Friday, June 18, 2010

Turkey, Iran, the Arab Street (And the Other Reality)

A recent op/ed in the New York Times penned by Elliot Hen-Tov and Bernard Haykel examines Turkey's rising regional role in the Sunni Middle East, arguing that Turkey's gaining popularity is largely Iran's loss. From the piece:

Since Israel’s deadly raid on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara last month, it’s been assumed that Iran would be the major beneficiary of the wave of global anti-Israeli sentiment. But things seem to be playing out much differently: Iran paradoxically stands to lose much influence as Turkey assumes a surprising new role as the modern, democratic and internationally respected nation willing to take on Israel and oppose America.

While many Americans may feel betrayed by the behavior of their longtime allies in Ankara, Washington actually stands to gain indirectly if a newly muscular Turkey can adopt a leadership role in the Sunni Arab world, which has been eagerly looking for a better advocate of its causes than Shiite, authoritarian Iran or the inept and flaccid Arab regimes of the Persian Gulf.

. . . .

While most in the West seem to have overlooked this dynamic, Tehran has not. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used a regional summit meeting in Istanbul this month to deliver an inflammatory anti-Israel speech, yet it went virtually unnoticed among the chorus of international condemnations of Israel’s act. On June 12 Iran dispatched its own aid flotilla bound for Gaza, and offered to provide an escort by its Revolutionary Guards for other ships breaking the blockade.

Yet Hamas publicly rejected Iran’s escort proposal, and a new poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 43 percent of Palestinians ranked Turkey as their No. 1 foreign supporter, as opposed to just 6 percent for Iran.

Turkey has a strong hand here. Many leading Arab intellectuals have fretted over being caught between Iran’s revolutionary Shiism and Saudi Arabia’s austere and politically ineffectual Wahhabism. They now hope that a more liberal and enlightened Turkish Sunni Islam — reminiscent of past Ottoman glory — can lead the Arab world out of its mire.

You can get a sense of just how attractive Turkey’s leadership is among the Arab masses by reading the flood of recent negative articles about Ankara in the government-owned newspapers of the Arab states. This coverage impugns Mr. Erdogan’s motives, claiming he is latching on to the Palestinian issue because he is weak domestically, and dismisses Turkey’s ability to bring leadership to this quintessential “Arab cause.” They reek of panic over a new rival.
As much talk has been made in recent years of the rising power of Iran and a Shi'a Middle East, Ankara's new position, thanks to its increasing coziness with Hamas and the anti-Israel rhetoric, is indeed interesting to say the least. However, there is another side to the equation. As Turkey seeks to expand its regional role and, in search of new markets, its trade ties with the Middle East, popularity in the Arab World also seems a double-edged sword. Authoritarian governmentmes in the Middle East alarmed at Turkey's rising regional role, might well be less likely to cooperate with Ankara in the future. After all, the leaders of these governments are the real holders of power, not those on the Arab street now enamored with Erdogan. Will Arab governments tolerate a new Nasser, especially if he is Turkish?

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