Book Review: Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future

By Matthew Reed
Staff Writer
August 2, 2010

Those familiar with modern Middle East history are aware of Stephen Kinzer’s contributions, especially All the Shah’s Men, his account of the CIA’s 1953 coup in Tehran. Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future signals Kinzer’s return to the region and its politics. With Reset, Kinzer provides a historical narrative and novel argument. “Turkey and Iran are the only Muslim countries in the Middle East where democracy is deeply rooted,” Kinzer suggests. “That makes their future bright. It also makes them America’s logical partners.”

At its core, Kinzer’s book makes two claims: twentieth century partners are no longer pulling their weight and twenty-first century powers demand outreach to guarantee American influence. Israel and Saudi Arabia, he claims, pursue policies that hinder American interests. Eclipsing these declining powers are Turkey and Iran—democratically inclined countries positioned to address American concerns (Afghan stability, post-war Iraq, al Qaeda-brand militancy, resource security, etc.). Kinzer believes shared values and interests result in the most productive relationships. The U.S. should seek more substantive relations with both Muslim countries because their populations mirror America’s.

Kinzer’s style is lively and crisp. He renders a dramatic and engaging story—narrating events while alternating seamlessly between characters and countries. The first 200 pages are quite valuable as they detail the trajectory of Iranian and Turkish democracy in addition to Saudi and Israeli shortcomings. The history here is sound, even if the reader does not agree with the author’s drawn conclusions. Every page deserves credit for brevity and authorship. Kinzer is able to condense history while not oversimplifying it; an achievement considering the topic.

The book maintains momentum until the very end, when the final chapter drifts from historical specifics to future generalities. Kinzer’s way forward hinges on creative thinking, positive intervention in Israel-Palestine, scaling back US-Saudi relations, and engaging Turkey and Iran. He attacks conventional wisdom with his last few pages, while arguing for a massive overhaul in America’s way of thinking. While the initial chapters are powered by the crushing weight of history, the conclusion’s appeal is limited by unanswered questions: Is now the time for engagement? How does the U.S. appeal to common Iranians while engaging an illegitimate regime? Can the U.S. overcome Israeli preferences in the short term to pursue Kinzer’s reassessment plan?

Most curiously, Reset ends with a poorly chosen quotation from the Persian poet Rumi: “Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open?” The quotation implies that US policymakers can enjoy greater success if they abandon conventional wisdom. The problem for Kinzer, however, is that the door (i.e. the debate) is shut tightly. One hopes that Reset is the missing wedge that initiates a serious discussion about America’s friends and enemies.

Kinzer, Stephen. Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future (New York: Times Books, 2010). $26.00 USD; 274 pages.

The original source for this photo can be found here.

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