Missing links?

Iran and Turkey have long democratic traditions that are suited to a new US policy, writes Stephen Kinzer.

Turkey Brazil Iran 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Turkey Brazil Iran 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Stephen Kinzer is a man on a mission. He believes that America’s future in the Middle East means weaning itself of its old alliances with Saudi Arabia and Israel and establishing stronger ties with Turkey and possibly Iran. Kinzer, author of books on American involvement in Iran and the Third World and a former bureau chief for The New York Times in Turkey, wants to bring much to the table with his newest polemic.
“Remaining imprisoned by old policies, old alliances and old assumptions will produce only a repetition of old failures.” In his view, despite the end of the Cold War, the US has remained dutifully attached to its two best friends in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia, to the region’s and America’s detriment. He is surely not the only critic of US foreign policy in this respect, but his prognosis for the reason that America needs to turn toward Turkey and Iran is original, if wrong.
He argues that Iran and Turkey both turned toward democracy in the first half of the 20th century and that they have long democratic traditions that, although dormant in Iran, are suited to a new US policy. The US shares strategic interests with both Turkey and Iran, such as Islamic moderation (Turkey), the ability to resolve regional conflicts and a shared dislike for Sunni extremism as embodied by al-Qaida and the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, “if America wants to stabilize the Middle East, its policies are having the opposite effect.”
To get the readers to share his conclusions, Kinzer wants to tell us a story. It begins with Howard Baskerville, an American missionary living in Iran in 1909. Baskerville died in Iran, fighting alongside Iranians in their nascent struggle for democracy against the Qajar dynasty. The other hero of Kinzer’s is Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey. The author’s love for the Young Turks, who overthrew the sultan in 1908, and the secularizing ways of Ataturk obscure a more brutal reality. During that period ethnic cleansing of all the non-Muslim minorities in Turkey (Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians) took place. This is hardly the revolution that many in the US tend to think of when they imagine democracy spreading throughout the world, but it may just be the type of democracy that many Middle Eastern countries opt for.
Kinzer weaves a familiar tale regarding Turkey’s emergence as a secular nation state in the 1920s. Modernity required “catching up” to the West. Ataturk “attacked religious power mercilessly.” He ordered Koran schools closed, pilgrimages to shrines were forbidden and dervish sects were outlawed. Meanwhile Reza Shah in Iran was attempting to accomplish the same. In 1936 he outlawed the Islamic veil.
Kinzer not only admires Reza and Ataturk but also Muhammad Mossadegh, the Europeantrained Iranian finance minister turned nationalist prime minister in 1951. According to Kinzer the CIA stepped in for the first time to depose this democratically elected leader. The love for democracy of many Iranians simmered under the surface during the 1960s and 1970s. Hopes were again shattered in 1979.
For the author, the Iranian revolution and the infamous hostage crisis made Iran the “hateful other” in the eyes of America. The tragedies in Iran are primarily America’s fault since “Iran’s descent into dictatorship began after the US overthrew the most democratic government it ever had [in 1953].”
Even Madeleine Albright’s attempt at dialogue in 2000 was a “half apology, partly because [she] balanced it with condemnations of the Iranian regime.”
But Iran was one of the few Muslim nations where people publicly mourned 9/11 and it helped the US afterward in Afghanistan.
Democracy has not been without its threats in Turkey. The army has carried out a number of coups whenever it has felt the secular reforms of Ataturk were threatened. In doing so it has also come to be an undemocratic elite. Islamification and the rise of the current Turkish government, along with the wearing of head scarves, has thus come to represent a democratic rebellion.
Kinzer is unsparing in his description of Saudi Arabia, a land where “hypocrisy is the central fact of life.” Israel is not painted well either. It owes its origins to pressure on an American president and “mob-connected celebrities,” and it was treated by the US “like any other developing country.” The author claims Israel aided dictatorships such as “Bolivia, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Burma, the Philippines, Indonesia” which were “equipped... with Galil assault rifles and Uzi submachine guns.”
It is no surprise that Kinzer’s information on Israel comes from known Israel haters Norman Finkelstein, Noam Chomsky and Andrew Cockburn. Unsurprisingly Israel’s conflict “permanently destabilizes the Middle East... and intensifies looming threats to the West.” The solution: an imposed peace by the US.
But if Kinzer is wrong on Israel, does it mean he is wrong on his overall prescription? His main blind spot is that he ignores the fact that the regimes in Turkey and Iran are not democratic.
Turkey, for instance, does not have full free speech and bans popular Internet forums like YouTube. They also make their own decisions, most of which don’t dovetail with US interests.
Maybe US policy should be anchored in Teheran and Ankara, but Teheran and Ankara have to want that too, and at present they don’t.