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Reset: Stephen Kinzer's Vision of a New U.S. Relationship with Turkey and Iran

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Until quite recently, it seemed that Turkey had a clearly defined role in the Middle East, from the standpoint of U.S. policy. They were the "good Muslims," who were part of NATO, who contributed troops to U.S. wars, and who had good relations with Israel.

In the past few weeks, therefore, some Americans may have been startled to see the government of Turkey seemingly playing a very different role. First, together with Brazil, Turkey negotiated a nuclear fuel swap agreement with Iran to defuse the standoff over Iran's nuclear program and forestall a controversial U.S./Israeli push for new sanctions against Iran at the U.N. Although the deal was very similar to one proposed by the Obama Administration - and Brazil and Turkey had a letter from Obama encouraging them to press forward with the deal - Obama Administration officials dismissed the deal, and far from being grateful to Turkey and Brazil, made a show of being angry. But instead of being chastened, Turkey and Brazil insisted their deal was good - invoking their letter from Obama to demonstrate their case - and insisted that the U.S. should pursue it.

Meanwhile - with much more spectacular results, as it turned out - Turkey gave indirect backing to an international convoy of ships carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza in protest and defiance of the U.S.-approved Israeli-Egyptian siege of Gaza's civilian population. When the Israeli military attacked the convoy, killing nine Turkish citizens, Turkey threatened to break diplomatic relations with Israel, unless Israel apologized, agreed to an international investigation of the attack, and lifted the blockade on Gaza. Meanwhile, Turkey sharply criticized the Obama Administration's unwillingness to condemn the Israeli attack or to support an international investigation. In the wake of this high-profile confrontation, Egypt announced that it would leave its border with Gaza open indefinitely, and went so far as to claim credit for having "broken the blockade."

Does Turkey's new, more independent foreign policy represent a threat to America? Or might Turkey's new policies present an opportunity for a new alignment that addresses and de-escalates the conflicts of the broader Middle East?

Since many Americans know little about Turkey, many may find it plausible when Liz Cheney claims that "it looks like" Turkey is "supporting Hamas" in "wanting to destroy the state of Israel."

It's a very opportune time to hear from former New York Times correspondent and bestselling author Stephen Kinzer, whose new book "Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future" is published today. Kinzer argues that the world has changed sufficiently since the Cold War so that a fundamental rebalancing of U.S. relationships in the Middle East, away from excessive attachment to the current policies of the Israeli and Saudi governments and towards greater cooperation with Turkey and Iran, would be in the interests of the United States. [Kinzer will be speaking about the book in a free webinar Friday;here are some other upcoming Kinzer appearances.]

Kinzer's case for a new relationship with Turkey and Iran may strike many Americans as unintuitive, particularly in the case of Iran. But Kinzer's basic point is that a strategic vision for the future isn't merely an extrapolation from the present: it's an ability to envision a future realignment that would be fundamentally different, just as President Nixon saw the possibility for a fundamentally different relationship between the U.S. and China, based on "mutual interests and mutual respect," as President Obama put it in his speech to the Turkish Parliament in April 2009.

Kinzer begins his case with the story of Howard Baskerville, the Rachel Corrie, if you will, of U.S.-Iran relations: a young American whose life and death suggests the possibility of a different relationship between the U.S. and Iran, one based on sympathy for Iranian national aspirations. Baskerville was a Presbyterian schoolteacher from Nebraska working in the city of Tabriz when royalist forces supported by Russia and Britain - who had agreed between themselves in 1907 to partition the country into spheres of influence - laid siege to the city during the Constitutional Revolution. Baskerville - like the nine Turks - was trying to break the siege when he was killed by a sniper in April 1909. Today, Kinzer notes, Baskerville is among the most honored foreigners in Iran: schools and streets are named after him; a bust of him is on display at Constitution House in Tabriz.

