Bulent Aras and Emirhan Yorulmazlar
Dr. Aras is a global fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC and professor of International Relations, Sabanci University. He was the head of the Diplomatic Academy and Center for Strategic Research at Turkey's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mr. Yorulmazlar is a Foreign Policy Institute (FPI) fellow at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University.
When the political landscape in the Middle East appeared on the brink of transformation back in early 2011, Turkey and Iran, for different reasons, were delighted. Each envisioned an extension of its national sphere of influence. Both Ankara and Tehran declared themselves the standard bearers for "democratic" rule and civilian empowerment. For Ankara, this regional transformation was, in the words of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, a "normalization" process — a quest for good governance and integration into the international community. The tide was thought to be turning towards the eclectic Turkish model, a combination of local traditions with the universal practices of democracy, human rights and a market economy. A series of early events seemed to confirm that the Turkish model for political conciliation and regional economic integration was emerging as the new political norm in the Middle East.
Tehran was no less hopeful at the beginning. Iran's revolutionary prophecy seemed justified in view of the Islamists' determinative roles. In this Islamic Awakening, Western-supported leaders were being overthrown one after another. Given the traditional nature of Iranian-Arab relations, Iran stood aside at the outset to let events take their course with the expectation that the chaos would resolve itself in the form of an Iranian-type enghelab (revolution).
These reflections were not just home-grown pipe dreams. The "Turkish model" and the "Islamic Awakening" were regularly featured in international headlines. For Western policy makers, the former offered an agreeable, even encouraging prospect. It meant not only political reconstruction in Western terms; it was also thought to be a more sustainable form of governance, given local democratic support for the emerging political formations. Eventually, Ankara hoped to benefit from an elevated political status, serving as a source of inspiration for the Arab countries. By contrast, the Iranian model, which to some sounded equally feasible, was deemed a serious threat. Under that scenario, Western links with the region would be severed, and Israel would face heightened security risks. As such, a possible extension of the "resistance front" was construed as the natural offshoot of declining U.S. engagement in the Middle East.
With these prospects long gone, Turkey and Iran now face an increasing number of challenges and threats. This comes on top of other rivalries and security dilemmas in the Middle East. At this juncture both countries need to rethink and recalibrate their policies accordingly. The existence of a de facto Islamic state within the boundaries of Iraq and Syria is testament to a regional atmosphere plagued by continual upheavals. This article suggests a realpolitik turn for both countries, with necessary coordination on a number of policies, not out of choice but necessity.
THE ARAB SPRING
Following the initial phase, the Arab Spring proved to be a hard sell for all parties. Structurally, it unmade the region's political dynamics without putting in place any other order. A new particularistic consciousness seemed to threaten the already weakened transnational ties in the Arab world. The concept of "national" had lost its postcolonial meaning, overshadowed by sectarian and tribal identities. The newfound ethos not only hardened the regional quest for stability; it also failed to address the public desire for a political system that respected the values of faith, honor, dignity, good governance, and civic and economic rights.
In the context of such political instability, the need for a new definition of citizenship and, more important, a foundation of political legitimacy, poses even greater challenges. Having tested Westernism, pan-Arabism and nationalism in the past, the regional dynamics are now pointing to Islamism as the new structural foundation.1 Yet the problems that have arisen have more to do with reconciling Islam with other political and cultural identities than with the issue of Islam's mass appeal. There are essentially five main hurdles to transforming the current regional landscape into a number of functional political systems. The first concerns how to combine Islam and globalization — how to meld cultural autonomy with global homogenization in relation to social, economic and possibly political best practices. The second is to negotiate alternative domestic-regional ideational claims vis-à-vis majoritarian Sunni or Shia identities. Here, the rights of political minorities need to be better protected, and indeed extended, against a rising tide of sectarian and religious intolerance. Third, the growing insecurity both across and within sectarian groups (Sunnis and Shias) further complicates the fragile security structures of the region.
Fourth, there is an urgent need for economic transformation, given the discontent over youth unemployment, income and the gender gap, and the diminution of public services. But the post-Arab Spring transitional countries have neither the financial resources nor the support of third parties, which are bound up in their own domestic issues. Anchoring the region to a stable pole is currently not an option. At the same time, external sources of financial aid represent various challenges. The IMF packages are problematic; cash from the Gulf States and Iran comes with strings attached; and Western financial aid is minimal and entails painful preconditions. These responses are likely to exacerbate rather than ameliorate the situation.
