On Nov. 24, the world awoke to a new Middle East. Some might find this claim imprudent, made in the heat of a momentous agreement reached between Iran and the five UN Security Council permanent member and Germany, or P5+1. True, institutional pressures in Iran and the United States mean implementing the deal will prove at least as difficult and sensitive as striking it has been. And we can be certain that it will be resisted fiercely by Israel and Saudi Arabia, given their long-standing animosity toward the Iranian regime and recent efforts to block an agreement.
These reservations are duly noted. But the deal announced in Geneva in the early hours of Nov. 24 is not merely wishful thinking on the part of the negotiating countries to break through one of the region’s most persistent disputes. It is also the clearest expression yet of shifting geopolitical dynamics that have been bringing Iranian and US interests closer together.
Syria is a major component of this shift. By being able to sustain Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — despite facing immense political, economic and military pressures — the Iranian regime proved its weight on the ground. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey made a mess of a situation that had until recently seemed in their — and the rebels’ — favor. The social, political and physical disintegration of Syria and the flooding of al-Qaeda-affiliated groups to fill the vacuum prompted the Barack Obama administration to look at Iran and Russia for a mutually agreed solution. The election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the softening of Iran’s rhetoric provided a welcome opportunity. Whether or not Iran gets an invitation to the international conference on Syria scheduled for Jan. 22, its position will be firmly represented in Geneva.
The turn of events in Syria confirms a widely held conviction about power dynamics in the Middle East: Iran, with its long tradition of statehood, influence over the region’s Shiites and vital strategic location, holds the key to many of the region’s most intractable impasses. When it budges, the region moves. Three decades ago, its revolution changed the face of international politics in this part of the world. Today, the suggestion of a detente with the West indicates major systemic changes — and triggers frenzied reactions.
The fear and distrust of Iran among the Sunni Gulf monarchies and Israel are historically rooted and real. But at the same time, a sustained "Iranian threat" seems necessary for these regimes to maintain their strategic positions in the region and privileges vis-a-vis the United States. For Israel, the "consistently imminent" danger of a nuclear-armed Iran — Israeli governments have claimed that Tehran is within a few years of developing the bomb since the early 1990s — has meant full US security guarantees, a rare area of cooperation with Arab governments and a convenient distraction from the occupation of Palestine.
It was the Islamic Revolution that forced the United States to shift the focus of its Gulf security and energy policy toward the Gulf kingdoms. For three decades, the presence of an Iranian threat effectively provided Saudi Arabia with a steady provision of US arms and protection in exchange for oil. Iran’s return to the fold would render that arrangement much less vital. As one Iranian delegate memorably relayed to his Western counterparts at a regional security summit in Bahrain in the days before the Arab uprisings, for the Gulf monarchies the specter of war between the United States and Iran is bad, while the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran is worse; but the worst scenario involves a deal between Tehran and Washington.
Convinced that they have the most to lose from the changing status quo, Saudi and Israeli officials have come out with the most scathing criticism of the latest talks in Geneva. With their influence over the US Congress, they can be expected to work to stop the deal from moving forward. And as the suicide attack outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut on Nov. 19 — days before the renewed talks — shows, as the stakes rise, so do tensions and the potential for violence on the ground.
Less straightforward will be gauging how Turkey, another power with high stakes and ambitions in the region, might be affected by and respond to the rise of Iran. The symbolism is potent: the breakthrough in Geneva came hours after Egypt’s military government expelled the Turkish ambassador from Cairo and downgraded its ties with Ankara. How the tables have turned in a couple of years. Not long ago, Turkey was hailed as the “true victor of the Arab Spring,” its ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a model for the Arab world’s rising Islamist movements and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the most popular and influential leader in the wider region.
But the AKP government’s ambition to remodel and lead the region has been checked by the hubris of its decision-makers, the divisiveness of its sectarian rhetoric and the limits of its ability to manipulate dynamics beyond its borders. Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s dream of a neo-Ottoman zone of influence became stuck in the Syrian quagmire. The tide turned decisively against Turkey following the Egyptian coup that toppled the ruling Muslim Brotherhood in July, depriving the AKP of a newfound ally it had invested heavily in and shares deep ideological affinities with. Ankara’s frustration at Western governments’ muted response to the coup and the US reluctance to intervene in Syria was reflected in the phrase “precious loneliness” — coined by Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s chief foreign policy adviser — to describe Turkey’s unfavorable but supposedly noble predicament.
During the last decade, Turkey painstakingly carved itself a role as the preferred interlocutor in any regional dispute, be it between Syria and Israel or Iran and the West. Today, not only does Ankara need interlocutors to talk with the first two, but the latter two have finally ditched mediators to start negotiating directly. One could be forgiven to think, then — given the decline in Turkey’s regional fortunes, its traditional rivalry with Iran and Erdogan's hubris — that Turkey might join Israel and Saudi Arabia in their opposition to the nuclear deal.
Fortunately, unlike the Saudis and the Israelis, Turks have not historically viewed their relations with Iran in zero-sum terms. While a US-Iranian detente might cast a shadow on Ankara’s "strategic import," Turkey would ultimately benefit from the easing of tensions along its southern borders, which have only undermined its profile as a trustworthy partner and a rising "soft power." Indeed, as Yavuz Baydar recently noted in his Al-Monitor article, there are signs that the Turkish officials are facing the music and taking steps to reorient their foreign policy on the basis of a more modest and realistic strategy, focusing on energy cooperation and moving away from sectarianism and ideological confrontation.
Davutoglu’s trips to Washington and Baghdad, his categorical denial that his government had backed Sunni extremists in Syria and official expressions of support for the nuclear deal have been interpreted in Turkey as a “fresh start” in regional politics. The damage is extensive and trust may never be restored while Erdogan is in power, but as Suleyman Demirel — Turkey’s former president (1993-2000) and pragmatist par excellence — famously stated, “Yesterday is yesterday, and today is today.” As cynical as it sounds today, it may not be far-fetched to imagine the Turkish prime minister once again embracing his “brother” the Syrian president in a few years’ time.
Ultimately, Turkey’s relevance for and influence in its wider neighborhood depend on its ability to mend its own social, ethnic and religious fault lines. Its leaders’ attempts to manipulate the divisions beyond its borders have only exacerbated those at home and in turn left the country deeply exposed to regional instabilities. If the Iranian nuclear deal nudges them to employ a more humble, introspective and unifying discourse — one that would stop antagonizing secular Turks and Alevis, while pushing on with the Kurdish peace process — it would also be a victory for Turkey.
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