The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Turkey Vs. Iran: Advantage, US

Foreign Policy has a good piece on Iran-Turkey relations. In the article, Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar, a professor at GW, gives detail and substance to a line of analysis that we have suggested on Via Meadia and shows how Turkey’s rise to regional leadership has sidelined Tehran. Writes Prof. Tabaar,

Tehran initially viewed the rise of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey with much enthusiasm. It has turned into a nightmare. Turkey’s shift against the Assad regime in Syria, and its manifest ideological appeal in a changing Middle East, now has Iranian leaders viewing Ankara as a key part of a U.S. scheme with the Arab States in the Persian Gulf aimed directly at them.

The mullahs originally saw the AK victory in Turkey as a victory for Islamic politics in the Middle East and a decisive defeat for the US.  They no longer think so.

What sent Iran over the edge was Turkey’s shift on Syria. Prime Minister Erdogan went from being a good friend of President Bashar al-Assad, to telling him to either reform or he would soon be ousted. Turkey has hosted conferences for the Syrian opposition and is now reportedly sheltering anti-regime fighters. In response, Tehran sent several messages to Ankara, making it clear that Syria is its “redline,” and warned Erdogan not to cross it by backing the anti-Assad opposition. Turkey did not heed Iran’s warning. Instead it announced that it would install NATO’s radar system, which is said to be a shield again Iran’s ballistic missiles, in Turkish territory. Iran’s tone then became more aggressive and even threatening. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other political and military officials warned that Iran would be forced to respond accordingly since the NATO radar system is to protect its enemies.

Conservative [Iranian] columnists then opened fire. They criticized Turkey for being a Sunni dictatorship that did not represent the other “50 percent of Turkey’s population,” meaning the Alevis and the Kurds. However, they failed to mention that Iran and Turkey are closely cooperating over the challenges posed by their Kurdish minorities. These commentators, who usually voice trends within Iran’s establishment, implicitly warned that Turkey should be aware that it could easily become unstable. Conservative media close to the office of the Supreme Leader argued that Shiite Alevis, who consists of “27 percent” of the population crave for Ankara to move closer to Tehran and Damascus, while Turkey’s Kurds are angry at the “brutality” of the Turkish army.

Iran is always at a cruel disadvantage in Middle Eastern politics: perceived as ethnically Persian (the reality is more complex) and Shi’a, Iran’s influence in deeply suspect in the Sunni Arab world.  Both on religious and on national security grounds the Saudis are the most vigilant enemies of “Persian” efforts to dominate the region; Saudi money these days speaks even more loudly than usual in the cash strapped Arab world.  The rise of a Sunni model of Islamic governance in Turkey knocks one of Iran’s best cards out of its hand.  It can no longer pose as the defender of Islam against decadent and irreligious governments.  At the same time, Turkish activism over the Palestinian issue threatens to marginalize Iran’s other path to regional popularity.

One thought: commentators around the world seem fixated on the question of US decline, endlessly analyzing world events in quest of evidence for the fragility of American power and of signs of its looming eclipse.  What they do much less often is investigate the factors that tend to support US power and make it so durable.

The US seeks a balance of power in the Middle East; that means its diplomacy can be flexible and work with any number of countries with varying political goals.  Turkey is not challenging Iran to help the US, but the consequences of Turkey’s increased activism (widely seen as proof of US decline in the Middle East) are actually shoring up the foundations of US geopolitical interests in this critical part of the world.  Indeed, the emergence of a healthy pluralism in the region, with a strong Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and others would tend on balance to make key US goals more achievable rather than less.

Published on November 4, 2011 9:09 am
  • Kenny

    Turkey v. Iran.

    Yes, Mr. Mead, competition and possible conflict among regional or even local powers ensue when the U.S. withdraws or even weakens its position in an area.

    There’s a feeling in the air that we’re going to be seen more of this worldwide as the U.S. pulls in its horns a bit, don’t you think?

  • David Billington

    Your points here are well-taken but the larger trend in the region is still working against US interests as we have defined and upheld them to date.

    We have just decided not to attempt to intensify sanctions against Iran for its recent terror plot in Washington DC. This means that Iran will continue its nuclear program on its present footing.

    Setbacks in Iran’s diplomatic relations with other countries are not as important as the change in the region that will result from a nuclear Iran (followed in short order by a nuclear Arab bloc). What you may be seeing with Turkey is a first sign of the more intense Sunni-Shia division that is likely to accompany nuclearization of the Middle East.

  • Micha

    Is there a danger that Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi-Arabia will decide to compete with each other in the field of hostility to Israel?

    If so, what will the US do?

  • Jack Kalpakian

    The argument here is similar to those raised by some against ending the Iran-Iraq war. The US will indeed benefit from conflict between large Middle Eastern powers on the short term, but in the long term the region will continue to be a headache for the whole world. Further, I submit that there is precious little that the US can do to promote or reduce conflict there.