The Next Power Triangle

Two Muslim nations in the Middle East have a long history of struggle for democracy. One, of course, is Turkey. Now the world's most democratic Muslim country, it offers vivid proof that Islam and freedom can thrive side by side. It has for decades been a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and closely tied to the United States. Today, even while loosening its traditional enforcement of militant secularism, it is embarking on the most ambitious diplomatic project in its history, seeking to project power by resolving regional conflicts through dialogue and compromise.

President Barack Obama chose Turkey to be the first Muslim country he visited while in office, telling the Grand National Assembly, "Turkey's greatness lies in your ability to be at the center of things. This is not where East and West divide. This is where they come together."

There is only one other Muslim country in the Middle East where the democratic heart beats as passionately as it does in Turkey. It is also the only country that might suddenly emerge to rival or even surpass Turkey's level of political freedom. That country is Iran. The explosion of protest after Iran's disputed 2009 presidential election brought down fierce repression, but it was also thrilling confirmation that the ideals of democracy have taken deep root in that country. Beneath the heavy veneer of theocratic rule, a vibrant civil society thrives. No generation in the world understands democracy better or wishes for it more fervently than do young Iranians.

In the future, it is not Turkey alone where "they come together." Improbable as it may seem right now, given the current regime in Iran, a partnership that unites Turkey, Iran, and the United States is the future and makes sense for two reasons: The three countries share strategic interests, and their people share values. Our evolving relationship with a changing Turkey offers a model for the kind of relationship we might one day--not necessarily tomorrow--have with a changing Iran. This is the tantalizing possibility of a new way for the U.S. to engage with the Middle East in the 21st century.

Today we work in the region primarily through two bilateral relationships--with Israel and with Saudi Arabia. These pairings served Washington well during the Cold War. They have not, however, produced a stable Middle East. On the contrary, the region is torn by violence, hatred, terror, and war. The dilemma can be simply stated: America wants to stabilize the Middle East, but its policies are having the opposite effect.

Nowhere in the world is an overarching strategy more glaringly absent or more desperately needed than in the Middle East. For years, outside powers--especially the United States--have staggered through the region's forbidding deserts, steppes, and oil fields with policies that are manifest failures. During this period, threats emerging from the Middle East have become steadily more urgent and terrifying.

A new triangular relationship involving the United States, Turkey, and Iran cannot emerge overnight. In order to become a reliable American partner, Iran would have to change dramatically. Turkey would also have to change, although not nearly as much. So would the United States. Our world, how-ever, advances only as a result of strategic vision. First must come a grand concept, a destination; once the destination is clear, all parties can concentrate on finding the way to reach it.


Turkey has been a political and military ally of the United States for more than half a century, an alliance that peaked during the Cold War when Turkey was a reliable frontline state in the confrontation with Soviet power. In every other way, though, Turkey was a country on the periphery. It was near the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus, North Africa, and the Slavic world but not part of any of them. Turkey was a Cold War outlier, a strategic afterthought with no distinct role in the world or even its own region.

After giving itself what one scholar has called a "historical lobotomy" in the 1920s, the Republic of Turkey spent three-quarters of a century denying and hiding from its Ottoman past, when the Turks ruled a vast empire that spread from Algiers to Mecca to Budapest. That may have made sense; the fragile new country of Turkey had urgent challenges at home, did not want to be seen as neo-imperialist, and embraced Western security goals as its own.

For most of Turkey's modern history, the Muslim world has seen it as an apostate. Atatuerk's secularizing reforms pulled it so far from Islam that it seemed to have no religious legitimacy. It was perceived as Washington's lackey, stigmatized by its embrace of American policies that many Muslims found abhorrent.

Neither of those objections applies to Turkey today. It is governed by pious Muslims and has its own foreign policy. Its leaders are warmly welcomed in many places where, in the past, they would not even have cared to visit.

And since the end of the Cold War, few countries have so completely redesigned their approach to the world.

On the new world map, Turkey is no longer on the edge of anything. It is once again the epicenter of the immense Eurasian landmass. The combination of Turkey's location, its Ottoman heritage, and its successful blend of Islam and democracy gives it enormous strategic potential. It is seizing that potential in ways that benefit not only itself but also the United States and the West.

