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FTMWeekly Radio Interview with Author and award winning foreign correspondent, Stephen Kinzner
Stephen Kinzer shares his insights on the impending threat of war in Iran, Operation Ajax, and the Blowback from Iran Since 1953
FTM (Jerry Robinson): Alright, well, joining me on the program today is Stephen Kinzer. He is an award-winning foreign correspondent who has worked in more than 50 countries. He has been a New York Times Bureau Chief in Istanbul, Berlin, and Nicaragua. He’s the author of many books, including the best-selling book All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror.
He’s also a professor of international relations at Boston University. My guest today is Stephen Kinzer. Stephen, thank you so much for joining me on Follow the Money Weekly Radio.
KINZER (Stephen Kinzer): Great to be with you.
FTM: I am looking at your book right now—at the Preface to the 2008 edition: “The Folly of Attacking Iran.” And I would say, Stephen, that many of the people who are listening to the program today are…I don’t want to assume that they’re not familiar with the 1953 event, but I want to assume that perhaps they don’t know as much about it as perhaps maybe they should. And especially now, as we take a look at the news cycle, we see that Iran is all over the news: talk about invasion; talk about stopping the nuclear program (whether it’s even occurring or not is a debate). But the issue at hand right now is, “Should we invade Iran for the benefit of our foreign policy, for the benefit of our security interests?” And you have written a book here that really peels back the layers about this entire question. Why don’t you begin by sharing with our audience why you wrote this book and why this topic is important to you?
KINZER: In the first place, you’re right that that 2008 edition of the book, which was the new edition, contains this Foreword, “The Folly of Attacking Iran. Now, in the last couple of years, I’ve been looking at that new edition and thinking, “Boy, that’s kind of out of date now.” That was at the end of the Bush Administration when we were being really hyped up that Iran was a mortal threat to the rest of the world, but now that introduction is really kind of outdated. Boy, was I wrong! You’re absolutely right that Iran has now emerged as the Number One foreign policy issue in this presidential campaign, as candidates flail around for foreign policy issues to beat each other over the head with, Iran really seems to rise to the top of the list. We are in a situation now where we’re looking for a demon in the world. I think this is not just an American impulse, but in many countries, it’s almost thought that if you don’t have an enemy in the world, you should try to find one. It’s a way to unite your population and give people a sense of common purpose.
So, you look around the world and pick some country that you want to turn into your enemy and inflate into a terrible, mortal threat to your own security. Iran seems to be filling that role right now. It’s an odd situation, because in a sense, the world looks very different from Iran’s point of view than it does from here. Iran has four countries in the immediate neighborhood that are armed with nuclear weapons. That’s India, Pakistan, Russia, and Israel. Iran also has two countries on its borders that have been invaded and occupied by the United States: that is, Iraq and Afghanistan. So the idea that Iran might be a little unsure as to its defense and wants to make sure that it can build whatever it needs to protect itself doesn’t seem so strange when you’re sitting in Iran. But even more interesting than all that, when you’re looking at differences between the way the world looks when you see it from the United States and the way it looks when you see it from Iran has to do with history.
Whenever I travel in the world, particularly when I travel to a country that I’m not familiar with, I like to ask myself one question: and that is, “How did this country get this way? So, why is this country rich and powerful?” Or, “Why is this country poor and miserable?” When I was traveling in Iran and getting to know Iran for the first time, I came to realize that there’s a huge gap between what Iran should be based on its culture and history and size and the education of its people, and what it is. This is a country that has thousands of years of history. It was the first empire in history—the Persian Empire. It has produced a huge amount of culture over many centuries. Its people are highly educated. Nonetheless, it’s isolated from the world; poor; unhappy. And I’ve always wondered on my first trips there why this was. What happened? And as I began to read more, and talk to Iranians, people told me, “We used to have a democracy here. But you Americans came over here and destroyed it. And ever since then, we’ve been spiraling down.” So I decided, “I gotta find out what really happened. I need to find a book about what happened to Iranian democracy.” And then I looked around and found there was no such book.
KINZER: I finally decided that if I was going to read that book, I was going to have to write it myself. And that’s how All the Shah’s Men came about.
FTM: Well, I would imagine that many in the listening audience would immediately take issue with some of the things that you’ve stated, and I want to hit those directly head-on. You state in your book some of the reasons why to attack Iran, at least, some of the reasons that are stated.
Number One: Iran wants to become a nuclear power, and that should not be allowed. Iran poses a threat to Israel. Iran sits at the heart of the emerging Shiite Crescent which threatens to destabilize the Middle East. Iran supports radical groups on nearby countries. Iran helps kill American soldiers in Iraq. Iran has ordered terror attacks in foreign countries. Iran’s people are oppressed and need Americans to liberate them.
