June 15, 2010

America’s Future Partners: Turkey and Iran?

Washington, DC – “The only thing new in this world is the history that you don’t know,” Stephen Kinzer said, reciting the famous Harry Truman quote. A veteran foreign correspondent and author of the new book Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future, Kinzer spoke Monday at the New America Foundation to shed some light on the history of Turkey and Iran that most people don’t know, and with that foundation offer his vision for a strategic realignment in the Middle East. Kinzer believes that Turkey and Iran are the “two logical partners of the United States” in the 21st century. In contrast to their Arab neighbors, both have a democratic tradition going back over a century, and large masses in both countries are educated and have strong democratic ideals. In the case of Iran, the Green Movement was a testimony to Iranians’ desire for democracy, Kinzer said. Such a popular movement would be unimaginable anywhere in the Arab world where elections don’t regularly take place or are expected to be rigged when they do. According to Kinzer, the long-term prospects for democracy in Iran are good; one day, Iran will likely even surpass Turkey, he said. For the first time in its history, Turkey also has the ability to project significant influence in the region. Having embraced its Islamic identity and being perceived as independent, Turkey can now play a major role in the region and among the Muslim world. The US, Kinzer argues, must deal with the world as it is and not “as we wish it to be” — meaning the so-called “middle powers” like Turkey must be embraced as a positive and powerful force in the international arena. According to Kinzer the problem with American policy in the region is that it is largely stuck in the Cold War paradigm in which Israel and Saudi Arabia were perceived to have had the greatest strategic value. But today, Iran and Turkey carry the most strategic weight. Turkey is strategically located, has a large economy, and can set an example for the rest of the Muslim world. Turkey has a powerful networking ability in the region and the trust of regional actors. Similarly, Iranian interests seem to be aligned with American interests in their opposition to radical Sunni groups, need for the free flow of oil, and desire for long-term stability in Afghanistan and Iraq. Kinzer argues that Iran is the key to resolving these issues. The reality has changed since the Cold War, but we have not changed our policies to adapt to this changing reality. “We are facing a new era,” Kinzer declared. “But we haven’t been able to get out of the quicksand of our 20th century policies.” Kinzer rejects the argument that engaging Iran would make it into a significant regional power, arguing that that is already the case Kinzer said US policy reminds him of a well-known quote about Katharine Hepburn: “she runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.” Oftentimes in the US, it seems that is also the limit of Iran policy options. US policy makers need to break out of their narrow consensus, Kinzer says, and think creatively in order to advance American interests. We cannot continue to wait for the right time to engage Iran because we may wait forever, he said. Instead, the time for engagement is now, and so he asks US policymakers to heed Rumi’s words when he asks, “Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open?”




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