When Israel wished to begin secret talks with Syria, it asked Turkey to arrange them. After Sunnis in Iraq decided to boycott national elections, Turkey persuaded them to change their minds and participate. Whenever Turkish officials land in a bitterly divided country like Lebanon or Pakistan or Afghanistan, every faction is eager to talk to them. Turkey is working to calm tensions between Iran and the United States, between Syria and Iraq, between Armenia and Azerbaijan. No country's diplomats are as welcome in both Tehran and Washington; both Moscow and Tbilisi; both Damascus and Cairo. No other nation is respected by Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Taliban while also maintaining good ties with the Israeli, Lebanese, and Afghan governments.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's grand concept, which he calls "strategic depth," envisions Turkey as a hyperactive peacemaker. His first project was to resolve all of Turkey's disputes with its neighbors; in this he has been largely successful. His next ambition is grander, not just "zero problems with neighbors" but "zero problems between neighbors." Every dispute in Turkey's extended neighborhood, he argues, threatens peace and limits chances for regional development; all are therefore of urgent concern to Turkey.

Turkey has found remarkably little resistance to its new ambition. By intervening only when asked and maintaining good relations with such a wide range of governments and factions, it plays a role no other country can. It has unique credentials. Turkey is big--more than 70 million people with the largest economy in the Middle East. Its Ottoman past gives it enormous historical weight. It is also a highly alluring model, not just because of its relative prosperity but also because its society is relatively free, notably in the freedoms accorded women.

The Lebanese scholar Fares Braizat spoke for many Middle East intellectuals when he called Turkey "a role model that has successfully balanced tradition and modernization." Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, admires Turkey as "a model on the way to democracy." Sedat Laciner, an influential adviser to the Turkish foreign ministry who runs a think tank in Ankara, goes even further. "There is no country like Turkey. It is Muslim, a NATO member, and an EU candidate ... It is an antidote to al-Qaeda extremism [and] the best place to make a call to the Muslim world for cooperation with the U.S."

Although Turkey is on its way to becoming one of the world's indispensable powers, it still has one important hurdle to leap. Having resolved nearly all of its international disputes, it must now finish putting its domestic affairs in order. Turkish law still limits freedom of speech. The military still plays a role in politics that is unacceptable in a democratic country. Minorities are still less than fully protected--it is not just Kurds, whose culture was brutalized by years of official repression, who face discrimination but also Christians, non-mainstream Muslims, and unbelievers. A streak of chauvinistic nationalism still runs through Turkey's political culture. The press is weak and corrupted. Political parties are closed autocracies. The education system is rigid and discourages free thinking. Until Turkish democracy is made whole, its ability to serve as a beacon of freedom will be limited.


Henry Kissinger crystallized the conventional view of Iran when asked how the United States should deal with its Muslim enemies.

"They want to humiliate us," he said. "We need to humiliate them."

Many Americans see Iran the way their grandparents saw Germany, as a bad actor that causes nothing but trouble. For a time in the mid-1940s, Allied leaders considered the option of punishing Germany by cutting it into pieces, demolishing its factories, and forcing it to earn its living from agriculture alone. That plan was based on emotion: anger at the horror Germany had inflicted on the world and determination to make its people suffer. Cooler heads prevailed, though, and a different plan emerged. Germany was divided by the Cold War, but West Germany was brought into the European family. Four decades later, Germany was peacefully reunited. It has become a normal country, a promoter of peace instead of a maker of war.

The parallel to today's Iran is not exact, since Germany was defeated in war, while Iran is intact and self-confident. Nonetheless, the underlying dilemma is the same. Is it better to sanction and punish a troublemaker or entice it toward normality?

Beneath that question lies a deeper one: Does the United States shape its foreign policy according to emotion or by cool calculation of self-interest?

This is the essence of the conundrum that has turned relations between Washington and Tehran into one of the world's longest-lasting confrontations. Some powerful Americans are still trapped by their anger at Iran, stemming from the deeply traumatic hostage crisis of 1979-1981 and Iran's largely successful efforts over the next 30 years to make trouble for the United States wherever possible. These Americans have spent decades trying to punish Iran. Negotiating, reconciling, and perhaps even building a partnership with Iran seemed to them a form of surrender.