So there’s a plethora of ideas as to why American invasion, or some other type of invasion into Iran would possibly be beneficial, not only to our security interests, but also to Iran’s state of health so to speak, and bringing them liberty. So you made a good case against it. What do you say to those who say, “You’re crazy, Stephen. We need to go over there; we cannot allow them to have a nuclear weapon.
KINZER: In the first place, we don’t have any evidence that Iran is building a nuclear weapon; in fact, the International Atomic Energy Agency has made clear that it has never seen any such evidence, and those inspectors are all over those plants, the uranium is under seal, the seals are under constant video surveillance. It’s not as urgent a problem as we’re making it out to be.
Nonetheless, I would add a kind of larger perspective, and it’s this. When you look at a map of the Middle East, one thing jumps right out at you and it is that Iran is the big country right in the middle. It’s not possible to imagine a stable Middle East without including Iran. It’s a little bit comparable to the situation that we faced after the end of World War II when there was tremendous anger at Germany for very good reasons.
There was a great move afoot (in fact, we actually followed this policy for a few months) to crush Germany. We were going to slice Germany into pieces, then we were going to forbid it from ever building another factory or industrial plant again. Fortunately, cooler minds prevailed. And we decided to take the opposite tactic. And that was to realize that this country, Germany, had been stirring up trouble in Europe for a hundred years or more, and that the way to prevent that cycle from continuing was not to isolate Germany and kick it and push it into a corner, but to integrate Germany into Europe, and to make it a provider of security rather than a consumer of security. That’s what we need to do with Iran. Iran needs to be given a place at the table that’s commensurate with its size, and its tradition, and its history, and its regional role.
Now, the United States doesn’t want to do that because when Iran is at that table, it’s not going to be saying things that are pro-American. It has an agenda that’s different than ours. So we don’t want it at the table. We want to crush Iran. It sounds like a tempting option, and in fact, if you could wave a wand and make the regime in Iran go away and make Iran be wonderfully friendly to the United States, I’d be all for that. But bombing Iran is likely to produce the opposite result.
First of all, one thing that really surprises me when I’m in Iran is how unbelievably pro-American the people of Iran are. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that there’s no country in the world where the population is so pro-American as in Iran. I have been stopped on the streets by people who are practically shrieking when they find out I’m American and tell me how much they love the United States. You don’t even get that in Canada! If we’re smart, we’re gonna realize that this is the Middle Eastern country with the most pro-American population. And this pro-American sentiment in Iran is a huge strategic asset for us going forward. If we liquidate that asset by bombing Iran, we will be greatly undermining our own strategic power. And this is a pattern we’ve been following in that part of the world for a long time.
The war in Iraq greatly eroded American strategic power. It had the opposite effect that we thought it would have. And this is the real object lesson that we need to keep in mind. When we intervene in countries, we have enough power to achieve our short-term goal, but then we go away; our attention goes to other places. And the resentment and the anger festers and burns in the hearts and minds and souls of people in these countries, and ultimately, we wind up with backlash that we never anticipated and we can’t control. In this rush now in these last months to demonize Iran and set the groundwork for an attack on Iran, we are doing something that Americans, and maybe all human beings do too often, and that is: we think about the short term; we never think about the long-term effects of our interventions.
FTM: You open the book with a quote, a quintessential quote, which is kind of common for a book, and it’s by President Harry Truman: “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” And I would probably say that most of us are obviously familiar with the history of September 11th, 2001, and I would go even further and perhaps say that we are familiar with the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and people may remember those days back in the Carter years. But your book goes back to 1953.
In the Preface of your book, you state that the 1953 intervention by the United States into Iran may be seen as a decisive turning point in the 20th Century history from our perspective today. Now I don’t know how many people in our listening audience know what happened in 1953. What event are you referring to, and why is it important to what’s happening today?
KINZER: For most Americans, the history of U.S.-Iran relations begins and ends with the Hostage Crisis. That’s all we know, and we know that everything went bad since then. But Iranians don’t think that way. For them, the Hostage Crisis is just one of a number of incidents that have happened over the past 50 years. For them, the key moment in the history of U.S.-Iran relations came in 1953. This is an episode that completely defines Iranian history and the Iran-United States relationship. Yet, many people in the United States are not even aware this happened.
Very briefly, this is the story (and I tell it in much more detail in my book): In the period after World War II, Iranian democracy, which had come about at the beginning of the 20th Century through a revolution against a corrupt monarchy, really began to take form. It took on a reality. You had elections; competing parties; parliament. This was something that had not been seen in any Muslim country. So, Iran was truly in the vanguard of democracy. But, because Iran was a democracy, it elected a leader who represented the public will—not the will of outside powers. In Iran, there was one obsession. Iran is sitting, as we know, on an ocean of oil. But all through the 1920’s and ‘30’s and ‘40’s, that oil was completely controlled by one British company.