Finally, the initial public support for democratic reform has been overshadowed by a growing sense of insecurity and instability. This is rooted in the absence of international action in support of popular demands and a strong regional drive to stem the tide of the "disruption," as it has been perceived. The former has led to sustained Western inaction in certain cases (e.g., Bahrain), while the latter has brought about proxy wars along the fault lines in others (e.g., Syria).
The nexus between the Western world and the Middle East, on the other hand, has been irrevocably severed. Due to a series of financial, political and global developments, the West is staying away from new military or political entanglements. For the Europeans to respond in this way could have been anticipated to some extent, but when the United States abstained from assuming the responsibilities that it formerly had been eager to undertake, the countries in transition felt deserted. Moreover, the Western public has become alienated following a media campaign that has placed extremism at the heart of the regional dynamics. At this juncture, it looks as if the West will prefer to yield to any solution that overcomes the lesser evil as opposed to the imagined alternatives similar to Afghanization or Talibanization. Prospects for relations between the region and the West do not appear promising.
Against this stark backdrop, the regional countries share an inescapable responsibility to ensure political stability. Egypt is handicapped; Jordan and Lebanon face internal political divisions and are saddled with Syrian refugees. The Gulf monarchies, save Saudi Arabia, do not have the political clout to match their economic prowess and are themselves vulnerable. The North African states have historically been delinked from the Arabian Peninsula. Iraq and Syria have collapsed. Thus, Turkey and Iran, with their relatively stable domestic political systems, are in a unique position to take the lead. Without their engagement, stability and security in the Middle East will remain unattainable. The current chaos puts their own domestic domains at serious risk, yet conciliation between Ankara and Tehran has become even more difficult due to their divergent foreign-policy agendas.
The Arab Spring has both posed challenges and offered opportunities. Turkey tested the roiled waters by declaring a willingness to lead the change, rather than resisting it or standing aside. Ankara expected this to position it strongly in a stakeholder role in the immediate aftermath of what was initially envisaged as a short-term period of unrest. But, of course, there has been a significant gap between the hope and the reality in the last three years. Rather than a swift breakthrough, the region has been crippled by securitization, civil war, sectarian strife and power rivalries.
Turkey's engagement with the Arab Spring rested on three pillars: humanitarian protection, security and regional diplomacy. On the humanitarian front, Turkish efforts have had significant and largely underappreciated success. It has hosted more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees, in stark contrast to the EU, which was in the process of developing ties with the region through the so-called Neighborhood Policy. Despite heavy costs, Turkey has continued to maintain an open-door policy and has absorbed the increased spillover of the crisis into the regional and international environment. Turkey has provided economic and humanitarian assistance to almost all the countries in transition, for the most part drawing upon its own financial and institutional capacity. Ankara considers humanitarian and development aid as an asset in regional policy. In fact, this has provided an unexpected opportunity for Turkey to connect with the Arab peoples and to assume a constructive insider's role in region-specific affairs.
Yet the growing security threats have undermined the integrationist and humanitarian vision that Turkey has endeavored to project. Turkey has reinforced its security ties with NATO and the Western alliance. This policy, however, is not only precarious and inadequate; it might also prove incompatible with Ankara's long-term regional goals. Above all, Turkey should avoid further securitization. This requires adopting a balanced discourse, because Turkey has largely built its influence through soft power. Greater emphasis on security risks eroding Turkey's outreach and positioning it as a typical regional-power competitor. Turkish officials would be well advised to avoid risking the country's democratic credentials in the face of heightened security concerns.
Turkey has described itself as an order-instituting country in the region; this implicitly includes a security-provider role. Yet Turkey's claim hinges not on hard security assets, but rather on its integrationist vision, aimed at reconciling differences and supporting win-win outcomes. This role requires careful diplomacy, with nuanced approaches to each actor, in addition to the difficult task of building norms and institutions in a highly unstable environment. On this basis, Turkey must overhaul its position against the emerging balances in the Middle East.
This forces Turkey to reconfigure its regional diplomatic strategy. An inability to harmonize policy preferences with regional proclivities hindered Turkey's progress following a promising start. Despite the merits of its self-declared agenda to pursue regional peace and stability, Turkey fell out with the Saudi-UAE line in Egypt and with Iran in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, the reconciliation process with Israel has not yet materialized. These setbacks have curtailed Turkey's further cooperation with both the United States and Russia, though for different reasons.
