set the rules for that part of the world. They don’t want any challenge. However, I think this operation wound up being a success for the planners of the flotilla beyond anything they could have imagined. It’s another great gift that Israel has given its so-called enemies in Hamas and in Gaza. In the long run, what’s going to protect Israel is a stable neighborhood. Therefore, countries on the outside, like the United States, that want to help guarantee Israel’s long-term survival should be trying to encourage it to pursue policies, and should be pursuing policies themselves, that result in a calming of tensions in that region.
In an odd way, Israel and Iran are, in one sense, in a somewhat comparable position right now. They’re the two countries that many other countries in the Middle East don’t like, and they are the two countries that lots of countries in the world don’t like. There’s a tremendous amount of anti-Israel emotion running around the world now and a tremendous amount of anti-Iran emotion. A lot of big powers, and smaller countries, too, would love to punish those countries. We’re very angry at them. There’s a great impulse to try to sanction them and push them into a corner.
But actually, it’s not a good idea to try to isolate countries, and I’m talking about both Iran and Israel, to punish them, sanction them, make them feel alone and friendless. Instead, a policy of balance between Iran and Israel would aim to pull both of them out of their isolation and out of their paranoia. This ought to be the goal of American policy, not trying to use the rhetoric and policies of the past to beat Iran with a stick and then essentially to say that what Israel does is usually tolerable, even though they’re — they can be rascals at times, but in the end we’re always their friend. We need to find a way in which the interests of these two countries, both of which actually coincide over the long run, can be brought a little closer together in the short run.
AMY GOODMAN: On Turkey, before we break and then come back to discuss this further, Stephen Kinzer, the repression of Kurds, of Armenians, where does that fit into the democratic tradition that you spoke about?
STEPHEN KINZER: Turkey is going around the world now telling everybody, including the United States, it’s no good to try to resolve political conflicts by force. You have to do it by conciliation, by negotiation, by compromise. Not surprisingly, there must be plenty of people in the world who at least think, if they don’t say to Turkey, why don’t you follow your own advice? When you’re dealing with the Kurds in southeastern Turkey, why don’t you announce that the idea of military confrontation with the Kurdish revolutionary movement is over, and we’re going to try to resolve the Kurdish problem with the same conciliatory policies that we’re advocating others to follow? There’s no doubt that this is one of the last remaining drags on Turkey’s ability to play a big role in that region as the chief conciliator. Turkey has to start following its own advice, not just with the Kurds, but I would say also with Israel. After this terrible conflict that happened a couple of weeks ago on the Mediterranean, I’d like to see Turkey now say, the world understands the situation; everything that happened was very clear. Now it’s time to move forward and see if Turkey can try to build on this to find a relationship that not only will allow it to coexist again in a more friendly way with Israel, but will also produce some benefit for the people of Gaza.
AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Kinzer, former New York Times foreign correspondent, we’re going to come back to our discussion. His new book is called Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Stephen Kinzer, author of Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future. I want to turn to the issue of sanctions against Iran. You’re talking about resetting the relationship, the powerful triangle that could be between the US, Turkey and Iran. The UN Security Council just approved a fourth round of sanctions on Iran over its alleged nuclear program. President Obama called these, quote, "the toughest sanctions ever faced by the Iranian government." On a visit to China last week, the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, slammed the sanctions.
PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: [translated] The Iranian nation not only believes that this resolution lacks legal value, but it also believes that the resolution is indicative of the weakness of the nations involved. The issue of nuclear energy is merely an excuse. The government of the United States wants to swallow the Middle East. By conquering the Middle East, it wants to make its presence concrete in the world. I will say this now: Iran will never let the United States do this.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Iranian president. Turkey and Brazil were the only two countries that voted against the resolution, arguing they saw no reason for imposing more sanctions against Iran. Iran recently reached a deal with Turkey and Brazil to ship most of its enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for low-level nuclear fuel to run a medical reactor. Last week, the Turkish [prime minister], Tayyip Erdogan, emphasized that Turkey would continue diplomatic initiatives with Iran.
PRIME MINISTER RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: [translated] From the beginning, we have always advocated a diplomatic solution to the standoff. That is why we voted against the resolution. They said they are willing to negotiate. Therefore, we will continue to do our best to keep the Tehran agreement on the table with Brazil and Iran.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Turkish prime minister, Erdogan.
Stephen Kinzer, talk about the US relationship with Iran and these latest sanctions and what they mean.
