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How A Partnership With Iran Could 'Reset' Regional Tension And Help The United States

A painting on the walls of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran
David Holt London
/
Flickr
A painting on the walls of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran

In 1980, the United States broke diplomatic relations with Iran after 52 American citizens were taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Since then, the relationship between the United States and Iran has been hostile.

“Hostility between the United States and Iran has been going on for so long … that it’s not just a policy," says journalist Stephen Kinzer, who's the author of the 2010 book Reset: Iran, Turkey and America's Future. "It’s a fundamental building block of international geopolitics."

But after 35 years of hostility, Kinzer says it’s time for a change and that a partnership with Iran is key to advancing U.S. interests in the region.

“Iran is the militant enemy of radical Sunni terrorist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda," Kinzer said. "If we want to combat those groups effectively, we need partners on the ground that know the neighborhood."

Kinzer also says a better relationship with Iran might move Iran towards a more democratic form of government and help stabilize the region.

“[Iran] is kind of an island of stability in a sea of upheaval. That’s something we ought to take seriously,” Kinzer said.

World Views contributor and Syria Comment blogger Joshua Landis interviews Kinzer for the University of Oklahoma's Center for Middle East Studies

With the recent nuclear negations, some have speculated that things may be beginning to thaw between the two countries. Kinzer says that there need to be serious changes on both sides in order to reach a good deal, and negotiations are a step in the right direction in building a better relationship with Iran.

“The fact that we’re now sitting down and exchanging points of view with Iran is something very positive,” Kinzer said.

While some sectors in Washington still oppose diplomatic dealings with Iran, Kinzer says this attitude is outdated.

“[These] emotions [about Iran] are in some ways still a hangover of the hostage crisis from decades ago… We should get over our emotions about Iran … and look coolly at who are our real friends [in the Middle East],” said Kinzer.

Listen to Stephen Kinzer's 2010 World Views interview

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Interview Highlights

On The Potential For Democracy In Iran

Iran has had a constitution for more than 100 years. Some countries in the Middle East don't even have a constitution today. Now, that constitution has not always been followed. There have always been elections in Iran, but those elections have not always been fair; they've always been restricted in one way or another. Nonetheless, Iranians have had 100 years of experience with the framework of democracy. They know what is a parliament, what is a political party. Who do you vote for? You don't vote for somebody who lives in your neighborhood or is your same sect or your same tribe. You vote for somebody whose views represent your views. These are actually fairly sophisticated ideas because democracy is not just and election; democracy is a whole way of dealing with life's problems. And Iran has been moving in this direction -- irregularly, with a lot of fits and starts -- for more than a century. Now, in the recent presidential election, an overwhelming victory was won by a candidate who was openly committed to more democracy, more transparency in government, and better relations with the outside world. Now, that candidate had to be chosen from among a very limited list. Iranians are not allowed to vote for anyone they want; clerics decide who gets to be on the ballot. Nonetheless, within the choices that were offered, Iranians overwhelmingly voted for a candidate who promised more progress towards democracy and more openness towards the outside world. If there can be some progress, particularly between the United States and Iran, I think you're going to see some of the pressure on Iranian society lessening. And that will allow the leaders to feel that more open society is not necessarily a threat to them. Iran, if you look around region now, is kind of an island of stability in a sea of upheaval. That's something we ought to take seriously.

