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America, Iran, and the Prospects for Partnership: An Interview with Stephen Kinzer

Image Credit: The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Stephen Kinzer is an award-winning author and journalist who spent more than twenty years working for The New York Times, primarily as a foreign correspondent. From 1983 to 1989, Kinzer was The New York Times Bureau Chief in Nicaragua, where he covered war and political upheaval in Central America. From 1990 to 1996, he was posted in Germany as The New York Times Bureau Chief in Bonn, West Germany and subsequently in Berlin following the reunification of Germany. While chief of the newly created New York Times bureau in Istanbul, Turkey from 1996 to 2000, Kinzer hosted the country’s first radio show dedicated to blues music.

Kinzer has also authored ten books, including many bestsellers such as All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror and The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War. His most recent book, Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control, was listed as one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Year in 2020. After leaving The New York Times in 2005, Kinzer taught political science, international relations, and journalism at Northwestern University and Boston University. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, and he also regularly contributes commentary on world affairs for The Boston Globe

*A portion of this interview was spoken in Turkish and translated by Arda Ozsoy ’22. This portion is denoted in italics.

Sam Kolitch: The American and Iranian governments clearly have disparate perceptions of U.S.-Iran relations. What is the root cause of their misunderstanding? 

Stephen Kinzer: As you point out, the U.S. version of U.S.-Iran relations and the Iranian version of U.S.-Iran relations are totally different. The two versions run like railroad tracks in the sense that they’re parallel and never come together. For most Americans and for our foreign policy establishment, U.S.-Iran relations begin and end with the hostage crisis. That was the huge event that poisoned the well, and there’s a tremendous residue of frustration and anger in the American foreign policy elite stemming from that episode. Americans sense that Iran got away with something and was never punished or made to pay for it, which is immensely frustrating for Americans.

However, the Iranian perspective is very different. For Iranians, the hostage crisis was a minor bump in the road. It was unfortunate, but it didn’t seem nearly as important as the series of giant events that occurred before and after it in Iranian history, like the Islamic Revolution or the Iran-Iraq war. For Iranians, the huge moment in U.S.-Iran relations had come earlier, in 1953. That was when the CIA worked with the British Secret Service to overthrow the first and last democratic government Iran has ever had. The coup which we carried out with the British didn’t just result in the overthrow of a particular individual, Mohammed Mossadegh, it ended the prospect of democracy in Iran. It paved the way for twenty-five years of royal dictatorship followed by forty years of Islamic fundamentalist rule. So you can understand why Iranians would consider the 1953 coup a major turning point in the U.S.-Iran relationship. 

There’s this tremendous divide between the U.S. and Iran. These are two countries that have caused great pain to each other, but they’re not able to acknowledge that fact. Successful relationships and successful diplomacy rest on a foundation of fact and reality. If people on different sides don’t accept the same reality and don’t see the same facts, it’s very difficult to build any kind of constructive dialogue or relationship.

Sam Kolitch: The government in Iran today is nothing like the burgeoning democracy that was stymied by the 1953 coup. What are the defining characteristics of the current Iranian government?

Stephen Kinzer: The government that’s now established as a result of the 1979 revolution, [which followed the Shah’s dictatorship], is dominated by clerics. It’s a two-track political system. On the one hand, there is a functioning government that is run by elected officials. Mayors are elected, the Parliament is elected, and the President is elected. But those democratic institutions have very limited power. The clerics have established a “council of guardians” that reviews everything from the laws that are passed by Parliament to the candidates who want to run for public office. As a result of these powers, the Iranian democracy is severely limited. A dictate from the clerics at the top can wipe away all the outcomes of the democratic processes, which is very frustrating for people who want to see change in Iran. 

On the other hand, Iranian politics are much more complex than they appear. The Iranian government is not a one-man dictatorship by any means. It’s made up of various factions that are competing for political success, patronage, the spoils of sanctions-busting, and all the other sources of income. There’s a constant political tug-of-war, not only between progressives and conservatives, but also between those members of the political establishment who believe theocratic rule should stay as it is and those who would like much more personal freedom—even within the framework of the Islamic Republic. 

