Facing Disaster In the Middle East: Do We Have Only Bad Options?

This is a review of a talk given by Stephen Kinzer on the 10th of January 2011 at LSE. I should make it clear at the start that Kinzer was talking specifically about US foreign policy. He was talking, not of justice, but of what would be in the interest of the US.

The Bad Attitude of US Foreign Policy

When the US took over the dominant position held by the British Empire in the Middle East, they learnt the wrong lessons. One lesson they didn’t learn was: if you can’t adapt to changing conditions, you’ll lose your authority, both political and moral.

In the dying days of British influence in the Middle East, they hauled Mohammad Mosaddegh, Prime Minister of Iran, before the UN Security Council in a dispute over British oil interests in Iran. It didn’t work.

The US have shown a similar attitude in their dealings in the Middle East. “We don’t like to take advice,” Kinzer says. The US like to think that they, uniquely, “get it,” and that other countries, including countries in the Middle East, just don’t get it.

This attitude was effective during the Cold War. The US exerted immense influence and were able to coerce other countries into doing things in the interest of the US – even when it was against their own interests. That time is OVER – but the policy hasn’t changed and it doesn’t work anymore. We can argue about the details, but the Middle East is not going the way of the US. It’s a worse place for the US now, no doubt.

One thing we can learn from history is that empires rise and fall; and they only survive if they are able to adapt. If the US is unable to adapt then their time at the top will soon end.


If the US is unable to dictate any longer, what should they do? Stephen Kinzer argues that they must look for partners with whom the US can act in concert and to whom the US can turn to for expert advice in the region. The US must abandon the idea that they alone know what is right for the Middle East.

So who are those partners? There are two criteria that the US must look for in potential partners:

  1. A society that looks like the US. In other words: not the Saudis!
  2. A states whose long-term strategic goals are similar to theirs. In other words: not the Saudis! The brand of radical Islam funded by the Saudis all over the globe are turning out a generation of “lost boys, chanting the Qur’an and hating America”. Incredibly, the US are financing their own assassins.

The Problems with the US-Saudi Relationship

Social similarities and like-minded long-term goals are not the only things that determine foreign policy. The US and Saudi are inextricably linked by oil and defence contracts. The US gets 11% of its oil from Saudi. The Saudis spend a huge amount of money in the US. They recently negotiated a $60bn deal for arms.

They also spend their money very cleverly, splitting it between many different states. This means that Congress or the Senate find it hard to oppose Saudi policies because so many states have a vested interest in Saudi. Massachusetts, for example, has 100,000 jobs reliant on defence. No Congressman would dare oppose the Saudis for fear of losing those jobs. In this way, the Saudis wield influence over the US political system.

Stephen Kinzer identifies two other countries that do satisfy both of his conditions for partnership with the US.

1. Turkey

Firstly, Turkey have been a NATO ally for over 50 years. In the last decade, though, Turkey has also adopted an intriguing role in global geo-politics. They are trying to be deal-makers and peacemakers. They are friends of both Iran and the US; friends of both Georgia and Russia; friends (perhaps until recently) of Israel and Hamas.

How have they managed this?

  • Through the success of their capitalist system.
  • It’s a role reminiscent of their Ottoman history.
  • The recent rise of devout Muslims in government increases their moral position in the Middle East.
  • Significantly, they have challenged US foreign policy recently, over Iran and Gaza, for example. This greatly increases their political legitimacy in the Middle East; they are not just NATO’s lapdog anymore.

And all of this is good for the US. It makes Turkey a credible voice in the Middle East.

Instead of supporting Turkey in their new deal-broker role, the US killed a Turkey-negotiated deal with Iran. The US gave Turkey a slap on the wrists and said that the deal was full of holes. No doubt that it was, but they shouldn’t have killed it dead, they should have accepted the help and used the flawed deal to build something better.

Turkey has an ambition to be in the top ten economies in the world. They are currently at number sixteen. If they want to get into the top ten, they need a stable neighbourhood. 80% of foreign companies in Iraq are Turkish, for example. It is firmly in Turkey’s interest to broker these peace deals and the US should use that interest. If the US don’t do more, then Iran and Turkey could form their own geo-political block without the US, possibly with India as well. There is no golden rule that says that only the US can form economic blocks.

However, Turkey does have serious domestic challenges to face: problems assimilating minorities; historical grievances; and ultra-nationalism. These domestic problems will necessarily restrict their influence in the region, but their rise has been a great story.

2. Iran

This was Kinzer’s curve-ball and he knew he had to justify his choice for more than Turkey.