The entire standard of living in Britain all during that period was based on oil from Iran, since Britain has no oil or any colonies that have any oil. Meanwhile, people in Iran were living in some of the most miserable conditions of anyone in the world. Once they had a democracy, they elected a leader, Mohammad Mosaddegh, who, as prime minister, proceeded to pass a bill in congress in which Iran nationalized its oil industry. This sent the British into a panic. They tried all kinds of things to crush Mosaddegh. Finally, when he closed their embassy and chased out all their diplomats, including all the secret agents who were trying to overthrow him, the British decided, “We’re going to ask the Americans to do this for us.” So, Churchill asked President Truman to “do this for us. Please go over to Iran and overthrow this guy who took away our oil company. And Truman said, “No.” But then, a few years later, when Dwight Eisenhower became president, and John Foster Dulles became Secretary of State, and his brother, Allen Dulles, became Director of the CIA, things changed.
The United States decided that we would work with the British to overthrow Mosaddegh —mainly because he was challenging the fundamentals of corporate globablism, the principle that international companies should be allowed to function all over the world according to conditions that they considered fair. Mosaddegh was saying, “No, we are going to determine the conditions under which foreign companies can function in our country.” As a result, the United States sent a team CIA agents into Iran. They went to work in the basement of the American Embassy. They threw Iran into total chaos, and that chaos finally resulted in the overthrow of the Mosaddegh government. That put the Shah back on his peacock throne; he ruled with increasing oppression for 25 years; his repressive rule produced the explosion of the late 1970’s, what we call “The Islamic Revolution”; that brought the power, this clique of fanatically anti-American mullahs who are in power now. So, when you do what they call in the CIA “walking back the cat,” when you walk back the cat, that is, to see what happened before, and before, and before, you come to realize that the American role in crushing Iranian democracy in 1953 was not only the defining event in the history of U.S.-Iran relations, but it set Iran in the Middle East into turmoil from which it has never recovered.
FTM: In 1953, in the book you point out that democracy was beginning to take root there.
KINZER: It’s a remarkable story. This, as I said, is something that had never happened in a Muslim country before. Iran is a remarkable country; very different from the other countries in the Middle East. And I’m not sure that people in the United States realize this. Most of the countries in the Middle East are what you might call “fake countries.” They’re made-up countries that were invented by some British or French diplomat drawing lines on a map at some men’s club after World War I.
Iran is not a fake country by any means. It has lived for thousands of years within more or less the same boundaries, with more or less the same language, and the same kind of population. It’s a country with a deep, rich culture and very strong sense of itself. We are treating Iran as if it’s Honduras or Barundi or some little place where we can just go and kick sand in people’s face and they’ll do whatever we want. Iran is not a country like that. And, given its size, and its location, you see that that region will never be stable as long as Iran is angry and ostracized. The only way to stabilize that part of the world is to build a security architecture in which Iran has a place.
The world needs a big security concession from Iran. The world also needs big security concessions from Israel. But countries only make security concessions when they feel safe. Therefore, it should be in interest of those who want stability in the Middle East to try to help every country in the region feel safe. But our goal in the Middle East isn’t really stability; it’s “stability under our rule…under our dominance.” And we realize that when Iran emerges as a strong, proud, independent, democratic country, it’s not gonna be so friendly to the United States. So I think there is some feeling that “we prefer it this way” being poor and isolated and unhappy.
FTM: I was looking at a map the other day of the Middle East, just noticing the U.S. military bases in the Middle East, and Iran, if you look at it very objectively, and take a look at the Middle East military base map, you’ll discover that Iran is completely surrounded. And as you mentioned, there are four other nations in their general vicinity that have nuclear weapons, and it seems as if pretty much the only way to keep the United States away from your country if you aren’t playing by their rules is to have a nuclear weapon. So logically, it does seem to make sense that the Iranians are perhaps seeking a nuclear weapon, but what you point out here again in your book is that the program, to have a nuclear program, was first proposed by the United States to Iran back in the 1970’s.
KINZER: We thought it was a great idea for Iran to have a nuclear program—when it was run by a regime that was responsive to Washington. Now that it’s a different kind of regime, we don’t like this idea. You’re absolutely right about the lessons that Iran has drawn about the value of having a nuclear weapon, or the ability to make a nuclear weapon, based on what’s happened in the world. Why did the United States attack Iraq, but not attack North Korea? I think it’s quite obvious: if North Korea didn’t have a nuclear weapon, we would have crushed them already; and if Sadaam did have a nuclear weapon, we probably never would have invaded that country.