Sam Kolitch: You noted that Iran is not entirely a one-man dictatorship. Yet Ayatollah Khamenei reportedly oversees a financial empire worth an estimated ninety-five billion dollars. Khamenei, who is in poor health, also reportedly plans to transfer this empire, along with political control of Iran, to one of his sons. Could you expand on your view of the Ayatollah’s role in Iran?

Stephen Kinzer: First of all, I’ve gotten to the point where I’m very skeptical of anything I read about Iran in the mainstream press. There are very few reporters in Iran. Therefore, a lot of these stories are written by reporters based outside the country, and they’re written to fulfill certain paradigms that already exist in the minds of reporters and editors. But would I still say the leaders of the Islamic Republic are corrupt? Absolutely. Corruption is a huge problem in Iran, and everybody in Iran is aware of it. But let me repeat to you something that I heard from a guy I met on one of my visits to Iran: 

He said, “You Americans are so different from us. You expect good leadership from a political leader, and if you don’t get it, you’re angry. If you’re not happy, you protest. We are not like that. We have never had good leadership, with the possible exception of a few years in the 1950s. We have bad leaders now; they’re corrupt and inefficient. But we’re used to it, and we don’t protest that. There’s only one thing that we ask [of our government]: leave us alone. You can be corrupt and be inefficient—that’s not going to change. But let us live our own lives while you live your lives.” 

I think what the guy said about wanting to be left alone explains a great deal of frustration that many Iranians feel today: they feel the government is intruding into their private, intimate spheres and telling them how to live their lives. This intrusion causes more frustration than the realization of the flaws of their leaders. 

Sam Kolitch: Despite the Iranian government’s anti-democratic structure, the human rights abuses it perpetrates, and its sponsorship of terrorism, Iranian and American interests have at times overlapped, notably in the fight against al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State. Why have the U.S. and Iran not been able to cooperate more—on both terror and non-terror matters? 

Stephen Kinzer: One of the most bizarre aspects of this dysfunctional relationship is that Iran and the United States have many long-term strategic interests in common. Bear in mind that the ideology that drives both al-Qaeda and ISIS has as its central precept the determination to kill all Shia Muslims. These groups don’t worry about Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, or anybody else. The Shia are the great infidels in their mind. Most of the people in Iran are Shia. So al-Qaeda and ISIS [and other movements inspired by the same ideology] want to kill the vast majority of the Iranian population. That certainly gives Iran a reason to want to fight those groups. 

I would say that we have more strategic interests in common with Iran than we do with many of our so-called friends in the Middle East. The fact that we would maintain over many years relationships with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, [two Sunni-majority countries which happen to be] the principal sponsors of radical extremism in that part of the world, while remaining intensely hostile to the one country, Iran, that feels most threatened by ISIS and al-Qaeda, shows you how crazy this relationship has become. If we were serious about confronting those groups, if it was a major priority for us, we would be working with Iran to do that. But that very phrase, “working with Iran,” is beyond the realm of perceptual possibility for people in Washington. 

Sam Kolitch: Are there any other areas in which the United States and Iran could work together? 

Stephen Kinzer: In diplomacy, one technique that is used to begin to thaw frozen relationships is what are called “confidence building measures.” That means we find some non-controversial area in which we could cooperate with Iran, and if we can start cooperating on that issue, then we see if we can build on that initial cooperation. Just to pick one idea out of the air, for example: Iran has a big drug problem that stems from the heroin coming out of Afghanistan. A lot of that heroin crosses Iran and Turkey ends up in Europe. The United States would like to stop that trade or intercept it—so would Iran. If the U.S. and Iran would work together on drug control measures, that cooperation could serve as an initial confidence building measure. But the Washington foreign policy establishment doesn’t want to build confidence between the U.S. and Iran. They see the relationship as a hostile competition and a zero-sum game. “Anything that’s good for Iran is bad for us.” It’s difficult to see how the relationship could change as long as we maintain this fantasy that Iran is the sole evil actor in the region. 

