Middle East power shifting to Turkey and Iran

President Obama and the West need to adjust accordingly.

While the United States and Europe have been struggling to find a path forward in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Afghanistan, and Iran, the strategic ground upon which their assumptions about the region rest has begun to shift dramatically.

Most significantly, Turkey has finally shrugged off the straitjacket of a tight American alliance, grown virtually indifferent to beckoning European Union (EU) membership, and turned its focus toward its former Ottoman neighbors in Asia and the Middle East.

Though not primarily meant as a snub to the West, this shift does nonetheless reflect growing discomfort and frustration with US and EU policy, from the support of Israel's action in Gaza to Iran and the frustrated impasse of the European accession process. It also resonates more closely with the Islamic renaissance that has been taking place within Turkey.

If Turkey continues successfully down this path, it will be as strategically significant for the balance of power in the region as the emergence of Iran as a preeminent power thanks to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the later destruction of Sunni dominance in Iraq by the US invasion.

In recent months, a spate of new agreements have been signed by Turkey with Iraq, Iran, and Syria that suggest a nascent commonality of political vision. A new treaty with Armenia further signals how seriously Ankara means its "zero problem" good-neighbor policy.

More important, however, the agreements with Iraq, Iran, and Syria reflect a joint economic interest. The "northern tier" of Middle Eastern states are poised to become the principal supplier of natural gas to central Europe once the Nabucco pipeline is completed – thus not only displacing Russia in that role but gradually eclipsing the primacy of Saudi Arabia as a geostrategic kingpin due to its oil reserves.

Taken together with the economic stagnation and succession crisis that has incapacitated Egypt, it is clear that the so-called moderate "southern tier" Middle Eastern states that have been so central to American policies in the region are becoming a weak and unreliable link indeed.

Political players in the region can't but notice the drift of power from erstwhile US allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia toward the northern tier states, and, as is the way in the Middle East, are starting to readjust to the new power reality. This can be most clearly seen in Lebanon today, where a growing procession of former US allies and critics of the Syrian government, including Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Walid Jumblat, and, reportedly, some of the March 14 movement's Christian leaders, are making their pilgrimage to Damascus. That message is not lost on others in the region.

If the Obama administration is not fully cognizant of these developments, its awareness will surely be raised as it attempts to mobilize the world for a new round of punitive sanctions against Iran.

These sanctions are likely to fail not only because Russia and China won't go along in any serious way, but precisely because the much touted "alliance of moderate pro-Western Arab states" is turning out to be a paper tiger.

Given the shifting balance of power I've discussed, the "moderates" are in no position to seriously confront Iran and its allies. Hopes that the recent Saudi bombing of the Houthi rebels in Yemen would incite sectarian Sunni hostility toward Shiite Iran have not been realized. On the contrary, the Saudis' action has been clearly seen in the region as a partisan and tribal intervention in another state's internal conflict.

In Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has not only embraced the legitimacy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election, but has insisted as well on the right of Iran as a sovereign nation to enrich uranium. Unlike Western leaders, he doesn't at all seem inordinately worried about Iran's course.

The US and Europe are going to have to grapple with the pending replacement of its southern tier allies in the Middle East by the rising clout of the northern tier states. It would be best to make this adjustment sooner rather than later. None of the issues that matter to the West – the nuclearization of Iran, Israel's security, the future of energy supplies – can be solved by ignoring the emergent reality of a new Middle East.

Alastair Crooke, a former MI6 British intelligence agent in the Middle East, is author of "Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution."

© 2009 Global Viewpoint/Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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