Iran’s social affinity with the US

  1. Iran has a vibrant, dynamic democratic civil society, in contrast to most of the rest of the Middle East.
  2. They’ve had a constitution for a hundred years.
  3. If you can peel away the religious rule, Kinzer says, they could be more democratic than Turkey.
  4. Iran is “the most pro-US country in the world,” Kinzer says, referring to US popular culture. The people of Iran are as open to US influence as the regime is closed.
  5. Farsi is the fourth most popular language on internet, incredible considering the size of the nation and the supposed “closed” nature of the society. Kinzer told an anecdote about Sean Penn visiting a market in Isfahan and an old market-trader, who spoke no English, asked him what it was like to be married to Madonna!

Iran’s long-term strategic goals

Iran also has strategic goals very closely allied to the US – if you ignore emotions.

  1. Iran is a big enemy of radical Sunni groups, like the Taleban. These groups are in fact funded by our current supposed allies, Pakistan and the Saudis! Iran would be a natural ally of the West against this type of terrorism.
  2. Iran has a huge ability to stabilise Iraq. In fact, Iran could be our ticket out of Iraq – if they are reassured that a stable Iraq would not be used as a launchpad for a US invasion of Iran.
  3. Iran could have the same influence in Afghanistan also.
  4. Iran also wants to keep Russia out of the Middle East.
  5. The Iranian oil industry needs massive investment of the kind that only the US can provide.

Kinzer goes further and says that there is no US goal that can be achieved without Iran: the Palestine-Israel conflict, a nuclear-free Middle East, ethnic conflict in Lebanon, etc..

The problems with Iran

Of course there are great problems facing any potential US alliance with Iran.

  • The US have their policies set.
  • The US and Iran have had a dysfunctional relationship for a long time.
  • The US still feel wronged after the 1979-1981 US Embassy hostage crisis. The US are feel that Iran got one over them and they’ve never been able to hit back. This is a clear example of emotion getting in the way of sound diplomacy.
  • The current regime in Iran is also a concern for the US. Kinzer points out that we don’t fully understand the machinations of the Iranian political system, but that Ahmadinejad doesn’t hold the final decision and power. 

    Rapprochement might not be easy, but the US could at least try.

    The problem with current US policy is that it is restricting Iran down to one issue only: their nuclear ambitions. The US want Iran to surrender their highest card, but that’s never going to happen – it makes no sense.

    A way forward: The Shanghai Communiqué

    Instead of demanding this, the US should do something like they did with China in 1972 in the Shanghai Communiqué. This was a short document that contained:

    1. Everything the US didn’t like about China.
    2. Everything China didn’t like about the US.
    3. A promise to negotiate over these issues rather than use force.

    This kind of document clears the air and opens the agenda for progress in negotiations. There is one further block to US negotiations with Iran: human rights. Perhaps the Helsinki Accords are a better model than the Shanghai Communiqué.

    The US need concessions from Iran, but that will only happen if Iran feels safe. Turkey have advice for the US here: compromise. India is also saying this. These countries want to help the US, but they don’t want to listen.

    Kinzer admits that closer ties with Iran would not be an easy sell. He argues that, although the US would prefer to wait for evolution in the Iranian regime, the need for negotiations is too urgent to wait, so they should try anyway.

    Why would Iran promote stability, when it is against their interests?

    Kinzer points out that stability is in the eye of the beholder. What is stability for the US in Iraq, for example, strikes Iran as destabilisation. The US handed Iran the great prize of Iraq; they would never have been able to take Iraq without the US invasion. But the US must now recognise the reality that Iran is the regional power.

    Why would Iran change its anti-US stance?

    Kinzer gave a number of reasons why they might:

    1. Iran needs security, like any country. That is the reason Russia negotiated the Helsinki Accords.
    2. A change in stance could increase the current regime’s popularity.
    3. The popular Green Movement has only bad options at the moment. The best they can hope for is the current regime to become less isolationist. So such a move would have widespread support.

    Kinzer warns that the problem with making these kind of deals with the elites is that they are usually unpopular with the people, so any deal transfers some of that unpopularity to the US as well. The most important thing that the US must avoid is doing anything that would make it harder for the US and Iran to negotiate in the future!

    Will it happen? Confronting “Pathologies”

    One potential problem with Kinzer’s vision of US partnerships with Iran and Turkey is that both Iran and Turkey have a history of dominating the Arabs. Because of this, the Arabs of the Middle East might react badly to perceived influence from those countries.

    However, Kinzer points to the fact that Iran and Turkey support Hizbollah and Hamas, popular Arab movements in the Middle East. The US, on the other hand, have bet on unpopular despots, like “Pharoah” Mubarak in Egypt. The Iranian and Turkish approach simply has to be more popular.