But the goal of diplomacy--or of avoiding diplomacy--should not be to punish, inflict pain, extract tribute, or redeem festering emotions. Nor should it be seen as a way to make friends. Its essential purpose is to advance interests. The tragedy of America's long estrangement from Iran is that it has undermined America's own interests.

There are a host of abstract reasons to negotiate with Iran, and just as many others not to do so. None are truly important. What matters is that none of the chief American goals in the Middle East--pacifying Iraq, stabilizing Lebanon, ending the Israel-Palestine stalemate, weakening Islamic fundamentalism, crushing al-Qaeda, moderating nuclear competition, reducing the threat of future wars--can be achieved without Iran's cooperation. As the last 30 years of history amply prove, an isolated Iran is a spoiler. A calm and prosperous Iran can be to the Middle East what a calm and prosperous Germany has been to Europe: a stabilizing power, a provider of security, and a motor of economic development.

During the first years of the 21st century, Iran's power in the Middle East dramatically increased. This happened largely because of spectacularly ill-conceived actions taken by the country that has posited itself as Iran's greatest enemy: the United States. Crippling American sanctions turned out to be not so crippling after all; they impoverished ordinary Iranians, enriched a class of smugglers tied to the regime, and led Iran to develop a web of new economic ties to more pragmatic countries, including Russia and China. Then, during the presidency of George W. Bush, the United States deposed the two regimes in neighboring countries that were Iran's most bitter enemies: Saddam Hussein's in Iraq and the Taliban's in Afghanistan.

America's strategic miscalculations were based in part on ignorance. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who advised three presidents on the Middle East and South Asia, has asserted that "for 30 years, the United States has tried to deal with Iran and its revolutionary ideology without a well-grounded understanding of what motivates and inspires Iranians." American policies aimed at isolating Iran have had precisely the opposite effect, isolating Americans from the information and contacts they need in order to deal effectively with Iran. "I was the point person on Iran from 2005 to 2008, and I never once met an Iranian official," former Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns has recalled.

Blinded by emotion, the United States sank into willful ignorance. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seemed almost proud of it. "We don't really have people who know Iran inside our own system," she admitted in 2007 when asked by The Wall Street Journal's editorial board about the prospects for a changed relationship. "We don't really have very good veracity or a feel for the place."

As a new president seeks to reshape American foreign policy, and as new concerns about Iran emerge, especially about its nuclear program, the United States is reconsidering its approach. The emotions that prevented a rapprochement in the past have not evaporated, as was made clear when the administration petulantly rejected an effort by Brazil and Turkey to find a peaceful way out of the escalating crisis over Iran's nuclear program. For the first time, however, there are signs that Washington is considering the advantages that might emerge from a new understanding between the United States and Iran:

  • Iran can do more than any other country, including the United States, to assure long-term peace in Iraq.
  • Iran can also help stabilize Afghanistan, where it has been engaged for centuries.
  • A stable and secure Iran, no longer in need of a scapegoat, might stop threatening Israel.
  • Iran can tame militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, which would contribute to Israeli security, help stabilize Lebanon, and dramatically improve the prospects for peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
  • Reconciliation between Iran and the United States would decisively improve relations between the United States and the Muslim world.
  • Iran will have less incentive to invite Russian power into the Middle East, something the United States is rightly eager to avoid.
  • Iran is an enemy of al-Qaeda and would cooperate in a transnational effort to crush it.
  • Iran has 10 percent of the world's oil reserves and 16 percent of its natural gas; if the United States does not exploit and buy it, Russia and China will, thereby increasing their strategic leverage in the region.
  • An Iran that no longer feels threatened by the United States might be more willing to compromise on nuclear issues.

What would the United States have to do in order to secure these results? Above all, it would have to recognize Iran as an important power with legitimate security interests. Successive American presidents have rejected the idea of compromise for exactly this reason. They wished to punish and contain Iran, not reward it with a promotion to regional-power status. That ignored the reality that Iran needs no promotion. It is already a regional power. The United States may wish that this were not the case, but self-delusion is an unsound basis for foreign policy.