On Reducing Hostility Between The U.S. And Iran

Hostility between the United States and Iran has been going on for so long – 35 years now – that it's not just a policy; it's an institution. It's a fundamental building block of international geopolitics. That's a very hard thing to break away from. These are countries that have done each other serious damage over many years. Iranians have good reason to be angry with the United States, and Americans have good reason to be angry with Iran. Now, in Washington, you definitely do get this narrative that Iran is the incarnation of evil in the world. It's far from reality, but I think it does tap in to emotions that are, in some ways, still a hangover of the hostage crisis from decades ago. Nonetheless, I do think there is a realization in some quarters in Washington that this emotion is actually preventing us from advancing our own strategic interests. I'm impressed that President Obama has made the changes in personnel in his administration that have made it possible for us to reach out to Iran. Now, in order to begin a new relationship with Iran we need some fundamental commitments and understandings on both sides. And any agreement has to be based on complete inspections. It has to be based on verifiable changes. It's not something that can be based on trust or a handshake. Our history makes that impossible. Nonetheless, that kind of a deal is achievable. I think the fact that we're now sitting down and exchanging points of view with Iran is something very positive. It used to be, during the years when George W. Bush was in power, that our policy was never to concede the idea that Iran could have legitimate security interests. In fact that was a rule in the Bush administration; you couldn't use that phrase regarding Iran. If Iran had security interests, they could not be legitimate. They were always hegemonic and they were always dangerous to us. I think that's the way Iran looked at our strategic interests. However, if you look at the ability that Iran has to stabilize Iraq, which is a mostly Shiite country -- and of course Iran is the heartland of Shiism -- if you look at the ability that Iran has to stabilize Afghanistan, realizing that the whole western third of Afghanistan used to be part of Iran up until Iran lost a war a couple of hundred years ago, you realize that Iran has the capacity to advance stability in the Middle East in ways that we don't. So we should try to break away from the prison of history and start looking towards the future. If we do that, I think we'll see some intriguing possibilities for a new relationship with Iran.

On The Role Of Individuals In History

I do believe that the private psychology of individuals is also a determining factor in the shaping of world politics. And I think perhaps this comes from my own personal experience as a journalist. So I was a New York Times correspondent for many years, and I got to watch some world leaders close up; I was essentially living with them on a day-by-day and watching them function. This goes all the way from Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua to Slobodan Miloševi? in Serbia. Knowing their histories and their stories helped me understand the way they behaved, and I came to realize that if you understand their backgrounds and who they are and what they do, you can understand their countries better. You cannot understand, for example, the developments in Rwanda over the last 20 years without understanding the person who has shaped and dreamed this whole process. History is full of examples of people who seize control of their destinies. You know, I sometimes use the analogy of watching, after a storm, a stream of water running down a curb, and you see a leaf on it, and the leaf is just being carried along by the stream. Many people think history runs that way, that it's just a current. But actually, you can seize control of the direction of that current. And there are so many examples of this. So I do believe that the role of the individual in history is sometimes underplayed, and it's also a way for us to understand the processes of society better. Look at the way individuals react. This is a way all of us can feel connected. One thing we all have in common is that we're all people, we're all individuals, we're all shaped by emotions, and we're all shaped by our pasts, by our prejudices, by our upbringings. When people come into power, they carry that with them. So, yeah, I do think that in my work I try to use the stories of individuals to tell the stories of history, and I do that for two reasons. First of all, because I think individuals are very important in history -- sometimes more than we like to admit. But also, it makes for a better story. This is a way that you can drive a narrative. People are fascinated by other people, and I try to use that fact as a way to make my books more interesting.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Stephen Kinzer, welcome to World Views.

STEPHEN KINZER: Wonderful to be here.

GRILLOT: In fact, welcome back to World Views. It's been a few years, so we're welcoming you back.

KINZER: It's been too long.

GRILLOT: Well speaking of the last time you were here, I'd like to go back a little ways and touch on the book that you wrote – published in 2010, I believe – called Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future. And you made the argument at that point in time that we should kind of hit the reset button, reset our foreign policy priorities in the United States, and that we should work more closely with Iran and Turkey, and you made a wonderful argument about why we should do that. So here we are a few years later; I have to ask, have we reset our foreign policy? Are we heeding your advice? Are we moving down that path to work more closely with Iran, certainly?

KINZER: It's an interesting situation that I've faced with this book, Reset, and I haven't had this experience with any of my other books. When this book first came out proposing, as you say, that Iran and Turkey are actually our best long-term allies in that part of the world, I was met with a considerable amount of skepticism, in particular the aspect of Iran. Some people said to me, "Well, Turkey I can understand being a long-term partner of the United States, but Iran just seems too crazy, too far-fetched." Now, this book has had a new shelf life; I'm now getting new requests to come and talk about this book years after it's been published. That hasn't happened with any of the books I've written before, and I think it's because some of the critiques I made about American policy towards the Middle East have played out in real life. We found out that some of our so-called friends in the Middle East are actually financing people who are trying to kill us out there. So we've been financing some of our own assassins, meanwhile turning our back on potential partners. Now, an interesting thing has happened is that Turkey in the last months has seemed to be drawing away from its cooperation with the United States whereas Iran is seeming more and more open to a new relationship with us. So it raises this question of whether over the years to come, maybe Iran will become the more democratic of those countries. Iran is on an interesting path. If the pressure from outside can be reduced, I wonder if Iran might begin to evolve towards a stable democratic form of government that would actually allow it to be a model in a region where stability is in very short supply.

