Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Ankara's Dilemma

Iran is again in the news as Hillary Clinton, in Dubai on the first stop of a three-nation tour of the Persian Gulf, said the Arab world should act to sharpen enforcement of the sanctions and reject attempts to stoke Mideast tensions. She also said that if Iran succeeds in developing an atomic bomb, it will plunge the Mideast into a disastrous nuclear arms race, she said. "It is first and foremost in the interest of the region to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon." Yet last week, Israel's newly retired spy chief said he thinks Iran won't be able to build a nuclear bomb before 2015.

Yet, a week before the P5-1 talks begin in Istanbul (the 1 being Germany which is not a member of the UN Security Council) with Iran, the emphasis appears to be on the nuclear issue that has clearly subsided in light of the Israeli assessment which was surely known before Meir Dagan, the former Israeli Mossad chief who made the assessment made his statement.

The call for Arab support is nothing new and as the Wikileaks cables show, the drum beater in chief against Iran is Saudi Arabia. But let’s look at what is happening in the region and how the nuclear issue should be relegated to the back of the fridge for a while.

As I have said frequently, much to the boredom of my readers I’m sure, the US has not yet come to grips with the new geo-political reality of the world in which it cannot dictate policy very much to the key players any longer. This applies as much to global powers as it does to regional ones. We are back to the pre-World War I geo-political realities. We know who are the global powers. The regional ones include Turkey and wannabe Iran. There is no regional Arab power since Egypt gave up the mantle after 1973 (although that may be changing).

The general public in the US would likely be shocked to learn that Iran, although Muslim, is not Arab. They, in their usual geo-political vacuum existence and Faux News environment, probably also do not realize that Turkey, although Muslim, is not Arab. Few people understand (more than before, I think as a result of the Iraq fiasco) that Sunni Muslims are not exactly on the same side as Shiite Muslims. They probably do remember that Turkey turned down fearless leader Junior Bush in his invitation (more like a demand at the time) to join his adventure in Mesopotamia and therefore concluded that Turkey was “looking east” and away from the West. The foundation of Turkey’s opposition is forgotten, if it was ever mentioned. Turkey said that the invasion would destabilize the balance of power in the region and that they were not keen on that idea. They were right. And now it is a truly more difficult region to stabilize.

So what we have now is a realpolitik wake-up call. Iraq has largely, though not entirely, been handed to Iran and return of Moqtada al-Sadr, a pro-Iranian cleric with a private army, cements that in place. The removal of Iraq as an independent force in the region has provided Iran with the opening it needs to pursue a historic dream – the control of the Persian Gulf (Arabian Gulf if you happen to be in Saudi Arabia). That is why the Sunni Saudis are so alarmed. The US is withdrawing and the only game in town is Iran, it seems. Nuclear weapons are not the problem. With the US out, Iran has the most powerful conventional military in the region – except for Turkey. But Iran is a lot closer to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates than is Turkey.

The regional balance of power may be at a tipping point in favor of Iran, which makes Israeli policies of apartheid against Palestinians and exchanging Greece for Turkey as an ally even more stupid than they appear on the surface. The current Israeli government now faces the prospect of the EU treating East Jerusalem as the future capital of a Palestinian state and having an EU presence at the demolitions of Palestinian homes, and intervention when peaceful protesters face arrest. All this follows the razing of the famous Shepherds Hotel in East Jerusalem to make way for 20 homes for Jewish settlers (a violation of international law).

The rivalries are just beginning as Turkey begins its reluctant maneuvering to offset Iran and represent all Muslims in the region. I say reluctant because Turkey has said that it will not act as a mediator between Iran and the West. Well, sorry boys. Turkey is going to find it impossible to play any other role. It’s what happens when you become a regional power.

Turkey will need to make decisions that it hates to make – about its neighbors, policies and actions that will not please everyone. The “zero problems” foreign policy only goes so far before national and regional interests force choices. How Turkey handles the upcoming talks with Iran will be a key example of how Turkey plans to exert its influence in Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Geo-politics is forcing Turkey into its natural place in the region as a counterbalance to a surging Persian Iran. It cannot afford to let the vacuum formed by the US withdrawal to result in Iran realizing its dream to control the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

The US will have little influence after leaving Iraq and shows no prospect of dealing with Israeli policies that are self-defeating and which adversely affect US national interests. Iran will negotiate in Istanbul, but further sanctions will do nothing if the results are the status-quo and Iran knows it. It consistently keeps the nuclear issue at center stage because that takes the eyes of the West off the target – which should be prevention of the creation of a regional hegemon at the expense of the West and its fundamental interests. Iran cannot afford for anyone to decide to indulge in an air campaign against its conventional military – which is where its real power lies. Smoke and mirrors – Iran can afford to lose what it does not have.

Which brings us back to the Saudis – who will not be in Istanbul. But it is the Saudi who are most concerned about Iran – and not from the nuclear side of the issue, but the conventional and the shifting balance of power. What is Turkey going to do? It is not in its interests to allow Iran a free hand to establish itself as the sole regional power, able to influence the policies of Arab states such as Saudi Arabia. Turkey cannot simply sit at the negotiating table and play the neutral. It is not neutral and it is in Turkey’s national interests to position itself as the regional power at the expense of Iran.

Welcome to the world of realpolitik, Ankara.

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