Sam Kolitch: Over the years, there have been anti-America rallies where Iranians have chanted “Death to America.” Additionally, high-level officials in the Iranian government have denied the Holocaust. Would it be fair to say that Tehran, like Washington, has also erected its share of barriers to rapprochement?

Stephen Kinzer: First of all, the big anti-American demonstrations are over. But you can always get a hundred people together and chant “death to” anybody. I definitely would agree that this is not helpful in reconciling with Washington. President Ahmadinejad was the one who said the Holocaust had never happened. He also said that there were no gays in Iran. He made all these statements that effectively played into the stereotype of the mad, crazed Iranian. 

When I say that I’d like to see the U.S. and Iran work much more closely together, this is not to suggest that Iran is totally blameless for everything that’s happening in the Middle East. Both the United States and Iran have contributed to instability in that part of the world. But diplomacy is supposed to be about dealing with your rivals, dealing with hostile powers. You don’t need to negotiate with your friends. You already agree with them. So I would love to see the beginnings of a relationship with Iran.

Sam Kolitch: What are the prospects for democratization in Iran? 

Stephen Kinzer: One esteemed Iran scholar, Hamid Dabashi, likes to say that the reform process in Iran is a marathon, not a 100-meter sprint. I do think change is going to come to Iran, but it has to come organically and peacefully from the inside. One thing that Iranians have learned, through immensely painful lessons, is the foolishness of believing that the people can destroy a regime without knowing what comes next and assume that what comes next is definitely going to be better. 

The one thing that all the disparate groups who overthrew Mohammad Reza Shah in 1979 agreed on was that, although they didn’t know what was coming next, it was definitely going to be better than what they had with the Shah. And it didn’t work out that way. So Iranians are very scarred by this experience and they don’t want wholesale destruction [of the state]. But there’s tremendous frustration in Iran, particularly among younger people and women, about the oppressive nature of society. This is a highly sophisticated country. It’s highly educated. It has a big middle class. It’s cosmopolitan. And this population chafes under the restrictions that are imposed on it. 

Iranians have been around for twenty-five centuries. Iran is about ten times older than the United States. And when you’re in Iran, and you’re with Iranians, you sense that they’re very aware of their nation’s long history. One of the things that this awareness does is it gives them a different sense of time than we have in the United States. Americans are very impatient. We want everything to be done right away. Americans don’t like to understand things, we like to do things. We want quick solutions. Iranians are not like this. They see time on a different scale. This is not to say that Iranians are not eager for change. But the idea that some lightning can strike and everything will change overnight is very distant from the Iranian mentality.  

Sam Kolitch: Why is there so much opposition in Washington to reentering the Iran nuclear deal, which is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)? 

Stephen Kinzer: The JCPOA was an agreement that imposed on Iran stricter regulations than have ever been imposed on any nuclear program anywhere. It called for regular inspections and monitoring of levels of enrichment and all kinds of safeguards. The reason some people in Washington hated the agreement is not for the reason they claimed. The public reason given was that the agreement would lift sanctions and allow Iran to become more prosperous, have more money, and it would then use that money for what we like to call malign purposes and for the sponsorship of terrorism. And terrorism, of course, is something that has a very loose description, really. Essentially any military actions carried out against the United States or any of our allies is automatically labeled as terrorism. So by that standard, there are a lot of terrorists in the world. 

But the real reason, I think, behind opposition to the JCPOA is that the agreement is the beginning of a path out of isolation for Iran. It’s a path back into full membership in the international community, and there are forces that don’t want that because Iran is a rival of the United States. Iran is actually the leader of what’s called the “Axis of Resistance” in the Middle East, which is resistance to the United States. So there are people who believe that this resistance makes Iran an enemy and that we shouldn’t negotiate with or make concessions to an enemy. That’s essentially what lies behind the opposition to the JCPOA. The idea that you could end up luring Iran out of the position of being an enemy is something that I think many people in Washington would find not only highly unlikely, but undesirable. 

