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What can the United States do to help realize its dream of a peaceful, democratic Middle East? Stephen Kinzer offers a surprising answer in this paradigm-shifting book. Two countries in the region, he argues, are America's logical partners in the twenty-first century: Turkey and Iran.
Besides proposing this new "power triangle," Kinzer recommends that the United States reshape relations with its two traditional Middle East allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia. This book provides a penetrating, timely critique of America's approach to the world's most volatile region and offers a startling alternative.
Kinzer is a master storyteller with an eye for grand characters and illuminating historical detail. In this book he introduces us to larger-than-life figures, such as a Nebraska schoolteacher who became a martyr to democracy in Iran, a Turkish radical who transformed his country and Islam forever, and a colorful parade of princes, politicians, women of the world, spies, oppressors, liberators, and dreamers.
Kinzer's provocative new view of the Middle East is the rare book that will richly entertain while moving a vital policy debate beyond the stale alternatives of the last fifty years.
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Stephen Kinzer, an award-winning New York Times correspondent who has reported from more than fifty countries on five continents, is the author of Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
A broken line of terrified schoolboys, laden with rifles and homemade grenades, crept through the streets of ancient Tabriz as dawn broke over the starving city. Weakened by hunger after months of siege, many of them sick, these young men nevertheless understood that they were the vanguard of Iran's struggle for democracy. Above all they were inspired by the man they followed. He was not, like other guerrilla leaders, a defiant officer, a bandit turned patriot, or the product of a long line of Persian fighters. Instead he was as unlikely a revolutionary as could possibly have emerged in this proud and ancient land: a twenty- four-year-old schoolteacher from Nebraska named Howard Baskerville.
Neither the inspiring figure of their leader nor the invigorating spring breeze blowing down from the nearby Sahand Mountains, however, was enough to persuade most of these boys and young men that this day, April 20, 1909, was their day to die. A hundred followed Baskerville as he set out at first light. By the time their column approached the city wall an hour later, fewer than a dozen remained. Nonetheless Baskerville pressed on.
Patriots in Tabriz were resisting a counterrevolution aimed at crushing Iran's new democracy and restoring the de cadent Qajar monarchy. Royalist forces had surrounded the defiant city. Their siege was terrifyingly effective; hunger and disease killed people every day, and many of the living were reduced to eating grass. They could survive and continue to resist only if someone, somehow, could break through the siege line, reach a nearby village, and return with food and medicine. Baskerville volunteered to try.
"Be careful," one of his American friends begged him before he set out. "You know you are not your own."
"No," he replied. "I am Persia's."
Born in the Nebraska prairie town of North Platte and raised in South Dakota's Black Hills, the son and grandson of Presbyterian preachers, Baskerville was an improbable candidate for martyrdom. As a teenager he was pious, sober, and studious enough to win admission to Princeton University. There he studied religion, excelled in horsemanship, and became a modestly successful boxer. He also took two courses taught by Woodrow Wilson, one called "Jurisprudence" and the other "Constitutional Government." Wilson's lectures stirred the passion for democracy that shaped his short life.
After graduating in 1907, Baskerville decided to postpone his entry into Prince ton's theological seminary and work for a time as a missionary. That autumn he arrived in Tabriz, a two-thousand-year-old city in northwest Iran that is the supposed birthplace of the prophet Zoroaster and was built, according to legend, on the site of the Garden of Eden. There he taught history, geometry, and English to mixed classes—he insisted on accepting girls as well as boys—at the American Memorial School. He also became the school's tennis coach and riding instructor, directed a student production of The Merchant of Venice, and closed his first Thanksgiving sermon with a stirring verse from Sir Walter Scott:
Breathes there a man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said,
"This is my home, my native land!"
Baskerville's students would have found those words excruciating. For de cades their prostrate homeland, heir to a great empire led by heroic kings like Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes, had been misruled by a dissolute dynasty and looted by rapacious outside powers. In 1907, Britain and Russia signed a convention dividing Persia— as Iran was then known— into "spheres of influence." Britain took the southern part of the country, Russia the north. No Iranian participated in or even knew about the negotiations that produced this agreement.
Yet the early twentieth century was an age of ferment and rebellion as well as imperial power. The Boers overthrew British rule in South Africa. Russian insurgents forced Czar Nicholas II to establish a legislature. The Russo-Japanese war ended with victory for Japan, suggesting that Europeans were not fated to dominate Asians forever.
