Iran and Turkey Eye New Regional Roles

Article Summary
Traditionally blocked by the West from overtly influencing political developments in the Middle East, Iran and Turkey are now seeking to redraw the regional map with minimal recourse to violent confrontation. Given the recent upheavals which have turned the balance of Middle Eastern powers on its head, traditional power relations in the Arab world, the West is eager to sponsor Turkey as the leader of a moderate Sunni “crescent” that ranges from the Maghreb to the Levant, writes Jamil Matar.

At the end of the First World War, Britain and France divided the Arab world between them. As heirs to the Ottoman Empire, they thought that [carving up the Middle East was] their right. Mere geographic or administrative entities suddenly became countries. Some of them were then subjected to European colonialism until the end of the Second World War and the emergence of the Arab League. [The Arab League’s emergence] legitimized these new political entities as independent or quasi-independent states, and as members of a regional organization recognized by the United Nations. The division of the Arabs in the wake of, or due to, military conflicts or rivalries between empires marked the birth of a regional Arab order preconditioned on the elimination of what was left of Ottoman domination. [The new Arab order necessitated] that Turkey accept to become a satellite state of the West, following its politics, economic policies and system of values. Turkey was also forced to agree to refrain from playing any role in the emerging Arab countries beyond the tasks assigned to it by the West. This happened a number of times, [including] during the establishment of the Central Treaty Organization military alliance, also known as the Baghdad Pact [in 1955]; and when Turkey threatened to use military force to counter the expansion of Egyptian influence during the first wave of Arab nationalism.

Iran, another neighbor to [the Arab world], came under Western influence before Turkey - first under the British, then under the Americans. For a long time, [Iran]played, together with Pakistan, the role of the Eastern wing of a Western military alliance. [This alliance] emerged under the pretext of covering the southern flank of the Soviet Union. However its true objective was to contain the Arab order - especially during the rise of Arab nationalism. Iran was thus tasked with interfering in the Arab order - namely in the network of relationships between Arab states - and with facilitating the formation of an Islamic crescent that includes Iran and the Gulf countries and extends westward to include Tunisia, Morocco, and Jordan. But again, after the failure of this alliance, the West needed Iran and Turkey to play specific regional roles that served its goals and interests.

The West has always intervened [in the Arab world], while Iran and Turkey intervened only when they are ordered to [by the West]. According to research - and what we remember - the West never used sectarian motives in assigning tasks to Turkey and Iran. In most instances, these two countries provided support for the conservative Arab line against the national and progressive groups that opposed Western influence. And as far as we know, the West never allowed Iran or Turkey to influence the neighboring Arab region. Iran has never had a special influence over its neighbors in the Gulf or Iraq; and Turkey never had undue influence over neighboring Syria or Iraq. The West did not grant Iran a role in the Gulf or Iraq because of its Shiite makeup, nor did it grant Turkey a role in Syria, Iraq or the Levant countries because it was Sunni. In other words, the West dominated the relations between Middle East countries to the point where Iranian and Turkish relations with the Arabs became part of Western politics and influence. [These Western political ambitions crowded out] independent sectarian, geographic, cultural, or even historic considerations in spite of important historical and cultural ties [between Iran, Turkey and the Arab world].

We still recall that during the first half of [the modern] Arab order - that is until the 1980s - religion did not greatly influence Turkish or Iranian politics. Now, we see attempts by the two neighbors, Iran and Turkey, to divide the Arab world again. An expression employed by a writer in a foreign newspaper - I think it was The Wall Street Journal - made me pause for a moment. He said he was certain that Iran and Turkey are attempting to redraw the map of the Arab world based on a vision that the two countries don’t necessarily agree upon. They are competing and exploiting internal Arab developments - namely the Arab Spring. Personally I think that within Iranian and Turkish institutions are officials who envision a new Arab world, or a different regional order, in the near future. This formation would not necessitate as much violence as did that of World War I, when the region was previously redrawn, or as during the period following World War II, when the Arab order was formed. I imagine that those officials in Tehran and Ankara responsible for the future of the Middle East want to see the new map to be redrawn and implemented with minimal regional violence and, if possible, without any violence between themselves. They want the new map to earn the name "soft partition."

It has become clear to the outside world, to the neighbors [Iran and Turkey], and perhaps to some in the Arab order, that Western capitals are carefully studying how to limit Iranian and Turkish influence in the Arab region. [For the West, it is important that] these two do not overlap and, most importantly, do not collide.

Mohammad Ayyoub, a professor at the University of Michigan, says that he can almost a new order biased towards the interests of Iran and Turkey emerging from the ashes of the Arab Spring revolutions. Many commentators believe that the Arab regimes are passing through their weakest phase. The opposite is true of the Arab populations  as their youths, professional organizations and women are getting stronger by the day. Every Arab regime that refuses to heed the warning signs of its people will be increasingly threatened. Certain Arab countries in turmoil, and others under threat of turmoil are unable to take strong and courageous foreign and defensive stands. All of this is taking place at a time when the Arab order is threatened by the consequences of the fall of its leadership, and by the absence of deterrence between Arab countries.

These days, journalists and analysts are writing about moderate Islam in the Arab order. They say it is taking root in North Africa, and that it may find in Turkey an appropriate sponsor and in the Emirate of Qatar a generous donor. Others say that what is happening in Iraq is nothing more than a coup-d'état by [Prime Minister] Nouri Al-Maliki so that he may increase his association with Iran in the face the Syrian regime’s eventual collapse. I know many in the Levant who doubt the moderation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and who refuse to compare them to their counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia. It is likely that the Turks have conducted an in-depth study on the Islamist groups in Syria and have put in place policies that will guarantee their right to intervene, [by “soft” power] if possible, if radical Islamist currents come to power in Damascus or Amman.

Some Western commentators see a moderate Sunni crescent forming across the Arab world. It extends from north Africa, passes through Egypt and the Sinai to Gaza and the West Bank, perhaps to Jordan at a later stage and finds its end in Syria. [These commentators] also think that keeping these [Islamist] currents in power, protecting the crescent and ensuring its moderation mostly depends on Turkey, be it under the leadership of [Prime Miniser Recep Tayyip] Erdogan or someone else. They think that the Arab crescent's leaders will not hesitate to seek the support of Turkey, and that the United States will find no country better than Turkey to lead these Islamist currents, at least during their initial stages. I think that Iran would not mind Turkey taking on that role, simply because it thinks that occupying Turkey with that crescent and with trying to calm things down in Kurdistan would force it to stay away from the Gulf region and Iraq. [This holds especially true as Iran sees Turkey’s interests in Iraq] as limited to building an oil pipeline from Kurdistan to the shores of the Mediterranean passing through Turkish lands, as well as reconciling its relationship with Arbil's [the capital of Iraqi Kurdstan] government and increasing the latter's dependence on Ankara.

The Arab order is about to undergo major changes at a time when Arab interrelations and foreign policies have been paralyzed. We hope that this paralysis will be temporary and amenable to easy treatment without the need for recourse to more "surgical operations."

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