In the short term, Iran seems to be doing better than Turkey; however, in the mid long terms, Turkey will continue to increase its influence in the region, Professor Ataman told Daily Sabah. He added that he thinks Iran and Russia will not reach a compromise with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar in the Geneva summit
As the nuclear agreement Iran signed with the P5+1 came into effect last week, sanctions were removed. Daily Sabah spoke with the deputy coordinator of the Ankara-based Foundation for Political Economic and Social Research (SETA) Professor Muhittin Ataman about how Iran's foreign policy has affected the region and Turkey's relations with Gulf countries.
SETA Professor Muhittin Ataman (L) and Daily Sabah's Ali Ünal
Expressing that there may be an increase in Iranian influence in the Middle East in the short term, Ataman stated that tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia will continue as a manageable, albeit conflicting, rivalry.
Ataman added that the tension between Turkey and the United Arab Emirates in past years was due to the immature behavior of the rulers of the UAE, while expressing that the close relations between Qatar and Turkey are the result of analogous political discourse, rather than an alleged sectarian affinity.
Daily Sabah: As Iran's sanctions were lifted last week, it is being discussed whether Iran can be integrated into the global system, along with concerns that Iran will increase its influence on the region. How do you evaluate these developments?
Muhittin Ataman: This is a multidimensional issue. Firstly, the nuclear deal contributed to the legitimization of Iran within the global system. The negotiations had started this process, the deal provided a legal dimension to it. This means P5+1 officially acknowledged Iran's normalization process. The breaking point of Iran's relation with the international system was the events which unfolded after 9/11, as the American view toward the Middle East and the Islamic world shifted significantly. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran's increased activity in the international politics resulted in the marginalization of Iran's Shiite ideology. However, after 9/11, Sunni Islam was marginalized, as an important portion of al Qaida were Saudis and believed in the Salafi/Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Ultimately, this caused the U.S. and the West to distance themselves from Saudi Arabia, while establishing closer relations with Iran.
As a result of this, Saudi Arabia, with King Abdullah's ascension to the throne in 2005, tried to diversify its foreign policy and decrease its dependence on the U.S.. On the other hand, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq caused the U.S. and Iran to have better relations. It is known that after Saddam's fall, Iraq was committed to Shiites, especially to the ones who are sympathetic towards Iran. Nouri al-Maliki and the Islamic Dawa Party became decisive in Iraq politics. Therefore there was a de facto closeness between the U.S. and Iran.
The nuclear agreement signed on July 14, 2014, as I have mentioned previously, served as an acknowledgement which resulted in Iran acting more freely. After being accepted by the global system, the second part of your question came into effect. Iran started to act ambitious and bold. This does not mean that the West approves of Iran's bold and ambitious policies, as complete normalization is not yet achieved. The recent developments are only signs of neutralization.
DS: Will this integration process be maintained? What are your comments on this subject?
MA: I expect the process to continue for a while and then seize. Western countries move according to rationality. They will develop their trade relations with Iran and benefit from it, as a result of rational politics. However, it is almost impossible for their political discourses to converge. It should be expressed that the U.S. has been indifferent towards the Middle East in recent years, which is the result of the policies adopted by the U.S. in the international system. The American current cause of concern is transPacific, not transAtlantic, nor even Middle East. Even Europe is not as important for the U.S. as it was during the Cold War. The U.S. recently has been trying to subdue the threat of an emerging China.
It has been suggested that as Iran increases its influence over the region, Turkey's influence will deteriorate. What is your response to this suggestion?
I partially agree, as the Western countries do not have the luxury to marginalize all of the countries in the region at the same time. Iran was marginalized until now, which led to close relations with Turkey. In the new era, there will be a relative decline in Turkey's importance, this is inevitable. Iran is beginning to cooperate with Western countries. Germany and France are two key actors, in this manner, as they are the only two countries, with the exception of Russia, to have influence over Iran.
On the other hand, wherever you go in the Middle East, Iran is the most marginalized country. Iran has a destabilizing power and influence over the Gulf countries which have a Shiite minority or majority. It can be said that Iran seems to be advantageous in the short term; however, Turkey will continue to increase its influence over the midterm and long term.
How will the increasing influence of Iran affect the Syrian war?
As I have said before, I believe Iran's increasing influence over the region is transient and conjectural. With its ambitious, bold, and destabilizing policies, Iran will be at loss on the midterm and long term.
On the other hand, the increasing influence of Iran means the chaos in Syria will continue. Iran has around $100 billion of frozen assets. If Iran can utilize these assets, they will further support the al-Assad regime, which means the extension of the crisis. Moreover, along with Russia, they currently have a fragile economy. Economic cooperation between Iran and Russia may mean the prioritization of the war in Syria, causing the moderate opposition backed up by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the U.S. to lose the upper hand in negotiations. This conjecture will only contribute to the extension of the war in Syria. I also do not have any expectations regarding the Geneva summit. I do not think that Iran and Russia will reach a compromise with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar.
How will the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia proceed?
There are a couple of scenarios. The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has existed for decades.
Saudi Arabia has made a significant mistake by acting indifferent towards Baghdad and caused Baghdad, and thus Iraq, to fall under the influence of Iran. Syrian and Yemeni civil wars pushed the two countries towards direct conflict. Iran has started to influence Saudi domestic policies.
Firstly, the relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran cannot achieve normalization in neither the short term nor midterm, which is due to many reasons including the historical, geopolitical, religious and sectarian. I believe that the tensions between the two countries will continue without transforming into a direct conflict. The U.S. and the Western countries are in favor of a manageable conflicting rivalry.