None of these shattering events went unnoticed in Iran. Anger at the docile Qajar dynasty, and at the foreign powers it served, sparked waves of protest. In 1906 these protests achieved their unimaginable goal: democratic revolution. The king, Muzaffer al-Din Shah, was forced to make concessions like those King John had made seven centuries earlier when he signed the Magna Carta. He agreed to permit the proclamation of a constitution, the holding of elections, and the establishment of a parliament. Under the new constitution, freedom of speech and press were guaranteed, monarchs were forbidden to sign treaties or borrow money without approval from Parliament, and all citizens were declared equal before the law.
Forty days after reluctantly accepting this constitution—the pain may have been too great for him—Muzaffer al-Din Shah died. His son and successor, Mohammad Ali Shah, described by one contemporary as "perhaps the most perverted, cowardly and vice-sodden monster that had disgraced the throne of Persia for many generations," loathed the new democracy. Determined to crush it, he dissolved Parliament and then, on June 3, 1908, sent Russian-led artillery units to bomb the building where it met. Scores of deputies were killed. Protests broke out across the country, but the shah ruthlessly crushed them. The only city he could not subdue was Tabriz, which, because of its location near the borders with Russia and Turkey, was the portal through which democratic ideas had been streaming into the country for years.
Howard Baskerville was in Tabriz when royalist soldiers imposed their siege at the beginning of 1909. He was instinctively drawn to the constitutional cause and spent many evenings with volunteer brigades bringing food to fighters defending the city. Slowly he came to conclude that this was not enough. News of the Anglo-Russian Convention outraged him, and he delivered withering tirades to his students aimed especially at Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, whom he scorned as a hypocrite for spouting the platitudes of democracy while supporting the slaughter of Iranians who were fighting for it. One of his closest Iranian friends, Hussein Sharifzadeh, became a leader of the Tabriz resistance, and when Sharifzadeh was assassinated, Baskerville's outrage reached new heights. In the spring of 1909 he decided to raise a volunteer force and join the defense of Iranian democracy.
"I cannot watch calmly from a classroom window as the starving people of this city fight for their rights," he told his students on his last day at school.
A few days later, Baskerville was asked to speak at a dinner honoring officers who were leading the defense of Tabriz. "I hate war," he told them, "but war can be justified in pursuit of a greater good—in this case, the protection of a city and the defense of constitutional liberty. I am ready to die for these causes!" The audience broke into applause and cries of "Long live Baskerville!" He responded by singing a chorus from his favorite song, "My Country 'Tis of Thee."
By this time, Baskerville was spending his days drilling schoolboys in the arts of war and his evenings poring over encyclopedia articles that explained how to manufacture grenades. This horrified the American consul in Tabriz, Edward Doty.
"I am compelled to remind you that as an American citizen, you have no right to interfere with the internal politics of this country," Doty told him one day in front of his young recruits. "You are here to act as a teacher, not as a revolutionary."
"I cannot remain and watch indifferently the sufferings of a people fighting for their rights," Baskerville replied. "I am an American citizen and proud of it, but I am also a human being."
On the night of April 19, 1909, Baskerville shared his last meal with Reverend Samuel Wilson, the principal of the American Memorial School, and his wife, Annie, who had been born in Iran and passionately loved its people. They drank milk, and joked about how odd it was for this to be the last drink a man would want before setting off to battle. A few hours later Baskerville met his hundred volunteers and began leading them toward the outskirts of Tabriz. Every few minutes, another handful of them lost their nerve and deserted.
Baskerville pressed on. Just after he passed through the city wall, a sniper's bullet whizzed by his head. He fired back, then paused until he felt satisfied the sniper had retreated. That was his fatal mistake. When he stood to wave his boys ahead, the sniper reappeared and fired twice. A bullet pierced his heart and killed him.
"The boys rushed to the gate to carry him in, all of us sobbing and lamenting," Annie Wilson wrote the next day in a tormented sixteen-page letter to Baskerville's parents. "We carried him to our room and laid him out on our own bed, and Mrs. Vannemen and I washed the dear body, with blood staining through his shirts and covering his breast and back. . . . We dressed him in his black suit, and when all the sad service was done, he looked beautiful and noble, his firm mouth set in a look of resolution and his whole face calm in repose. I printed a kiss on his forehead for his mother's sake. A white carnation is in his buttonhole, and wreaths of flowers are being made. Our children made a cross and crown of the beautiful almond blossoms now in bloom. The governor came at once, expressing great sorrow, saying, ‚ÄòHe has written his name in our hearts and in our history.' "
Thousands gathered silently to watch as Baskerville's coffin, covered with sixteen floral wreaths, was drawn through the streets of Tabriz to the Presbyterian church. A leader of the embattled Parliament that Baskerville had died to defend, Sayyed Hasan Taqizadeh, was among the eulogists.