GRILLOT: Well I think some of the critics might say, "What is the evidence to suggest that Iran is actually moving down some sort of democratic path?" Can you give us some sense, some examples? It had perhaps some democratic roots and some activities in the past, but currently does it really look like it's moving towards some sort of democratic transition?

KINZER: Iran has had a constitution for more than 100 years. Some countries in the Middle East don't even have a constitution today. Now, that constitution has not always been followed. There have always been elections in Iran, but those elections have not always been fair; they've always been restricted in one way or another. Nonetheless, Iranians have had 100 years of experience with the framework of democracy. They know what is a parliament, what is a political party. Who do you vote for? You don't vote for somebody who lives in your neighborhood or is your same sect or your same tribe. You vote for somebody whose views represent your views. These are actually fairly sophisticated ideas because democracy is not just and election; democracy is a whole way of dealing with life's problems. And Iran has been moving in this direction – irregularly, with a lot of fits and starts – for more than a century. Now, in the recent presidential election, an overwhelming victory was won by a candidate who was openly committed to more democracy, more transparency in government, and better relations with the outside world. Now, that candidate had to be chosen from among a very limited list. Iranians are not allowed to vote for anyone they want; clerics decide who gets to be on the ballot. Nonetheless, within the choices that were offered, Iranians overwhelmingly voted for a candidate who promised more progress towards democracy and more openness towards the outside world. If there can be some progress, particularly between the United States and Iran, I think you're going to see some of the pressure on Iranian society lessening. And that will allow the leaders to feel that more open society is not necessarily a threat to them. Iran, if you look around region now, is kind of an island of stability in a sea of upheaval. That's something we ought to take seriously. In addition, Iran has long-term strategic interests that coincide with ours. Iran is the militant enemy of radical Sunni terrorist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda. We say that those groups are our enemies also, but we're thousands of miles away and come from a completely different culture. If we want to combat those groups effectively, we need partners on the ground that know the neighborhood. We should get over our emotions about Iran – many of which are based on real slights and serious damage that these two countries have done to each other – and not be imprisoned by our history forever. Emotion is always the enemy of wise statesmanship, and if we want to promote our long-term strategic interests, we ought to put aside emotions and look coolly at who are our real friends in that part of the world.

GRILLOT: Well as you talk about the emotional relationship and the fact that, quite clearly, we just don't trust each other – at least the United States does not trust Iran. You've talked in a previous setting about how this is a different narrative than what you hear coming out of Washington and other areas of the country where there is just this extreme lack of trust. How is that taking hold? Is it taking hold? Do you have allies within the government that are actually now making these arguments? Because that's what it's going to take, right, is that kind of leadership from the inside to pick up this narrative and say, "Okay, it's time to really work with Iran."

KINZER: Hostility between the United States and Iran has been going on for so long – 35 years now – that it's not just a policy; it's an institution. It's a fundamental building block of international geopolitics. That's a very hard thing to break away from. These are countries that have done each other serious damage over many years. Iranians have good reason to be angry with the United States, and Americans have good reason to be angry with Iran. Now, in Washington, you definitely do get this narrative that Iran is the incarnation of evil in the world. It's far from reality, but I think it does tap in to emotions that are, in some ways, still a hangover of the hostage crisis from decades ago. Nonetheless, I do think there is a realization in some quarters in Washington that this emotion is actually preventing us from advancing our own strategic interests. I'm impressed that President Obama has made the changes in personnel in his administration that have made it possible for us to reach out to Iran. Now, in order to begin a new relationship with Iran we need some fundamental commitments and understandings on both sides. And any agreement has to be based on complete inspections. It has to be based on verifiable changes. It's not something that can be based on trust or a handshake. Our history makes that impossible. Nonetheless, that kind of a deal is achievable. I think the fact that we're now sitting down and exchanging points of view with Iran is something very positive. It used to be, during the years when George W. Bush was in power, that our policy was never to concede the idea that Iran could have legitimate security interests. In fact that was a rule in the Bush administration; you couldn't use that phrase regarding Iran. If Iran had security interests, they could not be legitimate. They were always hegemonic and they were always dangerous to us. I think that's the way Iran looked at our strategic interests. However, if you look at the ability that Iran has to stabilize Iraq, which is a mostly Shiite country – and of course Iran is the heartland of Shiism – if you look at the ability that Iran has to stabilize Afghanistan, realizing that the whole western third of Afghanistan used to be part of Iran up until Iran lost a war a couple of hundred years ago, you realize that Iran has the capacity to advance stability in the Middle East in ways that we don't. So we should try to break away from the prison of history and start looking towards the future. If we do that, I think we'll see some intriguing possibilities for a new relationship with Iran.