Worse still, Ankara's "proactive diplomacy" has lost ground in relation to two policy goals: empowering the moderates and crowding out the extremists. The unintended consequence has been the rise of radicalism and sectarianism throughout the region. While this was not directly of Turkey's making, it remains the case that Ankara underutilized its mediation role and stood unable to project its vision. This might in part be a consequence of the unexpected level of Western detachment from regional affairs. The regional rivalry has also become more destructive, particularly following the involvement of Iran and Saudi Arabia in a war of attrition in Syria. However, one should also note that, while the Turkish policy goal to "stand behind the peoples, not [illegitimate] regimes" had merit in its early phases, it turned out to be a major barrier to finding a political middle ground.
Ankara's reading of events was not totally at odds with reality. Turkey warned its Western and regional interlocutors against the looming threats of sectarianism and extremism. While the West missed one opportunity after another to attempt to halt the downward spiral into chaos, regional powerhouses like Iran and Saudi Arabia exploited the vacuum to pursue their own visions for regional hegemony. Unable to confront them on its own, Turkey fell prey to further securitization.
Nonetheless, the failure to stand firm on the integrationist model cannot vitiate Turkey's stance toward the chaos. The Turks are no foreigners to realpolitik and have cleverly hedged their potential losses by working around the disintegration. A particularly shrewd move was to find common ground with the Kurds. This not only extends Turkey's clout; it is also likely to act as a buffer against domestic and regional challenges.2 Second, Turkey, with an insatiable need for energy, is working on opening up alternative routes. Given these ongoing efforts — which are likely to yield an Eastern Mediterranean energy nexus with both Iraq's KRG and Israel, and possibly Cyprus — Turkey may still break through the current impasse. This would help Turkey to better connect with Europe against the growing threat of Russian expansionism. With engagements on multiple fronts, Turkey can thus counter the risk of the Iran-Saudi rivalry, which ultimately is more likely to consume than fortify their regional ambitions.
An additional difficulty in the emergence of a sectarian image is depicting Turkey as part of a Sunni bloc confronting the Shia groups backed by Iran in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. To Ankara's distaste, this image has found a broad and receptive audience. The West and the Arabs welcome this depiction splitting Turkey from Iran. The Iranians have deployed it to curb the expansion of the Turkish sphere of influence. However, Turkish policy makers consistently reject this sectarian view, asserting that it is unrepresentative of Turkish policies and vision.
In one way or another, Turkey needs to overcome this image problem, which also links it to radical Islamist groups. Ankara's repeated denials of this association have largely fallen on deaf ears. Thus, Turkey needs to do more than issue verbal disclaimers to avoid aftershocks like the recent diplomatic crisis in Mosul. To that end, Turkish diplomacy should reopen its dossier on comprehensive regional security and facilitate channels for regionwide security dialogue.
In order to achieve its objective of economic and social integration with the region, Turkey must bridge the gap between conflicting positions. Ankara needs to build on the argument that it offers a balance against a confrontation between the Sunni and Shia blocs, as well as against the destructive Iranian-Saudi rivalry. The West should see the Turkish role as an asset and utilize its potential balancing role to find an equilibrium between the two opposing blocs, Iran versus pro-Western monarchies, and the monarchies plus their protégés versus anti-establishment political groups.
The countries in transition need to acknowledge that, to some extent, Turkish involvement will reduce the Arab predicament. As the rest are squeezed by the aggressive maneuvering of Iran and Saudi Arabia, Turkey can fill a crucial political power vacuum. Turkish clout was needed in Libya, where, despite their financial power, the Gulf states failed to deliver political legitimacy. The same is true in Syria; Turkey's active engagement has proven a determinative factor in the midst of regional indecisiveness about putting pressure on Damascus. In Iraq, Ankara should engage with both the Kurdish and Sunni groups in order to maintain the country's territorial integrity. The West, on the other hand, should realize that the Turkish role is pivotal in preventing the region from turning into an anti-Western resistance front.
Iran was declared an early loser in the wake of the Arab Spring. The assumption was that with the end of Baathism long overdue, the Iranian regime would, paradoxically, end up as the last ideological vestige of the Cold War in the Middle East. The expectation was that Tehran would need to adapt to the transformative current in order to avoid isolating itself.
These projections failed to materialize, thanks to Iran's ability to project power beyond its borders at a time when other major actors were looking for proxies. With allegiance to its ideological priorities, Iran did not bother to play on sectarianism, which previously had enabled it to maintain and consolidate its grip on Shia groups in different countries. While the regime's choice of President Rouhani as domestic window-dressing provided a link with the Western world, the threat of "Sunni" extremism positioned Iran as a potential partner.
