The Common Culture of Turkey, the United States, and Iran

By David Swanson

I’d guess roughly 3% of the Americans who watch the new Disney movie Prince of Persia have any idea that Persia and Iran are the same place. A similar number are probably aware of Iranians’ demonstrations of sympathy following 9-11 and of Iran’s assistance to the United States in Afghanistan in 2001. But surely an even smaller percentage of Americans know that Iran, Turkey, and our own country all fought revolutions against British colonialism, and developed democracies, our own serving as an inspiration for the others, our nation serving as a friend and ally to them. And you could probably fit into one football stadium every American who knows that Turkey’s democratic advance succeeded where Iran’s failed, principally because Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson, working for the CIA, overthrew Iran’s elected leader and installed a dictator, whom the United States proceeded to support and arm for decades.

The people of Iran, despite everything our government has done, are fond of the United States, but I’m not sure the reverse can be said. The people of Turkey want to be partners with western nations, but is the feeling mutual? Any new book by Stephen Kinzer is always worth reading, and his latest is of critical importance. It’s called “Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future.” In it, Kinzer argues for partnership and improved relations between the United States and the only two Muslim nations in the Middle East that have significant democratic traditions. And he argues for a reconsideration of the tightness of U.S. relations with two other countries in the region: Saudi Arabia and Israel.

While most US conduct toward Iran in recent decades has been shameful, Kinzer begins his book with a very different account of one American over a century ago, Howard Baskerville, who died struggling for Iranian democracy, and who is honored in Iran to this day. Then Kinzer tells us about Morgan Shuster, an American who, almost a century ago, was hired by the Iranian Parliament to help it throw off the colonial rule of the British and the Russians. Kinzer recounts many misdeeds by the British and the Russians leading up to the turn of the century revolutions against colonial rule in Iran and Turkey. Progress toward democracy was slow and indirect, but progress was being made through the first half of the twentieth century, by Kinzer’s account, and the United States was looking good thus far in the eyes of the reader and of the people of the Middle East.

Then we reach the point in the story where the CIA begins its still-ongoing rampage of regime change by overthrowing Mohammed Mossadegh. This was the beginning of a long string of international crimes, it marked a sharp turn downward in U.S. relations with a whole region of the globe, and — while Cold War ideology was used as an excuse — this was actually a crime committed on behalf of BP, the same corporation on whose behalf we’re now banning journalists from the Gulf of Mexico. The United States for decades supported and armed a dictator and his own Iranian CIA, known as SAVAK. “By the mid-1970s,” Kinzer writes,

“dozens of [US weapons companies], including Gruman Aerospace, Lockheed, Bell Helicopter, Northrop, General Electric, McDonnell Douglas, Westinghouse, and Raytheon, had large and busy offices in Iran.”

Iranians at this point feared and despised the United States and were terrified, when they overthrew our dictator, that we would put him back in power. It was at this point that Iranians took 52 U.S. diplomats hostage for 444 days. Building on these miserable relations in the 1980s, the United States backed Iraq in a war on Iran, for a time, and then backed both nations against each other. And yet Iranians persisted in admiring the United States and offered to assist it following the 9-11 attacks in 2001. That breakthrough ended when President George W. Bush shocked Iranians by calling their country evil (and invading and occupying the nations to their east and west). Nonetheless, in 2003, Iran quietly offered to negotiate with the United States, and extended the possibility of negotiating on nuclear power and every other point desired. Bush declined.

Kinzer weaves into his narrative the creation of Saudi Arabia and Israel and the creation of the special relationships these nations have with ours, concluding:

“These two relationships are frozen in time. They have not evolved as the world has evolved. Worse, they have proven unequal to the challenge of peace. The decades during which the United States has shaped its Middle East policy according to the perceived interests of Saudi Arabia and Israel have been decades of war, terror, privation, and intensifying hatred. They have also been decades during which the United States has lost much support, influence, and strategic power in the Middle East. This will continue as long as these two relationships remain unchanged.”

For decades, these two nations have been suppliers of weapons, money, and oil to U.S. wars and U.S.-backed wars. But they have also provided domestic and international crimes and abuses, including significant anti-U.S. attacks by Saudis, including the attacks of 9-11.

What does Kinzer recommend? He would keep the United States on good terms with these nations, but break off the tight relationship and the willingness to ignore and to instigate the commission of crimes and abuses. Kinzer says, rather too vaguely, that we should “pacify Iraq.” Of course, the best way to do that would be to leave Iraq, but Kinzer either disagrees or simply fails to make this clear. We should “refrain from starting new wars,” Kinzer adds. And we should “resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict.” After arguing that the United States has no business in Saudi affairs and should just step back, Kinzer pushes for direct and dominant involvement in Israeli-Palestinian relations. He asserts that everyone knows what must be agreed upon and that the United States must simply insist that it be agreed upon. This may be right but is at least incomplete without stating that the United States can easily begin by refusing to provide Israel with more weapons or with any more cover for its crimes.

Kinzer recommends coming to an understanding with Iran and partnering with Turkey. He means partnering, as equals, not dominating like an empire. While Turkey and Brazil have famously just advanced the prospects for a nuclear agreement with Iran, Kinzer sees Turkey as the one nation able to negotiate between many others:

“When Israel wished to begin secret talks with Syria, it asked Turkey to arrange them. After Sunnis in Iraq decided to boycott national elections, Turkey persuaded them to change their minds and participate. Whenever Turkish officials land in a bitterly divided country like Lebanon or Pakistan of Afghanistan, every faction is eager to talk to them. Turkey is working to calm tensions between Iran and the United States, between Syria and Iraq, between Armenia and Azerbaijan. No country’s diplomats are as welcome in both Tehran and Washington, Moscow and Tblisi, Damascus and Cairo. No other nation is respected by Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Taliban while also maintaining good ties with the Israeli, Lebanese, and Afghan governments.”

But Kinzer recognizes that Turkey’s reputation in other Muslim countries has been boosted by the distance it has kept from the United States, by refusing to allow U.S. planes to use its air base when attacking Iraq, and by denouncing Israel’s attacks on Gaza. Kinzer does not mention that, in blatant disregard for the will of its people, Turkey did grant the U.S. military permission to use its base in the years following the invasion of Iraq, and that resistance to U.S. militarism is still a focus of activism in Turkey. A U.S. partnership with Turkey will need to be radically different from U.S. “partnerships” with other nations. A partnership on equal terms will be one in which we don’t have military bases in their country unless we want them to have bases in our country too.

Turkey has made many democratic advances in hopes of joining Europe, while Iraq and Afghanistan have lagged well behind despite extensive bombing. Kinzer sees Europe’s ultimate acceptance of Turkey into the EU as critically important, along with the United States taking a diplomatic approach more akin to Europe’s, and refraining from trying to solve any problems in Iran using the same tools that have made everything worse in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Here in Charlottesville, Va., R.K. Ramazani frequently enlightens readers of the local newspaper on the subject of Iran. And when Virginian activists visit Iran, they come back inspired to build friendships. If Congress turns down the next $33.5 billion to escalate Middle Eastern wars, we could afford to keep our teachers employed, buy our students copies of “Reset,” invest very heavily in student exchange programs with Iran, and have several billion left over. I wonder if we’d be wiser in that alternative universe or in the one where we watch “The Prince of Persia”.

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