Sam Kolitch: How does China’s recent deal with Iran to invest $400 billion dollars in Iran affect the likelihood of the U.S. reentering the JCPOA? 

Stephen Kinzer: There’s no doubt that the China step, which was the signing of a massive agreement with Iran recently, had a big impact in Washington. It’s just logical that if Iran cannot deal with Europe and the United States, it’s going to find other countries to deal with. And I suspect that the visit by the Chinese foreign minister to sign the deal was part of the reason why the U.S.-Iran negotiating process briefly picked up momentum. If somebody in the Biden administration would like to persuade someone in Congress that it’s a good idea to deal with Iran, they can’t do it by any of the arguments they’ve used up until now. But they could say, “If we don’t do the deal, Iran’s going to become an ally of China.” That could press some good buttons in Washington. 

Sam Kolitch: Speaking of the Biden administration, what are the domestic political implications for President Biden if he rejoins the deal? 

Stephen Kinzer: The nuclear negotiations between the United States and Iran are going to succeed or fail not based on nuclear matters. These negotiations are not really about centrifuges, they’re not about uranium, and they’re not about enrichment. They’re about politics—in both capitals. It’s very delicate in Tehran, as much as in Washington, to promote the idea of a return to the JCPOA or any kind of closer relationship between the two countries. 

In the United States, there’s a strong core of people in Washington who are dedicated to obstructing any process which might lead to us reentering the deal. That core has power in Congress. I’m sure those people are now talking among themselves and asking themselves how far they want to go to try to block negotiations with Iran. They have the ability to punish Biden by withholding support for his domestic projects or even publicly opposing him on the Iran issue. They can obstruct projects that are much more important to Biden than Iran is to him. So they have to decide how far they’re going to push their opposition, and then Biden would have to decide, “How much is the deal worth to me, if it is going to cost me politically in Washington?” You need to have a strong base in both capitals for the agreement. It can’t just be done by two leaders. So I see the politics, both in Tehran and Washington, as important complicating factors in terms of negotiating on the JCPOA itself.

Sam Kolitch: Do you think that the U.S. will move quickly to revive the JCPOA given fears that Iran will likely elect a more hardline leadership in the presidential elections coming up in June? 

Stephen Kinzer: I’m very dubious. If we don’t have a deal by June, that doesn’t mean that we won’t have a deal. But getting a deal done by June seems like a short timeline, given the opposition in Washington. One could make the case that President Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, are more likely to make a new deal because they’re the ones who made the original deal in the first place. And if we lose them in the election, it will be harder to make a deal. That’s one line of argumentation, and that sounds rational. But there’s also a counterargument, which is that powerful factions in Iranian politics hate Rouhani and Zarif and everything they represent. If Rouhani and Zarif negotiate a new deal, their enemies inside Iran may do everything they can to sabotage it in order to sabotage the current government. So by this reasoning, we might actually be better off by having somebody in power who is known as tough and not giving anything away for free. If that person then signs the agreement, the obstreperous factions in Tehran might be willing to accept it. The bottom line is we can’t say with any certainty at all whether it would be better to negotiate under Rouhani or under the next president. The idea that we should rush to get the deal done before Rouhani is out seems appealing, but I really think it’s too late. 

Sam Kolitch: In reneging on the JCPOA, the Trump administration imposed approximately 1,600 sanctions on Iran—most of which remain in place today. Do sanctions ever produce the intended regime change?

