As the anti-Iran front begins to coalesce
As the Donald Trump administration shapes its Mideast policies, the front against Iran is becoming clearer by the day.
Last week at the 53rd Munich Security Conference, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran all issued important messages.
Speaking from the rostrum, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif noted that we were transitioning to a post-Western global order. As such, Zarif claimed that the zero sum perspective and approach in security ties was no longer valid, and added that “achieving security at the expense of others’ insecurity” had become an absurd proposition. Accordingly, in the interests of developing dialogue with Gulf countries, Zarif proposed the creation of a forum to be based on shared objectives.
It was clear, however, that the Iranian Foreign Minister’s statement about security and stability failed to convince anyone following recent ballistic missile tests.
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman subsequently noted that “for the first time since 1948, Arab countries viewed Iran and its proxies as the biggest threat, rather than Israel, the Jews or Zionism.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, meanwhile, said Iran’s sectarian policies in the region had severely harmed regional stability, adding that Iran was making a dangerous attempt to convert Syria and Iraq into Shiite states.
Displaying a harder line, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Bin Ahmet al-Jubeir described Iran as the “biggest supporter of terrorism,” declaring that the fact that it was the only country not yet targeted by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was “thought-provoking.”
It did not go without notice that, at around the same time as the Munich conference was occurring, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also issued a similar message during discussions with Gulf countries as part of a tour that included Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
While in Bahrain, Erdoğan leveled serious criticism at Iran’s sectarian policies, accusing it of trying to divide Syria and Iraq, adding that it was necessary to halt the spread of “Persian nationalism.”
It’s also possible to perceive Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s simultaneous contact with Oman and Kuwait in the same week as an overt indicator of a regional power struggle to win allies.
In the meantime, Iran wasted no time in responding to Turkey’s harsh statement. “[Iran] has acted with patience concerning Turkey, but in the event that comments such as these are repeated, it will not stay silent but will respond in kind,” a spokesman for Tehran said. Turkey’s envoy to Tehran was also called in by the Iranian Foreign Ministry over the issue.
As it is, it was entirely expected that a harder approach would be taken vis-à-vis Iran with Trump’s ascension to power. In fact, Turkey is already part of an alliance - together with the Sunni Arab states and effectively Israel as well – whose aim is to counterbalance the Shiite crescent. Whether on Syria or Yemen, it shares the same line as Saudi Arabia – aside from the fact that it has agreed to Bashar al-Assad remaining in power in Syria as a result of its recent rapprochement with Russia.
At this juncture, Turkey is also attempting to turn the rift between Cairo and Riyadh to its advantage in a way to increase its regional influence. Relations between Egypt and Saudi have been tense since October 2016, when Egypt voted in favor of a Russian-backed draft resolution at the United Nations that called for a mere cease-fire and humanitarian aid in Syria without touching on al-Assad’s air strikes.
In this case of affairs, the country acting as a bridge is Israel; with common security threats such as Hamas in Gaza and ISIL in the Sinai encouraging Egypt and Israel to cooperate.
The Trump administration’s policy toward the Middle East, by and large, rests upon collaborating with states that can act as a counterbalance to Iran. In this respect, the age of transactional relationships with Arab countries independent of their democratic and human rights record is set to be back in vogue.
Ultimately, Turkey has to take into consideration the various balances when dealing with Iran, concerning both neighborly relations and the bargaining over Syria’s future. As such, it is inevitable that Turkey will also find itself in a more difficult position as the severity of the rhetoric toward Iran increases.
Amid all the developments on the back stage and the coalescence of the sides in the Middle East, the question of whether the game is about to get a lot more aggressive will depend on how Trump approaches the nuclear deal with Iran.