Turkey and Iran carve up a ruptured Arab world
Many analysts say the Middle East is the focus of a geopolitical power struggle between the United States and Iran. That misses the primary thread of events – namely, the ongoing soft partition of the Arab republics between Turkey and Iran, with Turkey the stronger power.
During the last decade many right-wing American and Israeli analysts have described the geostrategic struggles unfolding in the Middle East as a new “cold war” pitting the United States against Shiite Iran. They have warned of an Arab “Shiite crescent” – stretching from Lebanon to Iraq – connected to Iran via ties of religion, commerce, and geostrategy.
The new year has started with an attempted Shiite power play by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to dominate the government, and an Iranian demonstration of missile and nuclear fuel rod capacity coupled with threats to close the Straits of Hormuz if Iranian oil exports are blocked.
These events can be interpreted as ample evidence of Iranian expansionism, combined with fears that Iran will obtain a nuclear weapon, rendering its present regime and regional clients untouchable.
What this view of the Middle East overlooks is the fact that both the US and Iran are mired in internal political and economic difficulties. Simultaneously, inside the region, both are being outmaneuvered by an ascendant Turkey.
Moreover, Western observers have missed the primary thread of events – namely, the ongoing asymmetric Turkish-Iranian soft partition of the Arab republics. Concomitantly, the American position as regional hegemon is vanishing. Today, only the Arab monarchies and Israel continue to look to the US as their primary patron.
To investigate how these changing dynamics are seen by actors within the region, Mr. Pack spent his Christmas holidays in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq.
Following the US withdrawal from Iraq, KRG officials bemoaned their need of a regional patron to protect them from dominance by Baghdad. Landlocked Iraqi Kurdistan also needs a conduit to export its oil to the West. The only country that can fulfill both roles is Turkey. That is why KRG officials, instead of supporting their ethnic brethren inside Turkey, have often sided with Ankara against the Kurdish separatist PKK.
All this explains why a bombing on Dec. 28, in which the Turks killed 35 Kurdish smugglers whom they mistook for terrorists, provoked little outrage in Iraqi Kurdistan. On the streets of Erbil there are no signs of protests against Turkey. Instead, one notices Turkey’s ubiquitous presence in the form of construction, investment, consumer goods, and tourists.
Should more pipelines leading from Iraqi Kurdistan to the Mediterranean via Turkey be built, the result will be the de facto creation of an Iraqi-Kurdish buffer state. Dependent on Turkey for its survival, such a state would also form a barrier to Iranian (or American, or PKK) interference in Turkish affairs.
In the southern part of Iraq, the situation is just the opposite. There, a Shiite Arab buffer state, buttressed by Iran as a bulwark against Turkish, American, or Saudi encroachments, is being created. The last two weeks’ events have removed any doubt that Prime Minister Maliki is “Iran’s man” in Baghdad.
Yet despite this de facto partitioning of Iraq over the last month, Turkey and Iran are not challenging each other’s spheres of influence. Thus, Iraq has reverted to its traditional position as the Poland of the Middle East.
In post-Arab Spring North Africa, too, Turkey and Iran have essentially partitioned the resurgent Islamist movements between themselves. The Turks support the victorious “moderate” Islamists from Tunisia to Egypt. Iran backs the Salafist spoilers, even though they are Sunni.
In the Egyptian and Tunisian elections, and in Libya’s inter-militia civil strife, both wings of Islamist opinion have supported each other against Western-backed secularists and neo-liberals. Since North Africa lacks indigenous Shiite populations and the “moderate” Islamists have now emerged as the main players in the region, it is Sunni Turkey, along with Qatar, that appears to be the rising political and commercial patron in North Africa.
Turkey’s approach to the problem of Israel/Palestine has also been converging with that of Iran. From the 1950s until 2002, secular military elites in Ankara enjoyed a privileged political and economic relationship with the West. They also developed intimate defense ties with Israel and NATO.
Since then, however, Turkey has drifted out of the Western security orbit. First it opposed the 2003 Iraq War; next, after the 2010 Gaza flotilla resulted in the death of nine Turks in international waters, it increasingly switched to the Palestinian side of the conflict.
Only in Syria are Turkey and Iran seemingly on opposite sides of a military conflict. Whereas Iran and its client Hezbollah back the Assad regime, the Turks arm, train, and provide safe haven to the Syrian rebels.
However, this conflict may be more apparent than real. In a fragmented post-Assad Syria, Turkey will support the Sunnis, while Iran will remain the patron of the Alawites. Moreover, both will surely find a way to protect their strategic and financial interests in whatever regime emerges.
Throughout 2011, the continued Western obsession with the Iranian nuclear menace prevented policymakers from grasping the most salient dynamics at play in the new Middle East. Those who, like Mohammed Ayoob, have warned that “Beyond the Arab Democratic Wave” lies a “Turko-Persian Future” have been mostly ignored.
The Arab Spring has vastly weakened the Arab states, leaving them open to fragmentation, increased federalism, and outside penetration. With hindsight, 2011 may come to represent as sharp a rupture in the political landscape of the Middle East as 1919 did.
Back then, following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the British and French divided the Arab Middle East among themselves, with the British as the senior partner. In today’s soft partition of the region, the weaker, less stable partner is Iran. The true victor of the Arab Spring is surely a resurgent Turkey. And those who ignore that fact do so at their peril.
Jason Pack researches Libyan history at Cambridge University and is president of Libya-Analysis.com. Martin van Creveld is one of the world’s best-known experts on military history. He is the author of “The Age of Airpower.” © 2011 Global Viewpoint Network/Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.