The Persian Pandora’s Box
Turkey’s reaction to the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran will be something of a bellwether. The reactions of other regional players were known in advance, except for Turkey’s, which has tried to play all sides, and no longer can. When Iran was isolated diplomatically in 2010, Turkey sought to mediate between Iran in the West, and failed miserably. In 2012 and 2013, Turkey helped Iran skirt sanctions through a billion-dollar gold trade that allowed Iranian traders to buy the precious metal in Turkey, cart it to Dubai, and sell it for foreign exchange. But Turkey and Iran are the bitterest of opponents in the Syrian civil war, with Turkey backing ISIS as a blunt instrument against the Assad regime, and against the Syrian Kurds, whose hopes for autonomy further the Kurdish national cause.
Some Turkish press commentators worry that Iran’s cash windfall from the nuclear deal will enable the Shi’ite power to redouble its support for the Assad regime and other clients in the region. Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, while welcoming the nuclear deal, called on Tehran to abandon its “sectarian driven policies.” A resurgent Iran, confident in the acquiescence of the United States and flush with money, may turn Turkey into an enemy–particularly because Turkey depends on Saudi Arabia to finance its current account deficit, still at a troubling 6% of GDP.
Turkey’s population is about the same as Iran’s, but it has triple Iran’s GDP, and an army of 660,000. Whether Turkey can tolerate Iran’s ambitions to become a regional hegemon is questionable. What this might mean for Turkey’s relationship with Israel is an interesting question, especially now that Israel and Saudi Arabia are de facto allies against Iran. Ankara does not presently know the answer to these questions, outside observers all the less so. But Turkey’s predicament illustrates how fluid the near future is likely to be in the region. The Obama administration imagined that the nuclear deal might bring stability to the region, but nothing is more destabilizing than an Iranian bid to expand the Persian pocket empire at the expense of its neighbors.
Two reactions appear given. The first is an aggressive nuclear weapons program on the part of the Gulf Arabs. As the Jerusalem Post summarized discussions in the Arab press:
Jihad el-Khazen a leading columnist at the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, wrote an article on Wednesday titled, “Very Wanted: Arabic Military Nuclear Program.”
The world powers’ deal with Iran “comes at our expense [and] requires the start of this Arab nuclear program,” he said.
Ayman al-Hammad, writing in the Saudi Al-Riyadh newspaper on Wednesday, said the deal “can be considered as a green light” for the development of a Gulf nuclear program, led by the Saudi program in order to achieve deterrence and maintain a balance of power.
The other is the intensification of the proxy war in Syria and Iraq.
Far from given is what Israel will do. Efraim Inbar, the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Illan University, argues that an Israeli strike on Iran is now far more probable. Turkey cannot be indifferent, as noted. And Pakistan, Iran’s neighbor to the east, may abandon its indifference to events in the Persian Gulf. Earlier this year Pakistan ignored a Saudi request for boots on the ground in Yemen. The prospect of a more powerful Iran stirring up trouble among Pakistan’s 20% Shia minority is a different matter.
Again, neither Jerusalem nor Islamabad have answers to these questions at the moment, any more than does Islamabad. But the Persian Pandora’s Box is now open, and the prospects for grand realignments in the region and strategic risk-taking are far greater than they were before Washington imposed its utopian vision on the region.
Update: Mohamed al-Khatieb reports in AI-Monitor that the Syrian opposition plans to replace the Syrian pound with the Turkish dinar in rebel-held areas. Khatieb writes:
[An opposition leader] denied that the currency switch was made under pressure from the Turkish government or political parties. “The project is a purely civilian project and temporary. It aims to protect the value of the traded currency. … Until now, we have not communicated with the Turkish government on this matter. But we recently formed a committee to communicate with the Turkish government to see their reaction in this regard,” he said.
As seminar organizers in Aleppo confirm that Turkey is not involved in the currency switch project, no official statement or position has been made by Turkey in this regard. This step coincides with talks about a possible Turkish intervention in the Syrian territories to establish a buffer zone, which would bolster Ankara’s position.