From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. from amazon.com
To begin with, I really enjoyed this book. That’s not always the case in a political/current events type book. Kinzer I felt did a really good job of crafting the history into an engaging storyline. This book spends a significant amount of time painting the background of the modern countries of Turkey and Iran. It also brings to light some interesting players in the story. Some of them are well-known and others are not. For example the opening narrative centers on Howard Baskerville. A young American who was teaching in Iran in the early 1900s. Britain and Russia divided Persia into “spheres of influence” that outraged the Iranians who have a celebrated long and rich cultural heritage.
Howard Baskerville supported the Iranians in their effort. At one point, as he was joining in the defense of the city of Tabriz, Kinzer gives this anecdote.
“I hate war,” he told them, “but war can be justified in pursuit of a greater good—in this case, the protection of a city and the defense of constitutional liberty. I am ready to die for these causes!” The audience broke into applause and cries of “Long live Baskerville!” He responded by singing a chorus from his favorite song, “My Country ’Tis of Thee.”
A twenty-something year old boy from Nebraska, singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” in honor of Iran. A peculiar moment in history to be sure!
In the end Howard Baskerville left a legacy in Iran.
Baskerville is more than just an Iranian hero. He embodied the shared values that bind Iranians to Americans. Long before many other Middle Eastern nations had come into existence, the Constitutional Revolution brought modern ideas to Iran. These ideas have produced a nation that has more in common with the United States than almost any of its neighbors in the world’s most troubled region.
This certainly seems a far cry from the current state of affairs, but that is part of the story to come too.
Around relatively the same time period, Turkey, Iran’s neighbor to the northwest, cultivated some of those same attitudes and craving for democratic freedoms and life apart from absolutism.
Two of the primary figures in the story are Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Reza Shah. Both were strong personalities who felt that they were the one to bring reform to their nations at this point in time. Though at times this came across in arrogance and abrasiveness they both accomplished things that many believed impossible.
One biographer described Ataturk in this way
In letters large enough to cover the book’s entire back cover, Armstrong described his subject in one long and only slightly hyperbolic sentence: “The study of a MAN, cruel, bitter, iron-willed, who overthrew the Sultan in 1908; battered the British Empire off Gallipoli in 1915; chased the Greeks into the sea at Smyrna in 1922; harried the victorious Allies out of Constantinople in 1923; destroyed the power of the Caliph in 1924; hanged the entire opposition in 1926; and by 1932 had made out of a crumbling empire A NATION.”
Reza in Iran also accomplished a number of astonishing reforms. One of the most interesting was this:
Soon afterward, as if to show his redoubled determination, Reza decreed a reform so radical that no leader of a Muslim country, not even Atatürk, had dared to propose it: a total ban on the veil for women. The day it took effect, January 7, 1936, marked a social earthquake of rare intensity. Police officers tore veils off women who appeared in public wearing them. Men on streets were thunderstruck. Some women felt liberated and eagerly adopted Western dress, but others, having never shown their faces to strangers, cloistered themselves at home. The most desperate committed suicide.
Imagine: a total ban on headscarves. Forcibly removed by police officers. This is not France of 2012, this was Iran of 1936.
While not all of the reforms and efforts attempted were with the utmost wisdom these leaders both sought to bring freedoms and prosperity to their people and gave themselves wholeheartedly to that cause.
Turkey and Iran became America’s partners. Here lie the roots of this “power triangle.” Simply embracing the United States as a strategic partner was not enough for the Turks and Iranians. They also admired American democracy and wanted some version of it for themselves. Atatürk and Reza Shah had given them social and cultural freedoms that few Muslims in history had enjoyed. Now they wanted political freedom as well.
President Eisenhower and Secretary of State Dulles made their decision to overthrow Iran’s democratic government without debate, without reflection, without analysis, without weighing costs and benefits.
During Mossadegh’s twenty-seven months in office, the promise of the Constitutional Revolution finally became real. Power was held by elected officials. Parliament addressed people’s needs. The grasping shah had been pushed into the background. Iranians enjoyed more freedom than ever in their history. American leaders should have cheered this, but because of the cold war they could not. They might have looked at Iran’s democracy and recognized a partner, a nation whose people were passionately engaged in political life and determined to rule themselves. Instead they looked at its nationalization of an oil company and saw an enemy.
Stuck in the Cold War mindset the political leaders of the era were unable to see the long-term consequences of their actions. One of those unforeseen consequences was the Islamic Revolution of 1979 – and the resulting hostage crisis – that was largely caused due to rage over the increasingly wasteful spending of the Western-backed Shah. The current shape of Iranian politics was in large part created by the 1950s operations of the US and Britain that were beneficial for the short-term but long-term were harmful for their interests.
The same can be said for the other relationships described in the book. Kinzer also delves into why the United States has a close relationship with Saudi Arabia and Israel. These too he feels are largely shaped by outdated realities.
In the end, Kinzer provides an interesting historical sketch of America’s diplomatic relations in the Middle East. He then argues that the United States needs to reconsider its core relationships in light of the current era, rather than through the lens of the Cold War. He feels that if this is done the United States will revalue the relationships with Saudi Arabia and Israel, as important but in a different way, and recognize that Iran and Turkey are countries that ought to be engaged with new methods.
Turkey has set itself on a path to be a major player in the region.
On the new world map, Turkey is no longer on the edge of anything. Instead it is once again what this piece of geography has been since time immemorial: the epicenter of the immense Eurasian landmass.
Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s “Strategic Depth” doctrine has put Turkey on a trajectory that would make it foolish for the United States to fail to cultivate strong ties with Turkey, not as a junior partner but as a vital ally.
Iran is the more difficult case – largely because of it’s current political structure – but Kinzer feels like the current policy of isolation misses a chance for improving relations with what could be a strong nation and one whose people have a historical craving for democratic freedoms.
The Arab Revolutions of the past year have challenged some basic assumptions about politics in the Middle East. Yet at this point all that has really occurred is a removal of old regimes the real test will be in what can replace them. This has certainly altered the landscape since Kinzer wrote his book, but nonetheless his central thesis remains intact that shared values and interests, in the United States, Turkey, and Iran should be the basis for pursuing a stronger relationship among them.
Iran, despite the persistence of its theocracy, is a potential long-term partner for the United States for the same reasons Turkey is. The two countries share strategic goals, and their societies share democratic values.