An even more vivid example is Libya. We managed to persuade Gaddafi to give up his nuclear program; as soon as he did that, we came in and killed him. I think that the Iranians are acutely aware of this. They would like, if I’m gonna guess, to have the ability to put together a nuclear deterrent, a nuclear weapon—something like Japan has. Japan has something that is in the nuclear business called a “screwdriver weapon.” They’re not allowed to have nuclear weapons, but they have the pieces and the parts around, so that in a matter of weeks, they could probably put one together. Now, we hear a lot about how the Israelis are terrified that as soon as Iran gets a nuclear weapon, it’s gonna bomb Israel. But, in fact, as people in the Israeli security establishment have made clear, none of them really believe that. They fear the Iranian nuclear weapon for a couple of other reasons.
One is, that as Israel well-knows, when you have a nuclear weapon, you don’t need to use it. It gives you a certain power; a certain authority. You can intimidate people around you. And second, of course, if there’s another nuclear power in that region, it’s going to set off perhaps another nuclear race, and other countries like Turkey or Saudi Arabia or Egypt would want to have nuclear weapons, too. But when the Iranians look around, I think the first country they see (and I’ve heard this from a number of Iranians) is Pakistan. Pakistan is a far more volatile and far more dangerous country than Iran. We have serious Taliban/al-Qaeda types not only running around in Pakistan, but doing so under the egious of the government and they have a prospective to take over that government! This is not going to happen in Iran. Pakistan is far more volatile, yet the United States thought that is was fine that Pakistan should have a nuclear weapon. I’m against all countries having nuclear weapons.
I’d like to see all countries that have them abandon them, and I don’t want any more countries to get them. But that’s a dream world. The fact is, the most that we can do by attacking Iran (as our own Defense Secretary has said) is to postpone the day when Iran has a nuclear weapon, and in the process, make them a lot angrier. The way to reduce this danger is to build a security system in the Middle East where people don’t feel the need to be threatening each other. But that requires dialogue, and dialogue requires compromise, and the United States is not ready to compromise with Iran.
FTM: Interesting. And that’s where I want to take this in conclusion: What does that look like? Because obviously, the goal of your book here is to see some sort of peace reached. I mean, no one wants to see war. But the Middle East obviously is just an issue that has been debated for a long time. There are all kinds of geopolitical reasons for being involved in the Middle East—namely, oil. But predominantly, as we look at all of this, the question really boils down to this: What are we going to do? If we don’t bomb Iran, then how do we prevent them from potentially becoming an explosive nation in that region? You say “security system” over there and also “dialogue.” If you were President, what would you do? How do you start that process?
KINZER: The first place, we have never really tried serious diplomatic overtures to Iran. We’ve got some of our most senior retired diplomats in the United States now who are chafing at the bit to be sent to Iran. People like Thomas Pickering, who was George Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations and ambassador to Moscow, and William Lords, another titan of 20th Century diplomacy. These are people who are itching to go to Iran and see what they can do. We have not even asked Iran the fundamental question, “What would it take from us for you to do what we would like you to do with your nuclear program?”
Forget about deciding whether we want to do it or not; we don’t even know what the quid pro quo would be! So, we need first to get into a mindset where we’re willing to have a real dialogue on an equal basis with Iran. We are not at that point. We feel that any dialogue with them is only going to legitimize their position in the Middle East and is going to make them feel that they’re a powerful country, because we will be making concessions to them—that’s what you do when you have negotiated solutions. But the fact is, Iran already is a powerful country. It doesn’t need us to legitimize it. We need to understand that in dealing with Iran, we’re not going to get everything we want. And we are going to have to concede Iran a measure of power in that region that’s commensurate with its size, and its history, and its location. We’re not even at that point yet. I think that’s the first step. We have to make a psychological transition to realize that we’re not going to be able to dictate to Iran if we want to reach a peaceful settlement. We’re going to have to compromise. We’re going to have to accept some things that Iran wants in order to get things that we want. Before we even get to the point of figuring out what those would be, we need to get over that psychological, political, diplomatic hurdle. And we haven’t done that yet.
FTM: My guest today has been Stephen Kinzer. He’s the author of the book All the Shah’s Men. Very enlightening stuff; very illuminating. Stephen, if the folks would like to learn more about you and your work, how can they do so?
KINZER: I’ve got a website: stephenkinzer.com. My books are all available on that mass website that I don’t want to advertise that it’s named after a giant river in South America.
KINZER: But if you want to support your local independent bookstore, I’m sure it would be happy to order All the Shah’s Men for you or any of my other books.
FTM: Very good, Stephen. Thank you so much for coming on our program today, Stephen.
KINZER: It was a great pleasure. Thank you.
(Audio Transcript — Saturday, February 11, 2012)
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