Turkey, Iran and the new Middle East equilibria

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Shafaqna Pakistan: It should never be forgotten that, since the sixth century AD, the displacement of Turkish tribes to Persian territories has generated a Turkish diaspora to Iran, which now accounts for approximately half of the current Iranian population.

Obviously the Turkish Shiites in Iran have always been in favour of a stable peace between the two countries, as early as the “Peace of Zuhab” signed in 1639, which defined the borders between the two countries.

The stable and continuous relations between modern Iran and Turkey returned to a relative splendor with the rise to power of Erdogan’s AKP in 2002 – a party originated from the Turkish Muslim Brotherhood.

That was the start not only of the neo-Ottoman foreign policy and the new importance of Central Asia in Turkey’s power projection, but also of the idea of Davutoglu, the Foreign Minister of Erdogan’s first government, who theorized the principle of “no contrast with neighbours”.

While previously Turkey was projected – in an objectively anomalous way -onto the European West and the Western Mediterranean region, from the Balkans to Italy, Davutoglu’s “moderate Islam” (just to use one of the most well-known nonsense of Western geopolitical jargon) is interested in Asia, in the pan-Turkish reconstruction of a new Turkish influence, going precisely from Iran to China’s borders and beyond, towards the Islamic Xinjiang of Turkish ethnicity.

Alongside this original commitment to Central Asia, Erdogan uses the new Turkish international prestige to create his own independent actions in the Middle East.

A de facto agreement between Iran and Turkey has been reached in Syria, especially considering the Kurdish claims, which dangerously affect both Turkey and Iran.

While the Iraqi Kurds become independent, consequently Iran witnesses a reduced influence of the Iraqi Shiites. Hence there is also a reduction of the Iranian influence on Iraq, which has long been an actual enclave of Iran.

Furthermore, for Turkey, the agreement with Iran and the Russian Federation is a mandatory way for closing the Kurdish PKK’s leeway in Syria – a party supported, like the other factions of the Kurdish people, mainly by the United States.

Both Iran and Turkey do not acknowledge and recognize the result of the 2017 Kurdish referendum, which regarded the independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan.

It was precisely in that year that a stable military alliance between Turkey and Iran was designed, with a meeting between the respective Chiefs of Staff.

An alliance that also regarded possible common actions.

The two countries also have Islamic opponents. In particular, both Iran and Turkey fear the creation of a new axis between Saudi Arabia, Emirates and Egypt, supported by the USA – an axis that is above all against Turley, considering its interest in the Persian Gulf and Africa (with the Maghreb region) and is certainly also against Iran.

Moreover, while Turkey has made the most of the new space created by the US madness of the Arab Springs, Iran has correctly analysed the Arab Springs, above all as a threat to itself, to its security and to its interests in the Arab and Islamic world.

It should also be recalled that the beginning of the war in Syria led to a deterioration of the relations between Turkey and Iran: the former openly supported the Sunni insurgency against Bashar al-Assad, even supplying soldiers and weapons to the “rebel” groups, while the latter was, from the beginning, on Bashar’ side.

Currently, however, the strategic calculations are evidently in favour of an alliance between the two countries.

There is still an economic link between Turkey and Iran, which is not particularly strong: Iran supplies 20% of the natural gas and 30% of the oil used in Turkey.

Nevertheless, non-oil trade between the two countries is still worth less than 10 billion US dollars a year.

Furthermore there is still a not negligible strategic dispute, namely Idlib. It is still in the hands of the Jihadist “rebels”, whom Turkey supports while Iran besieges. Whoever prevails in Idlib – even with Russia’s hegemonic presence – will have a sort of “mortmain” on the rest of Syria in the regional clash between Turkey and Iran.

In Iraq, Turkey also tends to protect the Sunni minority population, while Iran has now the actual power in the majority Shiite Iraq.

Turkey has always played many complex roles in Iraq, even before the US victory in the war against Saddam Hussein.

Turkey, however, has always refused pressure, even from the United States, to tie itself to the Sunni producers of the Gulf, to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. It has always planned strong diversification of its crude oil imports, also with purchases from Iran, which implies an inevitable strategic correlation with Iran.