    Unfortunately, the kind of rapprochement needed with Iran will only happen if the US can face other “pathologies” in their political mindset. Kinzer is talking here of the “pull of Israel.” Israel is what separates the US from all its allies, he says, even the UK. But, at the moment, Kinzer can’t see this political mindset changing.

    The relationship between the US and Israel, Kinzer says, is like that between “me and a drunk-drive friend.” We want to help him steer better. Kinzer says that the US should tell Israel, you must change or:

    • Either we’ll recognise the state of Palestine. 
    • Or we’ll recognise the sovereignty of Israel over the whole territory and Jews will become a minority in their own land.

    Only the President can decide this sort of change in foreign policy  – and it is the kind of thing that would only happen with a second term president. Obama, however, is not looking like he wants to make any changes to US foreign policy. Obama himself has little experience with foreign affairs and the people around him are very conventional.

    The Problem of Israel

    Israel, Hamas, the blockade of Gaza, the West Bank settlements are all fundamental to the problems in the whole Middle East. All of the region’s problems are interwoven, which might make you think they are too complex to untangle. But it could be that a break in one place might cause others to break through.

    Israel and the radicalisation of the Middle East

    The West Bank Israeli settlements and the Israeli treatment of Gaza have radicalised the whole of the Middle East – in fact Kinzer is surprised that Palestine hasn’t radicalised MORE. This is why Turkey has become so popular in the region recently; for their response to the Gaza blockade, particularly during the Gaza flotilla debacle. It is not anti-Semitism, it is a response to an injustice.

    Hamas have to be involved in any negotiations. The US aren’t good at facing hard truths, but they must face this. The truth is that Hamas are in trouble from even more radical groups who are asking, “Why are you not attacking Israel every day?” The longer the US fail to negotiate, the worse things will get. And why don’t they do anything? The US government’s intimacy with Israel, which distorts what should be a rational diplomatic decision.

    Israel on self-destruct

    Israel has been pushed in a self-defeating direction by its own policy. Through their own actions they are destabilising the region, but it is impossible for them to defend their position with force forever. Geographically and demographically they are in a losing position. Their only chance of long-term survival is regional stability and normalisation of diplomatic relations with their neighbours.

    The Israeli and Iranian relationship

    Kinzer considers an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities to be unlikely. Iranian nuclear capability is further off than previously thought. During an off-the-record conversation with an Israeli chief of intelligence, Kinzer was told that, while everyone thinks Israel is scared of Iran nuclear weapon because Iran might bomb Israel, that is only half right. Israel do fear Iran getting nuclear arms, but not for that reason. The true reasons are that a nuclear Iran might set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and that Iran would gain immense intimidatory power.

    Kinzer’s response is that nuclear armament will happen; perhaps not in Iran just yet, but other countries around the world will get nuclear weapons at some point. Given that inevitability, we must learn how to deal with it when it does happen.

    He suggests that Iran could approach Israel themselves, instead of trying to negotiate through the US or the UN. Iran, Kinzer says, are better placed to approach Israel directly than any of the Arab nations. Most Iranians, despite the rhetoric of their government, have tremendous respect for Jews, tremendous respect for their history, their education and their contributions to world progress.


    The US must change their current foreign policy. Their “global management” role is not economically sustainable. The Global War on Terror, farcically renamed “Overseas Contingency Operations,” is extremely expensive. The US spends $1 trillion a year in Afghanistan alone; there are 75,000 US soldiers stationed in Germany – why?

    The US political “pathology” is possibly changing. The Israeli blockade of Gaza and the West Bank settlements are changing US public opinion, led by US Jews scared that these actions are fuelling global anti-Semitism.

    Kinzer expresses his frustration with Israel over the case of Jonathan Pollard, convicted of spying for Israel. Israel wants the US to pardon him; “they want a favour, after kicking the sand in our faces!” This perhaps illustrates the frustration that the US intelligentsia feel towards the perverse political decisions of the Israeli government.

    Kinzer states the questions facing US politicians today:

    1. What should the policy be? Kinzer likes to think he has outlined one set of options.
    2. How do we sell it to the people? A much harder proposition.

    Stephen Kinzer finished with a challenge to the US political leadership, taken from Rumi, the Persian poet:

    “Why do you stay in prison, when the door is so wide open?”

    This was an excellent talk, covering a complex topic with clarity and humour. It was particularly strong for the solutions that it offered. It was good to hear a US commentator who was able to see a future that served both US interests and also the interests of peace.

    Published by


    David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.