Three Middle East experts discussed the complicated and changing relationships between Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia in the post-Arab Spring environment.
On December 19, 2011, the Middle East Program hosted a meeting, “Enemies or Allies in the New Middle East? Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia” with Henri Barkey, Professor of International Relations, Lehigh University and former Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar; David Ottaway, Wilson Center Senior Scholar and former Bureau Chief, Washington Post, Cairo; and Trita Parsi, President, National Iranian American Council and former Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar. Haleh Esfandiari, Middle East Program Director, moderated the discussion.
Ottaway began the discussion by noting that the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Turkey carries a lot of historical baggage, which has kept them apart for decades. This changed after 9/11, Ottaway indicated, due to: the fallout from 9/11; the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) coming to power in 2002; and Iran accelerating its nuclear program. Given that Turkey’s policies kept it from coming to the side of Saudi Arabia during the feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran, things did not begin to change until the Arab Spring. Turkey and Saudi Arabia were on the same side, working with the opposition to bring down the Bashar al-Assad regime, for example. Ottaway said this new rapprochement is based on immediate state political interests. He also noted that Saudi Arabia is wary of Turkey’s bid for influence in the Arab world, particularly since the Turkish model for multiparty democracy is anathema in Saudi Arabia. He said that the Turks turning against Assad is big news for Saudi Arabia – the two countries will line up, and Iran will help keep them together. Ottaway said what we are seeing is about Arab realpolitik.
Barkey continued the discussion, observing that this is not about friends or enemies but, rather, states that are making due with their situation. He said the major rift between Iran and Turkey is evident, as is the enduring competition in the region. Noting that Turkey is increasingly playing an important role in foreign policy, Barkey discussed how Turkey has proven to be pragmatic and practical. They turned their deteriorating relationship with Israel into an opportunity to garner greater attention, for example. When the Turks realized Qaddafi was becoming a problem, they changed sides; they have done the same with Assad. Barkey remarked on how the relationship between Turkey and Iran is fundamentally solid but unexciting. Turkey is dependent on energy imports of gas and oil and as its economy grows they will need more energy; and Iran is now unhappy with Turkey’s role in the Arab Spring. To this end, Barkey said that Syria represents the most important test of the Turkish-Iranian relationship.
Parsi reiterated how the relationship between Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey is critical and focused on the relationship from a geopolitical perspective. He noted that Iran has long harbored aspirations for regional preeminence. Iran has expanded its influence in the Middle East by extending its soft power and filling in the vacuum left by declining U.S. influence in the region, particularly in Iraq. Since the Iraqi invasion, the country has fallen into a Shia regime, causing tension between Saudi Arabia and the United States. Turkey is more complicated; once it felt the United States had lost some of its power, it took charge in light of the Arab Spring to fill some of the vacuum. Upheavals in the region have brought about tensions between the three countries, Parsi indicated. Iran has lost its momentum and has been taken off guard by Turkey’s rising power since the Arab Spring. Parsi noted that Iranians are increasingly putting Turkey in the same category as Israel, thereby discrediting it in the region. Moreover, he said that Iran realizes that is has few short-term opportunities to increase its influence and is increasingly on the defensive.
By Kendra Heideman and Mona Youssef, Middle East Program