America's ideal ally in the Muslim world is not Jordan or (the new and improved) Iraq - and certainly not Saudi Arabia - but Iran.
So argues journalist and historian Stephen Kinzer, author of the acclaimed 2003 political study, All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror.
Would that be the same Iran that reveled as militants took 66 Americans hostage in 1979?
Yes, says Kinzer, who argues that the pro-democracy movement in Iran inevitably will lead the country to adopt a new, more open regime. He argues that America will profit greatly from this change.
Kinzer will discuss Iranian politics Monday with Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin at the Central Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia.
The event is part of the citywide literacy project One Book One Philadelphia, now through March 17, which this year focuses on Iranian-French author Marjane Satrapi's two-volume comic-book memoir, Persepolis.
One Book features eight weeks of readings, lectures, workshops, and film screenings that will explore not only Satrapi's work, but also aspects of Iranian culture and the genre of the graphic novel.
Other programs will consider the image of Iran in the media; the role of women in Iran; the psychology of the Iranian people; and traditional and contemporary Persian literature.
"We thought that Kinzer's book was a great way to start a discussion about Iranian politics and history," says One Book program manager Gerri Trooskin.
Kinzer, a New York Times foreign correspondent for more than 20 years, has taught journalism and political science at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., since 2006.
He has written books about the convergence of tradition and modernity in Turkey; the rise of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and the 1954 CIA-led coup in Guatemala.
In All the Shah's Men, he argued that the anti-American rage that consumes Iranian leaders was incited 50 years ago when the CIA destroyed the nation's first - and so far, only - experiment with liberal democracy after less than a decade.
In 1953, at the request of the British, the CIA orchestrated a coup to oust Iran's prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh, who had instituted democratic reforms and nationalized the country's oil industry - much to the annoyance of Britain, which held a virtual monopoly over Iranian oil production.
The Americans and British installed a repressive regime under the monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
The shah's secular dictatorship was toppled in 1979 and replaced by an equally repressive theocracy.
Despite half a century of repression, Kinzer argues, the spark of democracy has never died out in Iran.
"Maybe we are going back to the last time Iran had a democracy," he says, referring to the protests against perceived corruption in Iran's presidential elections in June. "The government has lost a lot of its legitimacy over the past few months."
Kinzer concedes that the current regime won't fall in the short term, but he says Iran already has undergone a transformation.
"Public opinion surveys show that Iran is the only country in the Muslim Middle East, perhaps the only Muslim country in the world, where the majority of people are pro-American," he says. That would have been unheard of 30 years ago.
"A powerful democratic Iran is not not in our self-interest," says Kinzer, delighting in the tangle that the double negative spins.
Kinzer's point, elaborated in his new book, Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future, due June 8 from Times Books, negates the popular belief that it's in our best interest to cultivate a weak, if not destabilized, Iran.
Kinzer says an Iranian democracy would make for a natural U.S. ally.
Like its neighbor Turkey, Iran "has two things in common with the U.S. that make it a potentially good ally," he says by cell phone.
"We have long-term strategic interests in common. Second, our societies have a strong democratic flavor."
Both assertions are bold, even counterintuitive. But Kinzer backs them up with strong argumentation.
"Look at it from the cool, logical point of view of our national interest," he suggests. Like America, he says, Iran is eager to curb Russian power. And like America, Iran, a Shiite nation, "has a deep-seated enmity toward radical Sunni movements like the Taliban."
Kinzer believes that because of Iran's great influence on the Shia majority in Iraq, it can help end Iraq's internal conflicts. He approvingly cites Iran's support of a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
And he goes a step further, suggesting that without Iran's help, it would be nearly impossible to bring about long-lasting peace in the Middle East.
Second, Kinzer says, unlike our ally Saudi Arabia, Iran displays a deep yearning for democratic rights.
"The most stable and durable relationships are also ones that include strong commonalities of society and culture," he says.
Democracy will flower again in Iran, Kinzer adds, as long as "the U.S. can resist the temptation to intervene and can allow events to take their own course."
Some will say Kinzer's hopes hang on a very big if - Iran would be a powerful ally if it adopts liberal democracy. (And if it complies with international nuclear nonproliferation treaties, stops funding anti-Israeli terrorists, and . . .)
But Kinzer is undaunted.
"People are marching in the streets" in Iran, "demanding civil rights - in the face of gunfire," he says.
"Would today's Americans sacrifice so much for democracy?"