GRILLOT: Well I want to turn just a little bit. You mentioned President Obama, and I referred a little bit ago to leaders and leadership. And one of the things that I think is evident in your work is you seem to have this theme about the importance of particular people and individuals in history and how they really play a role and make a significant difference in moving forward and perhaps, as you're suggesting, focusing on the future and making these decisions. What it's going to take is leadership and particular individuals that will move these things forward, otherwise they won't happen. Is this fair to characterize your work in this way, or your arguments in this way?

KINZER: Those of us who make a business of looking at the world and trying to analyze what's happening and how we got there tend, I think, often to underestimate one factor, which is the role of individuals. We like to think that the world is shaped by processes and themes and trends and ideologies. And all of that is true, but I do believe that the private psychology of individuals is also a determining factor in the shaping of world politics. And I think perhaps this comes from my own personal experience as a journalist. So I was a New York Times correspondent for many years, and I got to watch some world leaders close up; I was essentially living with them on a day-by-day and watching them function. This goes all the way from Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua to Slobodan Miloševi? in Serbia. Knowing their histories and their stories helped me understand the way they behaved, and I came to realize that if you understand their backgrounds and who they are and what they do, you can understand their countries better. You cannot understand, for example, the developments in Rwanda over the last 20 years without understanding the person who has shaped and dreamed this whole process. History is full of examples of people who seize control of their destinies. You know, I sometimes use the analogy of watching, after a storm, a stream of water running down a curb, and you see a leaf on it, and the leaf is just being carried along by the stream. Many people think history runs that way, that it's just a current. But actually, you can seize control of the direction of that current. And there are so many examples of this. So I do believe that the role of the individual in history is sometimes underplayed, and it's also a way for us to understand the processes of society better. Look at the way individuals react. This is a way all of us can feel connected. One thing we all have in common is that we're all people, we're all individuals, we're all shaped by emotions, and we're all shaped by our pasts, by our prejudices, by our upbringings. When people come into power, they carry that with them. So, yeah, I do think that in my work I try to use the stories of individuals to tell the stories of history, and I do that for two reasons. First of all, because I think individuals are very important in history – sometimes more than we like to admit. But also, it makes for a better story. This is a way that you can drive a narrative. People are fascinated by other people, and I try to use that fact as a way to make my books more interesting.

GRILLOT: So cultivating leaders, then, is obviously really key, and creating institutions where leaders can actually lead. But in the United States of America, this is, perhaps, under some question. What you're arguing in many of your works requires that we have strong leaders. Do we have that in this country anymore? Do we have those people that are willing to take those big, bold, courageous steps?

KINZER: Our founding fathers were worried about creating too strong of a presidency, too strong of a central government, because they'd come out of monarchical tradition. Some presidents have managed to break out of that. In the 20th century, Franklin Roosevelt would be a great example. Nonetheless, it's true that our political system is making it more and more difficult for individuals to lead. I hope we'll be able to get past that and produce leaders who are able to break away from some of the fetters of politics and realize we can make history if we want to.

GRILLOT: Well we can always have hope. Thank you so much, Mr. Kinzer, for being here with us today. Very insightful discussion. Thank you.

KINZER: I look forward to next time. Thanks.

Copyright © 2015 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.  

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