Stephen Kinzer: Scholars have spent a lot of time researching sanctions and their effects. And one thing that scholars have universally concluded is that it is a false idea that sanctions will make people suffer so much that they’ll overthrow their government. There are no cases of this outcome. Look at Cuba. Cuba has been under U.S. sanctions for more than half a century, and the government is thriving. It’s not under any threat. The same can be said for Iran. Our sanctions are actually a principal moneymaker for the most repressive organization in Iran, which is the Revolutionary Guards. The sanctions-busting regime in Iran is being run by the Revolutionary Guards. They are running speed boats every day across the Gulf from Dubai. I’ve been in a bazaar in Isfahan and had vendors tell me, “If you want an Apple Watch, I can get it to you by tomorrow.” There’s nothing you can’t get there. Now, sanctions do have the effect of impoverishing a population, but I believe they have more impact in turning populations against the sanctioning power than against their own government. And sanctions are always described as targeted—they’re not supposed to hurt ordinary people. Exactly the opposite is true.

Let me give you an example. I was in Iraq when it was under Saddam Hussein and being miserably starved by sanctions. I was in a hospital watching sick babies, and a doctor told me, “If you come back tomorrow, half the babies in this room will be dead.” If I were across the border in Jordan, I could go into a pharmacy, and I could buy a drug for ten cents that would keep any one of those babies alive. But I couldn’t get those drugs [because of sanctions]. So experiences like this have made me realize that sanctions have a devastating effect on ordinary people, and they enrich the people that we’re trying to undermine. 

Sam Kolitch: Let’s end on a happier note, your affinity for blues music. What’s the backstory to your radio show in Turkey, which was Turkey’s first ever radio show dedicated to the blues? 

Stephen Kinzer: I’ve always been a fan of blues music. When I was your age, I went out hearing Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and all the blues greats. When I got to Turkey as The New York Times Bureau Chief, I quickly discovered a very cool radio station that broadcasted all sorts of music and also had interesting political commentary. I got to know the guy that ran the station, and he asked me if I would like to do a show. I began to realize that there had never been a blues show on the radio in Turkey, ever. So I told him, “How about if I do the blues?” He said he would love it. So every Saturday night I used to do a blues show on the radio. And I would translate blues lyrics into Turkish in my fractured Turkish, which led the engineers on the other side of the glass to crack up laughing sometimes. And I would always start my show the same way. I had my identity; I was “Blues Baba,” which means “blues daddy.” So I used to say [spoken in Turkish]: “Good evening Mr. and Mrs. Istanbul and all of the tankers passing through the Bosphorus Strait. I am your blues daddy, Stephen Kinzer. Welcome to my show, where I am now only playing real blues!” The show was called Smokestack Lightning. 

I’ll tell you one more story. My mother came to visit me when I was living in Istanbul. She was very adventurous, and she insisted on being dropped off in some distant neighborhood so that she could walk by herself, even though she didn’t speak a word of Turkish. So some hours passed, and I got a phone call from some English-speaking officer. He said, “I have your mother. She’s very sweet, and she’s making tea with us. You can come pick her up.” So I did that. And my mother said to me, “I told them when I went in there, ‘You probably know my son, Stephen Kinzer.’” And, of course, they said, “Never heard of him.” And then my mother said, “Well, he’s the reporter for The New York Times.” They didn’t know The New York Times either. And so my mother was a little taken aback that not everybody in Turkey knew her son. But then she said that one woman at a desk turned around and asked, “Wait a minute. Isn’t that guy the Blues Baba on the radio?” 

Sam Kolitch: To bring our conversation full circle, can the blues teach us anything about diplomacy?

Stephen Kinzer: It’s an interesting question. I haven’t really pondered the relationship between the blues and diplomacy, but I would say I can easily pick out one theme of blues music that’s very applicable to diplomacy: Blues music is a lot about troubles, about going on despite your troubles. I think one of the classic blues lines that encapsulates that theme is one in which Muddy Waters says, “I’m here. Everybody knows I’m here.” What this line means is that nothing was able to beat me down, I wasn’t crushed, and I’m still out here. And how this applies to diplomacy might be the sense that when you’re in a bad situation diplomatically, you can still get through it. You can improve it. You don’t have to just give up. You don’t have to say, “Iran’s our enemy. We’re Iran’s enemy. That’s the way it is, and it’s always going to be like that.” No, let’s get on a freight train together and ride. 

*This interview had been edited for length and clarity.