No aspect of Iran's behavior during the first decade of the new century has been more troubling to outsiders than its pursuit of a nuclear program. It is not unreasonable for Iran to want the capacity to generate nuclear energy. Its nuclear program, in fact, was first begun with American encouragement, during Mohammad Reza Shah's regime.

What troubles the outside world, though, is that Iran's drive for nuclear power is shrouded in secrecy and subterfuge, leading to the eminently reasonable suspicion that its true goal is not nuclear power but nuclear weaponry. Just as worrisome is the fact that as Iran presses ahead with its nuclear program, it is broadening its regional ambitions, testing ballistic missiles, and recklessly threatening Israel. Even Israeli leaders may not truly fear that Iran would attack their country with nuclear weapons; that would bring instant retaliation and lead to Iran's death as a nation. The Israelis and others realize, however, that a nuclear-armed Iran would be able to intimidate its neighbors in ways that would ultimately endanger Israel's security. A nuclear-armed Iran might well set off an arms race in the region, with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and perhaps other countries pressing for nuclear weapons of their own--a race that could set off a regional conflagration. Seeking to curb Iran's nuclear program, or at least force it into the open as Iran's treaty obligations require, is a legitimate and urgent task for the outside world.

The intensifying danger that Iran's nuclear program poses to regional and global security is not a reason to continue isolating Iran but a reason to do the opposite: Engage urgently with its government in the hope of avoiding its emergence as a full-fledged nuclear power. Threats and sanctions will not achieve this, nor will military attack. Negotiation may also fail, but the stakes are so high that refusing to try is folly.

The shocking violence that Iranian leaders used to suffocate protests after the 2009 presidential election likewise does not change the strategic logic of reconciliation between Washington and Tehran. It must, however, remind Americans that they cannot fall into the trap that has soured their relationships with some other countries: making deals between ruling elites that exclude the citizenry. As the United States pursues its strategic interest by seeking an accommodation with Iran, it must do nothing to undermine Iran's brave democratic movement.

Iran is the only Muslim country in the world where most people are reliably pro-American. This pro-American sentiment in Iran is a priceless strategic asset for the United States. For practical as well as moral reasons, American negotiators should make no concessions to Iran's regime that weaken Iranians who are persecuted for defending democratic values.

Opposition figures in Iran find themselves in a difficult situation in which there are no good options. The best of the bad options is for the regime to become integrated with the outside world, to be lured out of its fear, to build bridges to countries where debate, dissent, and protest are considered healthy signs of stability. If Iranian democrats change their minds about that--if they begin asking other countries to cut off their contacts with the regime--the United States will have to reconsider the logic of engagement. Until then, it should press ahead.

The months of protest in Iran reflect the legacy of Iran's hundred--year march toward democracy. There are seldom post-election protests in Egypt, because Egyptians expect elections to be rigged, and none in Saudi Arabia because there are no national elections at all. Today's Iranians believe they are entitled to their vote and voice. They are the heirs to five generations of freedom fighters, including those of the 1906 Constitutional Revolution and those who defended the nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh nearly half a century later. Their sacrifice shows how brightly the flame of freedom still burns in Iran--although, unlike in Turkey, it is not allowed to burn in public.

The political evolution of Iran has not ended. The regime now in power will not be in power forever. When it changes, evolves, or falls, the Iranian people will demand the democracy for which so many of them yearn. This cannot be said for other countries in the region, because they do not have long democratic traditions.

Under the right circumstances, Iran might even emerge from its half-century of dictatorship as more democratic than Turkey. When and if it does, its people should know that the United States has always stood by them.

Direct, bilateral, comprehensive, and unconditional negotiations hold the only hope for a diplomatic breakthrough between Iran and the United States. Iran has incentives to make a deal. It craves legitimacy. It has security needs that only the United States can meet. Its government is unpopular, its economy is reeling from a combination of high inflation and low oil prices, its society is groaning under a host of social ills, its young generation is deeply alienated, and many of its most talented sons and daughters have either emigrated or hope to do so.

It may prove impossible for the United States to make Iran a partner as long as the current regime is in power, but Americans should do nothing that will make that partnership more difficult to achieve when conditions are right. Instead they should ask, as the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi did, "Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open?"

This article is adapted from the book Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future © 2010, published by Times Books an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, reprinted here with permission.