Author Stephen Kinzer discusses the motivations behind the targeting of Iran, the emotional impulses that fuel American interventions around the world, and the strategy that may finally deliver the US from its "regime change" habit.
Amid the foreboding language of the Petraeus/Crocker hearings, the Bush administration's assessment of fighting in Basra and Baghdad, and some Congressional Democrats' incendiary words - at a hearing last week, Congressman Gary Ackerman warned that "Iran's nuclear cauldron continues to boil and bubble" - the specter of an Iranian threat to the US would seem to have grown to monstrous proportions over the past few weeks.
However, according to Stephen Kinzer, bestselling author of "All the Shah's Men" and "Overthrow: American Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq," it's the specter of a US threat to Iran which has really mounted as of late.
"Every time I pick up my newspaper and read about what's coming out of Washington, my fears of an American attack on Iran intensify," Kinzer told me during an interview last week.
Indeed, Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker made perfectly clear in their testimony that the administration would not rule out a military strike: Petraeus cited "help[ing] Iraq resist Iranian encroachment on its territory" as a main goal, and Crocker declared, ominously, "Iran has a choice to make."
Last week, President Bush warned that, should Iranians continue supplying Iraqi militants, "then we'll deal with them." And during a briefing in Baghdad on Sunday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice repeatedly cited Iran as the major force spurring militias and "special groups" in Iraq.
During our interview, Kinzer pointed to the hypocrisy of Bush admonishing Iran for intervening militarily in Iraq. Kinzer stressed that the US must recognize the legitimacy of Iran's integral role.
"The fact is, Iran does have influence in Iraq, and Iran always will have influence in Iraq," he said.
The two countries are tied religiously, politically, historically and geographically, and the US is in no position to sever those ties, according to Kinzer. Rather, he suggested, we might use them to our advantage, viewing Iran as "our ticket out of Iraq."
By cultivating Iran's involvement in Iraqi politics and allowing it to fulfill its responsibilities as the region's most powerful country, the US could begin to take more of a backseat without ostensibly abandoning Iraq.
"All the Shah's Men" reminds us that, when it comes to Iran, the backseat is probably where we should be sitting. The US was responsible for the 1953 coup that toppled Iran's democratic government, replacing it with the repressive Shah regime, which hastened the Islamic Revolution of 1970s, inspiring the rise of radical groups like the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Yet the US has not yet taken its Middle East history lessons seriously. Kinzer noted that our attitude toward Iran and Iraq is symptomatic of the US's overriding tendency toward using military force to shape economic policy - in this case, oil management - to its advantage.
Kinzer's most recent book, "Overthrow," shows how the "regime change" model has developed over the past 110 years. In our interview, he discussed the motivations behind that empire-driven mentality - and why, ultimately, it's doomed to fail.
"As long as the US arrogates to itself the right to decide which governments may live, and which must die, these interventions are never going to work out," Kinzer said.