Not to mention the fact that Iran has a great plan at strategic and energy levels, i.e. to permanently avoid the Gulf of Hormuz and make most of the natural gas and oil it extracts transit through the Turkish territory, which would avoid any possible blackmail by Saudi Arabia and its allies, be they Islamic or not.

With specific reference to the relations between Turkey and the United States – the other inevitable factor of the Turkish strategic dilemma – so far the latter has not offset, with its economic power, the damage to Turkey resulting from sanctions against Iran.

Furthermore, noone – apart from the EU and only to a limited extent – has yet provided any support to the Turkish economic and political “effort” of having to manage 3.6 million Syrian refugees who have remained on Turkey’s territory.

Therefore, the United States absolutely needs to use Turkey – the second NATO military force after the USA – as a bulwark against Iran. Turkey, however, absolutely needs also Iran from the energy viewpoint and for settling the Kurdish issue between Syria and Iraq.

As already seen, the trade-off between Turkey and Iran is simple: the Shiite Republic supports – with a favourable flow of oil and gas – the Turkish economy, which the USA does not want or can no longer back, while Turkey is now Iran’s only safe passage to avoid the sanctions imposed by the USA on oil and natural gas.

Hence, if the alliance between Iran and Turkey becomes economically relevant, we can no longer imagine scenarios capable of enabling the USAto have a direct and successful contrast with Iran.

In Syria – the conflict that will determine and distribute the new strategic potentials in the Middle East and in the rest of the world – Turkey endeavoured with Saudi Arabia to create the “rebel” group Jaish Al Fatahin 2015, but the Russian intervention immediately made Saudi Arabia lose any interest in Syria and forced Turkey to focus its interest, in Syria, only on the Kurds of the YPG.

Once again, however, we record a gradual divergence of interests between Saudi Arabia and Turkey: while the former started the great exclusion of Qatar – the substantial economic ally of Iran – in June 2017, also with the US collaboration, the latter immediately supported Qatar.

It did so also with the construction of a new Turkish military base in Qatar.

Immediately after Turkey’s support for Qatar – also at material level -Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Emirates met at a high level precisely with the leaders of the Kurdish YPG.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia financially supported the Kurds in Raqqa and in the other Syrian areas freed from Isis with the YPG weapons. This is certainly an infra-Islamic clash mainly regarding the freedom of passage towards the European markets, as well as the Turkish or Saudi hegemony in the Maghreb region, made porous, pervious and unstable as a result of the US-sponsored Arab springs or of the insane masochism of some European powers.

Meanwhile, Turkey is trying to expand its influence out of the Middle East, with a view to influencing it from outside.

In this case, the primary focus for Turkey is Pakistan. There was already a “High Level Dialogue” between the military leaders of the two countries, operating since 2003, but Pakistan fully trusts Turkey, one of the very few Islamic countries that did not leave Pakistan alone in the worst of times.

Also in those times when the US support was lacking.

Turkey has explicitly and, possibly, directly supported the “country of the pure” in its territorial and political claims in Kashmir, in exchange for Pakistan’s technical and intelligence support with regard to the Kurdish issue.

Also the exchange of weapons between Turkey and Pakistan is remarkable – mainly Turkish heavy weapons, helicopters, aircraft and tanks.

Also in this case, Turkey has managed to get into a context of bilateral relations between the USA and Pakistan that were very tense, especially after the killing of Osama Bin Laden by the US Special Forces in Abbottabad.

Moreover, Turkey always pursues its commercial aims by stimulating, at the beginning, the exchange of weapon systems.

Reverting to the link between Turkey and Iran, as recently said by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the sanctions on Iranian oil, which often transits through the Turkish territory, are worth at least 50 billion US dollars a year, with a sanction-related direct loss of at least 10 billion US dollars.

The US overt aim is to eliminate all Iranian oil exports.

Cui prodest? Firstly, the block of Iranian oil exports greatly favours the North American producers that now sell at least 2,575 barrels a day.

The USA is currently the major producer of crude oil in the world and it is slightly ahead of both Saudi Arabia and the Russian Federation.

Secondly, the sanctions against Iran also favour Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni producers in the Gulf, that would cover – with their oil – the market previously held by Iran.

And, from the very beginning, China and Turkey have been the harshest opponents of the US sanctions.

The two largest consumers of Iranian oil and the two countries that are building – with due slowness – two geopolitical areas which are increasingly far from the possible operations and influence of the United States.