STEPHEN KINZER: First of all, the sanctions are minimal. They had to be watered down so much in order to get enough support in the Security Council that they’re really not going to have any serious effect on Iran. I’m not against sanctions as a matter of moral principle. I’m more about results. So I’m asking myself, what’s the endgame here? What do we intend or hope to achieve by these sanctions? If we really believe that these sanctions can make Iran kneel and surrender its nuclear program, that might be a good reason to impose them. But nobody believes that’s going to happen. So, if that’s the case, what is the point? What is the goal here? What are we trying to reach?
Now, Turkey has a message for the United States about Iran. And that is, we can find a way out of this. There might be a way to deflate this conflict and de-escalate it. I actually was in Turkey a couple of weeks ago, when the deal that Brazil and Turkey struck with Iran was announced. And there was quite a bit of jubilation there. It really seemed like this terribly escalating confrontation between the US and Iran over the nuclear issue had now been, if not resolved, at least moved to a lower level, and there seemed to be a way out. It took about six hours for people in Washington to wake up, and then they immediately slapped down this agreement. Secretary Clinton and others were remarkably strong in rejecting it totally and then accusing Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey and Lula in Brazil of being kind of naive, innocent, stupid schoolboys who got fooled and snookered by these ever-crafty Iranians. It really was quite a strong reaction, and I think the Turks were quite surprised. Actually, I think Erdogan and Lula believed that they were doing the US a favor. In fact, there’s some indication at least one of them had a letter from Obama. They thought they were doing a deal with Iran that would allow the US a way out of the crisis and would allow Iran a way out of the crisis.
Now, the American reaction was that that deal wasn’t complete enough, there were holes in it. And that was true. But if the US wanted to, it could have seen the glass half-full and could have said, "This is the great basis for possible more negotiations that could lead to a way out of this crisis. It’s not good enough, but it’s a great start." But instead, we said, "This is no good, and we reject it entirely."
So, the Turks are saying, "We can help build you a bridge to Tehran. Listen to us. We’re the ones in the neighborhood that are going to suffer if there’s huge chaos and upheaval in Iran, like there was when you dropped your army into Iraq. We don’t want that to happen. We have some advice for you on how you might be able to build a relationship with Iran that might achieve the goals that all of us want." The Americans are not ready for this. The US is not ready to take advice from Turkey on how to deal with some Middle East problem. We feel that the Middle Easterners don’t understand the situation. Turkey is just a small country. They’re amateurs in the world. They don’t see with the clarity that we see. And I think this has become very, very frustrating to the Turks.
I don’t think the relationship between the US and Turkey is deeply frayed, as some people are saying in the US, but I do think what you’re seeing behind this is something that’s historic and long-term. It’s bigger than the attempt to make a deal between Iran and the US. It’s bigger than the Gaza flotilla. It’s a question of the arc of history. The Turks might be a little bit ahead of the arc. What they’re saying is we represent a phenomenon you’re going to see more of in the twenty-first century, and that is the rise of the middle powers. This will be a century when Mexico and Brazil and Turkey and Russia and South Africa and India are becoming major players in the world, and we’re going to start now. The Americans, if anything, are looking back to a past era, when we ruled, and we’re saying, "No, we do not want that era to come too soon. We’re going to try to maintain our power." So I think behind these conflicts and arguments between Turkey and the United States right now lies this larger conception of the emergence of a new bloc of countries that’s going to be very important in the twenty-first century. It’s trying to peck its way out of the shell right now, and the United States is trying to keep it in that shell as long as possible.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Saudi Arabia, why the relationship the United States has with Saudi Arabia?
STEPHEN KINZER: Saudi Arabia and Israel have of course been our traditional long-term allies in the Middle East. And there’s a general belief that our relationship with Israel is based on shared values and history, and our relation with Saudi Arabia is based mainly on oil. There is some truth to both of these clichés, but as you saw in my book, I devote a substantial section to talking about another reason why we became allied with those two countries during the Cold War. It was something that wasn’t really clear at the time. It’s only becoming more clear now. And that is that Saudi Arabia and Israel were the only two countries in the world that provided the United States with lots of covert, clandestine help for our Cold War battles in a series of obscure battlegrounds. When, for example, President Reagan wanted to help the Guatemalan military dictatorship in the 1980s, and he wasn’t allowed to do that because the Congress had banned American aid to Guatemala, he got the Israelis to do it. When we wanted to help the Contras in Nicaragua during a period when we were not allowed to do that by law, we got the Saudis secretly to give money for it. Saudi Arabia funded the mujahideen war in Afghanistan. The Israelis were our proxies in South Africa. You see this all over the world. And this was really a fundamental basis of our relationship with those two countries.
