Thursday, November 26, 2009

All The Shah's Men: An Interview with Stephen Kinzer

Not so long ago, lives and careers were destroyed with the notion that communists lurked behind every corner, ready to take America down and destroy it. That same fear and paranoia has trained its eyes on a new "enemy" - muslims. From 9/11 to the recent shootings at Fort Hood, Islam has become an ugly word synonymous with violence and hatred and that misconception threatens to create more instability in our relations with the outside world.

In the mainstream media, commonsense in the realm of foreign policy seems to take a backseat to the soundbite, leaving those who should be heard on the outside looking in. One individual who should definitely be heard is Stephen Kinzer - an author and award-winning foreign correspondent who has reported from more than fifty countries. His book All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror was a huge influence on my thinking about one of the most misunderstood countries in the world - Iran. He recently agreed to answer a few questions I had regarding relations between the U.S. and Iran.

PopCultureJihad: There's been a lot of heated debate recently between Iran and the Obama administration over Iran's developing nuclear program. Obama said that "Iran is breaking rules that all nations must follow." Is the U.S. really held to the same nuclear standards as Iran and why do you think Obama is taking such a hardline approach towards Iran on this issue? Also, if Iran refuses to comply, what actions do you think the U.S. will take being that we already have sanctions in place against Iran?

Stephen: The Non-Proliferation Treaty is essentially a deal between countries that have nuclear weapons and those that don't. The don't-haves promise not to develop these weapons, and the haves promise to reduce their stockpiles steadily with the aim of eliminating them. The haves never carried out their part of the agreement, which has naturally alienated the have-nots.

Attacking or bombing Iran is unlikely to stop this program. It could even have the opposite effect, convincing Iranians that they need a nuclear deterrent to prevent future attacks. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was right when he asserted that “there is no military option that does anything more than buy time.”

The world needs Iran to make an important security concession, just as it needs Israel to make security concessions. No country, however, makes such concessions unless it feels safe. The goal of peacemakers in the Middle East should be to design regional security accords that will reassure both Iran and Israel that their survival is not endangered. Until that happens, Iran will continue to believe that it needs nuclear weapons—meaning that it will continue to pursue its highly destabilizing nuclear program.

PopCultureJihad: The United States and Iran have a common enemy in Al-Qaida and the Taliban. Wouldn't it make sense for us to forge a better relationship with Iran?

Stephen: There would be many possible advantages to a better relationship between Iran and the US:

• Iran can do more than any other country, including the United States, to assure long-term peace in Iraq.
• Iran can also help stabilize Afghanistan, where it has been engaged for centuries.
• A stable and secure Iran, no longer in need of a scapegoat, might stop threatening Israel.
• Iran can tame militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, which would contribute to Israeli security, help stabilize Lebanon, and dramatically improve the prospects for peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
• Reconciliation between Iran and the United States would decisively improve relations between the United States and the Muslim world.
• Iran will have less incentive to invite Russian power into the Middle East, something the United States is rightly eager to avoid.
• Iran is a bitter enemy of al-Qaeda and would cooperate in a transnational effort to crush it.
• Iran has 7 percent of the world’s oil reserves and 16 percent of its natural gas; if the United States does not exploit and buy it, Russia and China will, thereby increasing their strategic leverage in the region.
• Iran’s oil infrastructure is in pitiful shape and desperately needs modernizing that will cost billions of dollars; American companies are ideally placed to do the job.
• An Iran that no longer feels threatened by the United States might be more willing to compromise on nuclear issues.

PopCultureJihad: There have been allegations for quite some time that Iran supports and funds terrorist activities. What is the truth behind these allegations and will it always be the ultimate roadblock to improved U.S./Iranian relations?

Stephen: Iran's support for militant groups is a destabilizing factor in the Middle East. It is unlikely to stop this support, though, in the absence of an overall security accord. It is dangerous to exclude any country, whether it's Iran or Israel, from the regional security architecture. Iran has legitimate security interests. Once they are addressed, Iran may be willing to accept limits on its support for militant groups.

PopCultureJihad: The recent protests in Iran over the disputed election between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir Hossein Mousavi captured the world's attention. What impact do you think these protests have had on Iranian society and do you think it has weakened the clerical leadership overall?

Stephen: Opposition figures in Iran find themselves in a difficult situation in which there are no good options. The best of the bad options is for the regime to become integrated with the outside world, to be lured out of its fear, to build bridges to countries where debate, dissent, and protest are considered healthy signs of stability. If Iranian democrats change their minds about that—if they begin asking other countries to cut off their contacts with the regime—the United States will have to reconsider the logic of engagement. Until then, it should press ahead.

The harshness with which Iranian leaders repressed post-election protests in 2009 reflects their nastiness. At least as important, though, was the symbolism of the protests themselves. There are never post-election protests in Egypt, because Egyptians expect elections to be rigged, and none in Saudi Arabia because there are no national elections at all. The weeks of protest in Iran reflect the legacy of Iran’s hundred-year march toward democracy.

PopCultureJihad: With the election of Barak Obama, there was a sense of hope for a new direction in Middle East diplomacy that had never been seen before. I was swept up in the excitement and now I feel disillusioned. What is your take on the new President?

Stephen: Obama seems to accept the narrow spectrum of policy options that defines American foreign policy. His policies toward the rest of the world are in many ways a continuation of those followed in the last years of the Bush administration. Imaginative or unconventional thinking is still treated as if it were the germ of a frightful plague that must be stamped out before it infects the policymaking apparatus.

PopCultureJihad: Are there any further misconceptions about Iran that you would like to clear up?

Stephen: Direct, bilateral, comprehensive, and unconditional negotiations hold the only hope for a diplomatic breakthrough between Iran and the United States. Iran has incentives to make a deal. It craves legitimacy. It has security needs that only the United States can meet. Its government is unpopular, its economy is reeling from a combination of high inflation and low oil prices, its society is groaning under a host of social ills, its young generation is deeply alienated, and many of its most talented sons and daughters have either emigrated or hope to do so.

Is this enough to assure that Iran will negotiate seriously? No one can say for sure. The potential benefits are so great, however, that it would be self-defeating for the United States not to try.

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