In the previous weeks, Saudi Arabia suggested the establishment of an Islamic army or Islamic Bloc, to which Turkey expressed its support. However, regarding the extent of this establishment, there were many contradictory statements. What is your opinion on this matter?
Some aspects should be highlighted. First of all, this idea just appeared out of nowhere, without any preparation. Secondly, there are a lot of countries in the coalition, which means this will not reflect onto the field. Thirdly, this is an attempt to achieve superiority through discourse.
Currently there is a Shiite world, united and led by Iran, which the Sunnis lack. The Sunni world is diverse and has opposing elements. Nobody can confuse the Sunni understanding of Islam within Turkey with the Wahhabi or Salafist understanding of Islam. The components of these two interpretations are essentially different. This coalition process is an attempt to establish a platform against the united Shiite world and Iran. However, this will not reflect onto the field, as it is almost impossible to unite 30 countries behind a common goal.
Does Turkey support Saudi Arabia in its conflict with Iran? Is Turkey following a sectarian foreign policy?
Until the last 15 years, Turkey has followed a secular foreign policy. Within the last 15 years, however, Turkey has removed the secular aspect from its foreign policies while establishing relations with both governments and non-state actors. Currently, there is an emphasis on religion and sects; yet, this emphasis is only to signify the diversity, the plurality. The most significant example is Iraq. After the fall of Saddam, Turkey tried to develop relations with the actors in Iraq, regardless of their ethnic and religious backgrounds. While this inclusive policy was not reciprocated, Turkey never followed marginalizing or conflicting policies.
When we look at the relations of Turkey with the Gulf countries, there is a significant deterioration in relations with the UAE since Arab Spring. What are the reasons of deteriorating relations?
The immature behavior of the UAE's rulers is what comes to my mind. They act as if they can be successful in influencing the region according to their will with the economic wealth they possess. However they will understand this is not true.
When you look at the political actors with whom the UAE has sided, they are playing a destabilizing role. This is the reason of the tensions between the UAE and Turkey, as Turkey wants to further stabilize the region. The UAE is trying to subdue Turkey, not only in the Middle East, but even in Balkans. Turkey's cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood can also be a reason for this. Secondly, Turkey's cooperation with Qatar also caused discontent to the UAE, as the UAE is a wealthier country, but lacks the recognition of Qatar. They are trying to gain renown by supporting revisionist groups; yet, they have failed due to their immaturity. The UAE does not have a political tradition. If you try to become influential through your wealth, it won't last long. While Qatar has a political discourse and Oman cherishes its neutrality, the UAE has none.
Do you expect the relations with the UAE to normalize?
I expect the relations with the UAE to get better, as the UAE is a country under the influence of Saudi Arabia, regardless of their differences. The indisputable leader of the Arab countries in the Gulf is Saudi Arabia and the other five Gulf countries are dependent on Saudi Arabia to some extent. Therefore, if Saudi Arabia forces the UAE to shift its policies, it will.
What is your comment on Turkey's relation with Kuwait?
The relation is more of a trade relation. After Gulf War I, Kuwait has become more withdrawn. Regardless, there were significant developments in trade between Turkey and Kuwait, even during the Arab Spring. Currently, there aren't any tensions between the two countries, as both sides are trying to improve their relations.
What are the essentials in the privileged relations between Turkey and Qatar?
The most important part is that their political discourses converge. When compared with the UAE, Qatar follows a concrete policy; they are aware of reality and their policy is influential. Sheikh Hamad is trying to be influential in the region with a diplomatic and peaceful discourse. Their discourse converges with Turkey's inclusive discourse. Before the Arab Spring, Turkey and Qatar acted as intermediaries. With the Arab Spring, they followed a policy which was in support of the people. Turkey and Qatar also maintained their relations with groups which have a similar discourse with Muslim Brotherhood throughout 2013 and 2014, while many other countries marginalized them. The cooperation between the two countries indicated the maintenance of inclusive policies and supporting the people.
The similar discourse brought the two countries together in other fields, as well. However, the development in the previous year is what makes this relation exceptional. In its modern era, this is the first time Turkey to establish a military base in another country. This development has a significant symbolic value, as it is one of the most prominent political actions Turkey has taken. Therefore, we can say that the relations are in a very good shape. The good relations between the two countries are due to similarity of political discourse, rather than the suggestions that they belong to the same religious sect.
There is a tension between Turkey and Iraq due to the dispute over Bashiqa camp. How do you evaluate the tensions?
I believe it is an artificial issue. 700 trainee soldiers of Turkey normally would not cause an issue. This is a proxy issue, as Iran and Russia forced Iraq. Al-Abadi is different than al-Maliki, he is not completely controlled by Iran; he follows a more Arab-oriented politics. Therefore, he is trying to follow an independent politics from Iran. Turkey and Iraq has a mutual bond; al-Abadi is trying to improve relations with Turkey. However, the current situation has Russia and Iran's influence all over it. If this influence is removed, I expect Turkish-Iraqi relations will get better.
What is your comment on the relation between Turkey and Oman?
Oman has an exceptional position. Firstly, it is multicultural and has historical connections with Iran and the Indian subcontinent. Sultan Qaboos follows a politics based on neutrality. It is very similar to Turkmenistan's condition in Central Asia, regarding the political discourse, as both of them want to stay neutral. Therefore, they can follow different politics than Saudi Arabia. For example, they were not a party in the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
It has an independent relation with Turkey; however, as it is a small country and is not wealthy as the other Gulf countries, the relations are stuck at a point. While there were some crises, the relations between Oman and Turkey are good. Relations have also been developing recently.
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