Now, when it comes to Saudi Arabia, I really feel that we’ve become too suffocating a presence there. This is a country whose long-term strategic goals are very unclear, and in many cases could conflict with the ours, and whose society has absolutely nothing to do with American society. That doesn’t make it a good long-term ally going forward. I think in the Arab world, in general, we’ve been too suffocating. We not only have a position on every dispute between Arab countries, but even disputes within Arab countries: this faction should be allowed into your government, keep that faction out.
The US has traditionally been very afraid of democracy in the Arab world, which is the last place in the world that democracy has failed to arrive. And the reason is, we fear that if there is democracy in the Arab world, it will produce, ultimately, some kind of Islamic alternative. That’s probably a legitimate fear. That probably is what would happen. But in the long run, that’s going to emerge anyway. And the sooner the lid gets taken off, the less militant that alternative will be. History of the West shows that Christian and Western governments had to go through different periods of experimentation to figure out what was the form of government that was best for us. This is a process the Arab world is also going to have to go through. So I’d like to see the US pull a little further away from Saudi Arabia and the other Arab countries and essentially let Arabia be Arabia. If this happens to have the result that Saudi Arabia makes it a little more difficult for us to get their oil, that would actually be good for us, because we need another kick to try to pull that needle out of our arm.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, I thought your piece that you wrote, "Treat Israel Like Iran," was a very interesting one, Stephen Kinzer. You said, "Quick, name the rogue state in the Middle East. Hints: It has an active nuclear-weapons program but conducts it in secret; its security organs regularly kill perceived enemies of the state, both at home and abroad; its political process has been hijacked by religious fundamentalists who believe they are doing God’s will; its violent recklessness destabilizes the world’s most volatile region; and it seems as deaf to reason as it is impervious to pressure. Also: Its name begins with 'I'."
"Instead of treating Israel and Iran so differently, the West might try placing them in the same policy basket, and seeking equivalent concessions from both." How?
STEPHEN KINZER: The world needs a big security concession from Iran. The world also needs security concessions from Israel. But countries only make security concessions when they feel safe. Therefore, it should be in the interest of the United States and all who want to stabilize that region to try to make those two countries feel safe.
How are we going to do that? I really think that with Iran, the possibility does exist for a very new and very different kind of relationship. What we need to do is approach Iran not simply with the demand, "You must negotiate on your nuclear program," and achieve certain results that we come into the negotiations demanding; what we should do instead, since that’s an obvious nonstarter, is to say to Iran what we said to the Chinese: "We have a lot of problems and complaints about what you do. We know there are things we do that you don’t like. So let’s make a list of all these things, and then let’s talk about all of them." Then I think, in a larger context, we could start to build a very interesting new relationship with Iran that I’d like to see as the core of a new security architecture for that region, into which Israel would also be drawn. Once you have a sense in those countries that I’m not about to be bombed and destroyed tomorrow, you open up doors for treating them in ways that would allow both of them in partnership to ratchet down the threats they seem to pose to each other.
But as long as policy from outside powers, including the United States, is so clearly anchored in the realities of the past era, of the Cold War, we’re never going to be able to do that. We need to break out of this policy quicksand that we’re in in Washington, think more creatively. Right now we’re thinking of Iran as kind of the evil empire and Ahmadinejad as the Hollywood central casting image of the new Hitler and Israel as the heroes of democracy and the plucky little state fighting all those evil enemies in the Middle East. What we need to do is leave our emotions outside the room. Emotion is always the enemy of wise statecraft. We’re so angry at Iran, we can’t even see what’s good for us in the long run. And I think that applies for the whole region. We’re so caught up in the emotions that guided our policies in the past and at our — we’re so caught up by our old angers —-
AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.
STEPHEN KINZER: —- and our old passions, that we’re not able look forward. So I’d like to see us realize that our relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia were shaped in order to meet the needs of an era that doesn’t exist anymore. So it’s not about throwing any country off the bus and inviting a new one on. It’s about trying to create a new environment, a new atmosphere, a new architecture in that region, in which all the countries would feel they have a stake.
AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Kinzer, we have to leave it there. Thank you very much for being with us. Stephen Kinzer, former New York Times foreign correspondent, his new book, Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future.
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