"Young America, in the person of young Baskerville, gave this sacrifice to the young Constitution of Iran," he said solemnly.
Five days after Baskerville's death, Tabriz fell. Royalist troops and their Russian allies stormed into the city and disarmed every resistance fighter they could find. Their victory, however, was short-lived. As soon as citizens returned to health, they resumed their fight for democratic rule. So did others across Iran. Their defiance grew into a national movement, and finally Muhammad Ali Shah's counterrevolution collapsed. He abdicated on July 16, 1909, just three months after Baskerville's martyrdom. Parliament reconvened, constitutional government was reestablished, and Iran resumed its march toward democracy.
Today Howard Baskerville is an honored figure in Iran. Schools and streets have been named after him. His bust, cast in bronze, commands a salon at Constitution House in Tabriz. A plaque beneath it says, "Howard C. Baskerville—Patriot and Maker of History."
Baskerville is more than just an Iranian hero. He embodied the shared values that bind Iranians to Americans. Long before many other Middle Eastern nations had come into existence, the Constitutional Revolution brought modern ideas to Iran. These ideas have produced a nation that has more in common with the United States than almost any of its neighbors in the world's most troubled region.
Only one other country in this region shares Iran's long history of struggle for democracy: Turkey. The Iranians rebelled against and deposed their servile monarchy during the first decade of the twentieth century. So did the Turks.
The spread of egalitarian ideas among the Turks dates to the early nineteenth century. In 1839 the enlightened Ottoman Sultan Abdul Mecit proclaimed a series of reforms known as Tanzimat, including a list of civil rights to which all citizens were entitled, regardless of religion or group identity. The reform period culminated with the proclamation of a constitution in 1876 and the election of a parliament soon afterward. Within a year, however, the new sultan, Abdul Hamid, suspended the constitution. He closed Parliament and ruled by decree for the next three decades, suppressing dissent, directing an army of spies, and casting a paralyzing pall over society.
In Paris and other Europe an cities, groups of Turkish radicals nurtured the democratic flame. They formed committees, published newsletters, and studied the history of past revolutions. Some of them tried to overthrow the sultan in 1896. They failed, but their radical ideas captivated many young patriots.
One of these idealists was an ambitious cadet named Mustafa Kemal. After entering the Ottoman military academy in 1902, Kemal began reading broadsides smuggled into the country from Europe. He and a handful of other cadets even started a clandestine newspaper of their own. They were quickly discovered, and escaped punishment only by the intercession of the academy's director, who was himself unhappy with the absolutist regime.
Soon after graduating, Kemal landed in trouble again; an informer named him as part of an illegal cell devoted to studying books by Voltaire and Tolstoy. He spent several weeks in military prison. Finally a sympathetic judge agreed to ascribe his crime to youthful indiscretion. He was released and posted to faraway Damascus.
Until this moment, Kemal had known only vibrant, cosmopolitan cities. He was born and grew up in the cultural cauldron of Salonika— modern- day Thessalonica, the second-largest city in Greece— surrounded by Turks but also by Greeks, Jews, and expatriates from across Europe and beyond. As a cadet he lived in Istanbul, one of the world's most dazzlingly diverse capitals. On his way to his new post he stopped for a time in Beirut, "the Paris of the Middle East," where energy and excitement crackled through the air. Damascus was a stark contrast to all of this, the somnolent heart of old Arabia. Most of its people lived as their ancestors had for a thousand years: illiterate, caught in a deadening web of orthodoxy, untouched by the outside world and largely unaware of it. Damascus repelled the twenty-four-year-old Kemal. Later he wrote that he found it "all bad."
"For the first time he came to know a city which still lived in the darkness of the Middle Ages," one biographer has written. "Damascus was a city of the dead. The narrow streets, which he paced after dark, were deserted and silent. Not a sound came from within the high shuttered walls of the houses. One night, to his surprise, he heard the sound of music floating from a cafv©. He looked in, to find it filled with Italians, workers on the Hafez Railway, playing the mandolin, singing and dancing with their wives and girls. As an officer in uniform, he might not enter. But on an impulse he went home, changed into rough clothes, and returned to join them in their gay and uninhibited Western pleasures. . . . Here in Damascus, Kemal felt imprisoned. He longed to break his bars, to bring life to this moribund community. The remedy, of course, lay in political action."
One day while wandering through the back streets of Damascus, Kemal stumbled into a shop that sold books in French, which he had learned to read. Among them were novels and collections of social criticism.
"What are you," he asked ...
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