Another American in Iran in this period whose contribution suggested the possibility of a different relationship between the U.S. and Iran was Morgan Shuster, appointed Treasurer General of Persia by the Iranian parliament in May 1911. The goal of his appointment was to assist the Iranian Parliament in resisting British and Russian control. Shuster argued that it was essential for the effective functioning of the Iranian state for it to be able to collect taxes - including from wealthy landowners under British and Russian protection. The Russians and the British had other ideas, and in December 1911, Russia demanded that Parliament dismiss Shuster in 48 hours, and promise not to employ foreigners without the permission of the Russians and the British. When Parliament refused to comply, Russian troops occupied Tehran, and under Russian and British pressure, Shuster was dismissed.

In February 1921, in the face of widespread Iranian resistance to direct British control, the commander of British forces in Iran, General Edmond Ironside, told Reza Shah that if he staged a coup, Britain would not object. Four days later, Reza Shah successfully carried out a coup. Although Reza Shah came to power with British support, he took some measures to limit British influence, and when he tried to keep Iran neutral in World War II, Britain forced him to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Shah, in September 1941.

After the war, many Iranians wanted and expected more democracy and more freedom from British control, and by 1950 Mohammad Mossadegh was a key standard-bearer of these two ideas. When the American oil company Aramco made a fifty-fifty split of oil revenues with Saudi Arabia, Iranians demanded the same deal from the British-controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now known as British Petroleum.) But the British refused to raise Iran's 16 percent share. In response to the British refusal to negotiate, in the spring of 1951, the Parliament voted to nationalize Iran's oil and made Mossadegh Prime Minister.

To prevent Iran from successfully reclaiming its oil, Britain ordered all British oil technicians to return home, mounted a boycott campaign to make sure oil technicians from other countries did not come to Iran, persuaded oil companies in other countries, including the US, to refuse to buy any oil Iran produced, imposed a naval blockade on Iran to prevent tankers from entering to pick up oil, and froze Iran's accounts in London and stopped exporting key commodities to Iran. Sound familiar?

These measures, of course, brought tremendous economic hardship to Iran. Unemployment and poverty increased. But the Iranian government under Mossadegh refused to capitulate to British pressure. Britain tried its hand at "democracy promotion" - bribing members of Iran's parliament to support a no-confidence notion against Mossadegh - but their plotting was discovered, and Mossadegh shut down the British embassy, sending home all the British "diplomats" - including the British spies who had been assigned the task of overthrowing him. The British turned to the Truman Administration, but Truman wasn't interested in promoting regime change in Iran, believing that the impasse was largely due to excessive British greed. But the incoming Eisenhower Administration was easily sold on the idea of promoting regime change.

How did CIA operative Kermit Roosevelt orchestrate the coup that ousted Mossadegh? Today it would be called "democracy promotion," and perhaps it would be funded by the so-called National Endowment for Democracy. Roosevelt bribed "newspaper columnists, mullahs, and members of Parliament" to denounce Mossaedegh; they called him "an atheist, a Jew, a homosexual, and even a British agent," Kinzer notes. Roosevelt hired a street gang to rampage through Tehran, "firing pistols and smashing windows while shouting, 'We love Mossadegh and Communism!'" Then Roosevelt hired a second street gang to attack the first one, "seeking to portray Mossadegh as unable to control his own capital city." A mob of several thousand, unaware that it was acting under the direction of the CIA, converged on Mossadegh's house. Military units began shelling the house. Hundreds of people were killed. Mossadegh was arrested and imprisoned for three years, followed by house arrest for life.

If Truman's view had won out rather than Eisenhower's, and the US had not overthrown Mossadegh, perhaps today we would know Mossadegh as a George Washington of Iran. The "murder of Hamlet's dad" of the Kinzer story is that instead of supporting a George Washington of Iran, we overthrew him, because he nationalized Iran's oil. And the central question of the Kinzer story is not avenging the death of Hamlet's dad, but trying to rectify it, with the goal being that the end of the story not be a stage littered with bodies but a negotiated agreement and a new relationship.

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Robert Naiman is Senior Policy Analyst at Just Foreign Policy. Naiman has worked as a policy analyst and researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. He has masters degrees in economics and (more...)
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