The Iranian-U.S. détente is perceived by most of the region's leaders as a major threat to the existing regional power equations. This is not necessarily true, provided the United States does not prioritize the possibility of minimizing the Iranian nuclear threat over addressing regional grievances about Iran's manipulation of sectarianism. Moreover, possible Iranian involvement could make the regional order more sustainable and potentially reduce the danger of sectarianism. Iran could also elevate the role of the Middle East in global energy diplomacy through supply diversification against growing demand from East Asia and Europe. Tehran also has the potential to integrate the non-systemic Shiite groups into the regional dynamics.
Unexpectedly, the West seems to have moved closer to Iran in recent months. This has to do, first of all, with a reluctance to perpetuate the nuclear confrontation, which would entail a broader and costly military engagement.3 Second, Iran has come to be seen as an antidote to a growing Sunni activism and even radicalism. Third, with Russian expansionism on the rise, Iran's reentry into the global energy markets and its potential as a substantial consumer market would mean a political "home-run" for Obama.
The other side of the coin is the fierce resistance to change of the Iranian state establishment. Notably, Tehran has not rehashed its regional policy beyond toning down its aggressive rhetoric. For Iran, keeping the Middle East disunited is essential to its hegemonic aspirations. Otherwise, Iran would feel besieged by a potentially colossal Sunni bloc. To that end, Tehran will remain unmoved by the ongoing conflict in Syria. Iran opposes both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Gulf-sponsored Sisi regime and seems committed to perpetuating old grudges with Egypt. In Iraq, it stood behind Maliki's sectarian regime and is now trying to project itself as the ultimate bulwark against ISIS's threat to overwhelm the delicate power balances in the country. Although Iran has done nothing concrete to assuage the Gulf's concerns, it continues to pretend it could do so through the diplomacy of President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif. Finally, Iran will blame the chaos on either Western meddling or Sunni radicalism, depending on which better serves its interests.
There also remain significant impediments to Iran's becoming an acceptable partner in the regional order. First, the Arab Spring has torn down the old Iranian-propagated paradigm: resistance against regimes with Western backing. As a result, Tehran will now have to reformulate some kind of a compelling narrative of universal appeal. This might prove even more difficult, since Tehran has abandoned its hope of connecting with the Arab street after backing the Assad regime's atrocities. In an attempt to avoid criticism, Iran has accused others of applying double standards in Bahrain. Although that argument has merit, the country's declining image in the Arab world and among its non-Arab Muslim neighbors will be hard to salvage. This, in turn, is likely to vindicate the view that Iran is an outsider in the region. On that ground, Tehran might decide to redouble its efforts to provoke frustration rather than inspiring hope among Shiite groups. Yet Iran is putting its historical gains at risk in both Iraq and Syria, for ISIS is approaching the Iranian border. Iran might face an even more formidable challenge with the potential disintegration of Afghanistan following a hasty U.S. withdrawal. Nevertheless, Iran is not likely to backtrack unless there is a viable combination of domestic and international dynamics that forces it to do so.
In addition to these security perceptions, Iran's response to the Arab Spring has been to block possible transnational dissemination, which Tehran perceives as a threat to its model of political survival. This is rooted in the establishment's failure to attune its interests with other Islamic movements. It has yet to overcome its internal political deadlock, which requires major political reforms. Instead, Tehran's strategy has been to use regional developments to distract attention from domestic problems, fostering a sense of encirclement. Iran has also propagated an opportunistic view of Sunni extremism, to the point that it is now supposed to prepare the ground for security cooperation with the West. As such, Tehran feels it can stand firm on external fronts against burgeoning threats from multiple directions. The Iranian regime also believes this will enable it to sustain its traditional worldview for its domestic audience. This complex balancing act would simultaneously require security cooperation with the West at the regional level, while maintaining an anti-Western domestic and foreign-policy vision.
The eventual eruption of Sunni grievances and, even worse, the ascendancy of ISIS will invalidate sectarianism as an instrument of regional and national security. From Iran's point of view, the sectarian card may have averted the march of the Muslim Brotherhood to regional dominance and perpetuated the Assad regime, which, like the Maliki government, is totally dependent on Tehran's support. However, the Iranian leadership will need to rethink the burgeoning security threats that have not only undermined its vested interests in Iraq, but may also put it on a collision course with the extremists. Tehran would be better advised to heed the Sunni call for representation and develop channels to recruit the moderates in order to marginalize radicalism. In the event of possible attacks against the Shiite shrines in Iraq and Syria, Iran's inability to intervene would cast the regime as toothless. However, the cost of intervention might be higher than earlier involvements in Syria. Thus, given the risk that regional crises can upset its internal balances, Tehran urgently needs to recalibrate its current approach.
