Iran is back: Now what about Turkey?

Iran is back: Now what about Turkey?

Iran is back in the game. 

This is giving birth to a totally new order not only within Iran, but also in the regional and global scene. Yet this tectonic shift mostly affects the Muslim world and the Shiite-Sunni rift.

Sunnis compose 85 percent of all Muslims and dominated the Arab world and the Middle East for centuries until recently. They have ruled over even Shiite-majority countries such as Iraq and Bahrain. Yet the United States’ intervention in Iraq in 2003 changed this equation all of a sudden. Baghdad passed into Shiite rule, which created the Shiite-Sunni dichotomy throughout the whole region.

Thereafter, the Arab uprisings have shifted the Shiite-Sunni equilibrium more in favor of the Shiites. And the recent civil wars in Iraq and Syria have further consolidated the Shiite axis. This is how Iran has become the third most powerful country in the region following the U.S. and Russia, according to retired Ambassador Özdem Sanberk.

This is the context in which Iran signed a nuclear deal with the West last July, subsequently getting rid of the economic sanctions in the process last week and growing closer to the U.S. 

As such, the Gulf countries are losing sleep at night. Against Iran’s irrepressible rise, Saudi Arabia first started an “oil war” by causing oil prices to plummet to hurt the Iranian economy. This has dropped prices by 75 percent since mid-2014, representing a 12-year low. Yet it didn’t hamper Iran’s rise.

Moreover, this proved to be a self-destructive move since the Saudi economy has been severely hurt. From now on Iran, having broken free of the sanctions, will release more oil into the market, which will further lower the prices. And this in turn means a weaker Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh has also worked hard to harm Iran on the military front by fighting proxy wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Yet Tehran has gained the upper hand on this front, too. Furthermore, it has strengthened its partnership with the U.S. in the anti-ISIL fight, jeopardizing Saudi Arabia’s status and influence in the global arena.

This is why Riyadh has kept its guard up and founded the 34-member coalition called the “Islamic Military Alliance” in order to consolidate the “Sunni axis” which it announced in mid-December 2015.

Facing Iran’s rise in the region and the world, Turkey is also assuming a position. Ankara is apparently re-calibrating its relations with the countries in the region in order to counter-balance Iran’s growing clout and also to prevent this new order from undermining Turkey’s importance in American eyes. 

This is one of the main reasons why Turkey has restarted its dialogue with Israel to normalize relations. A similar process seems likely to begin with Egypt soon. Last week, the Kuwaiti press alleged that Riyadh was trying to mediate between Turkey and Egypt, two members of the Islamic Alliance, in order to make the coalition more functional and influential.

In addition, Ankara recently sent an invite to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to attend the Summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to take place in Istanbul in April which might end up with a meeting between the leaders of the two countries.

Turkey’s relations with the United Arab Emirates had also become frosty following the coup d’état in Egypt in 2013 as the two countries had taken up opposing sides in Egypt. The UAE’s ambassador in Turkey has not been at his post for two years. Now it is reported that the appointment of a new ambassador is only a matter of time.

Getting back to the issue of the Islamic Alliance, as far as I am informed by high-level officials in Ankara, there will be no military setup. A building in Riyadh has been dedicated where the member countries will have diplomats, military representatives and intelligence personnel. In other words, it will serve as a “pool of intelligence and information.”

Allegedly, the main aim of the alliance is to emphasize the perception that there is no link between Islam and terrorism and to fight ISIL ideologically.  

But the fact that no Shiite country is part of the alliance has naturally nurtured fears that it might further escalate the sectarian tension in the region. Ankara has responded to this claim saying, “since ISIL is attracting sympathy from Sunni-majority countries, it is crucial that Sunni states join this coalition.” 

However, looking at the big picture, it becomes crucial to make a warning: Even though Turkey has already declared that it is part of the Islamic Alliance, it should avoid being active in this coalition. Ankara should maintain its neutrality, emphasizing its equal stance towards all sects. Just like it did in the past.