The Iranian regime hopes to perpetuate this double-edged approach at least until there arises an opportunity for sustainable domestic reconciliation. To that end, the successful conclusion of the nuclear talks is a sine qua non in order to relieve the unsustainable burden of international sanctions. Iran will seek to triumph in any deal and is likely to depict the outcome as the long-delayed recognition of its nuclear and geostrategic "rights." Following this first step, Iran is likely to move to maximize its regional gains, either through rollback of Western influence or even through cooperation with the West.
The rise of ISIS and louder calls for secession and fragmentation should jar Turkey and Iran into seeking a middle ground. These developments pose a threat to the dynamics of both the regional order and their respective domestic politics. Iran's claim to have eliminated the Sunni forces is now complicated by its inability to stop a possible ISIS march to Samarra and even Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala. Debaathification and Shia revanchism have proven the wrong course in Iraq, bringing the country to the brink of collapse. Iran's insistence on Maliki's hostile rule not only contradicted the basics of governance; it has also exacerbated the mistrust among ethnic and sectarian communities. On the other hand, Baghdad's downhill slide has augmented centrifugal tendencies. The Kurds' maximalist approach and the Sunnis' sense of dispossession are the active ingredients for internecine war. The disintegration of Iraq would have a disastrous impact on both Turkey and Iran at this juncture. With Iraq occupying international headlines, Syria's inevitable collapse has been put on the back burner of international politics. The ensuing displacement is also likely to affect Turkey's national-security perceptions and will have domestic reverberations.
It is time to consider a regional-security scheme under the pressing dictates of regional realpolitik. Turkey and Iran could initiate a region-wide effort against ongoing and escalating crises. To that end, there are certain moves that could inform their responses: recalibrating policies, preventing possible spillover effects, and easing regional tension by reaching out to other regional and global players. First, there must be a joint regional effort to bridge the Shia-Sunni gap. This would require Iran and Turkey to reach out to other power brokers in the region; hence the need to seek common denominators. Based on the current dynamics, neither Iran nor Turkey nor Saudi Arabia stands as a revisionist power in the Middle East. While ISIS and other centrifugal forces aim to undermine the present order, a marriage of convenience is needed to maintain a sustainable status quo.
Second, Syria remains a formidable stumbling block in Turkish-Iranian rapprochement. Iran has wasted much energy and credibility in Syria, in spite of its economic woes at home. Worse still, the fire has reached Lebanon and Iraq and could eventually make them unusable as elements of Iran's power strategy. Turkey also needs to stay away from the growing crisis in Syria, lest it erode domestic support for its regional policy. It has already hurt its international credibility. Ankara sees no chance of stability without Assad's departure, while Tehran is apprehensive about a Sunni-dominated Syria. This is a bridgeable gap, provided both sides can agree on a transitional authority that would meet their respective concerns as well as realities on the ground. The precondition is preparing the domestic landscapes to accommodate domestic and regional change.
Third, there is an urgent requirement to uphold regional territorial integrity. Talk about a post-Skyes-Picot order might satisfy certain circles, but the political leaders need to acknowledge that any move to redraw the current borders could only add to the power rivalries and security dilemmas. Neither the Kurds nor the Sunni Arabs should be supported in their secessionist designs, which could only amount to Pyrrhic victories. On the other hand, both Shiite and Sunni majority blocs need to abandon their winner-take-all fantasies about the current political order.
Turkey and Iran should change the domestic power game in Iraq on behalf of actors standing for unity and integration. Such an endeavor is likely to find regional support even from countries that may disagree on other matters. Turkey's peace process and the integration of Iraqi Kurds into the national political system would empower Kurds in Syria and Iran, mitigating the knee-jerk hostility toward regional autonomy. To that end, national reconciliation and territorial integrity can serve as the required denominators. Collaborative policies in these three areas call for further thought on "regional multilateralism" to achieve an acceptable political and security settlement.4 This is an opportunity for Turkey and Iran to head for the middle ground by rethinking and recalibrating their regional policies. The alternative is to be drawn further into the spirals of regional and domestic insecurity. Turkey and Iran are legitimate political actors with long histories of engagement in the Middle East. The optimal scenario points to policy makers seeking common ground rather than swimming against the current tide in Tehran and Ankara.
1 Robin Wright, ed., The Islamists Are Coming: Who They Really Are (Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2012).
2 Mustafa Akyol, "Turkey's Best Ally: The Kurds," New York Times, June 22, 2014.
3 Vali Nasr, "America Mustn't Be Naive about Iran," New York Times, October 2, 2013.
4 Harris Mylonas and Emirhan Yorulmazlar, "Regional Multilateralism: The Next Paradigm in Global Affairs," CNN, January 14, 2012.