The center of gravity in the Middle East has shifted dramatically in the past few decades from the Arab heartland comprising Egypt and the Fertile Crescent to what was once considered the non-Arab periphery — Turkey and Iran. The exciting era of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s, especially Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal and the all too brief union of Egypt with Syria, had made the Arab heartland the symbol par excellence of the reassertion of the Third World’s dignity and its aspirations for autonomy from the great powers. Since the 1970s, that air of excitement and hope has given way to the moribund nature of Arab politics and the perpetuation of autocratic and kleptocratic rule, which have contributed in large measure to the diminution in the regional role of major Arab states such as Egypt. Regimes that were once considered “liberalizing autocracies”, such as Egypt with its controlled elections and Jordan with an increasingly vocal parliamentary opposition, have now reverted to an unalloyed autocratic model.
This shift in terms of power and influence from the Arab heartland to Turkey and Iran began with the Arab defeat in the Six Day War of 1967 and gained momentum with the Iranian revolution of 1979. One began to see, however, hazily, the contours of the emerging Turko-Persian future of the Middle East in 1991 with the decimation of Iraqi power in the First Gulf War that provided both Iran and Turkey political space to increase their influence in the Persian Gulf and Iraqi Kurdistan respectively. It became a full-blown reality following the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by the United States and its allies between 2001 and 2003.
These invasions irrevocably changed the balance of forces in the eastern part of the greater Middle East by removing Iran’s two major regional adversaries — the Taliban and the Ba’ath Party — from power in Afghanistan and Iraq respectively. The invasions also coincided with a major shift in the balance between political forces within Turkey with the coming to power of the AKP in 2002. The international implications of this event, which leading Turkish analyst Soli Ozel had called the “tsunami” in Turkish politics, began to crystallize with the refusal of the Turkish Parliament in 2003 to provide American troops passage to northern Iraq to open a northern front against the Saddam regime. The Parliament’s decision mirrored deep-seated antagonism among the Turkish public in an increasingly democratic Turkey against the American invasion of Iraq.
The first three years of this century were crucial for the Middle East because events in those years radically changed Iran’s security environment on the one hand while demonstrating the coming of age of a post-Kemalist democratic Turkey increasingly comfortable with its Muslim identity. The AKP’s economic base, consisting primarily of the provincial bourgeoisie wedded to globalization and economic liberalization, simultaneously launched Turkey on the road to economic dynamism. This has enormously increased Turkey’s economic clout with its Middle Eastern neighbors and confirmed its emergence as the regional economic powerhouse. The change in government in Ankara also signaled a subtle shift in Turkish policy both toward Iraqi Kurdistan and toward Turkey’s own Kurdish population that bode well for Turkish-Kurdish reconciliation. While the latter has not realized its full potential in the Turkish domestic arena, there has been a remarkable change in Turkey’s relations with the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan both because of Turkey’s massive economic presence in that region and the dramatic shift in Ankara’s political approach to autonomous Kurdistan.
To many Western analysts, the self-confidence demonstrated by Turkey and Iran in the past decade appears to be an attempt to recreate the Ottoman Empire (hence the popularity of the term ‘neo-Ottomanism’ while referring to Turkish foreign policy) on the one hand and the emergence of a Shia crescent (the code word for the exercise of Iranian influence through the Shia population in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, and eastern Saudi Arabia) on the other. To the more discerning observers of the Middle East, the emergence of Turkey and Iran as major regional players does not reveal such disconcerting or dramatic trends. The political elites in Ankara and Tehran are not naïve enough to be interested in recreating the Ottoman and Safavid empires but are merely asserting their long overdue role as major regional actors in a system of sovereign states.
The negative imageries used in the Western press and sections of the Western academia to portray Turkish and Iranian pro-activeness in regional matters betrays a long-present tendency among Western elites to forestall the emergence of independent power centers in the Middle East. It is this predisposition that explains in substantial measure the antipathy toward Nasser’s Egypt among Western policy makers and publicists in the 1950s and 1960s. The same seems to be true in terms of the negative portrayal of Turkey and Iran by Western governmental and media circles today.
The shift in the strategic and political balance in the greater Middle East is the result of a combination of factors, some domestic, some regional and some global. They are also the result of a combination of hard with soft power and the increasing dexterity with which Ankara and Tehran have been able to combine the two sets of assets in particular situations and locales. Hard power can be quantified, among other things, in terms of demography, military capability, GNP (especially the capacity to trade and provide aid), and technological capacity. Soft power is much more difficult to measure but is as important in international politics because, in the words of Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye, it “rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others…Simply put, in behavioral terms soft power is attractive power. In terms of resources, soft power resources are the assets that produce such attraction. Whether a particular asset is a soft-power resource that produces attraction can be measured by asking people through polls or focus groups.”
According to one of the most reliable polls measuring public opinion in the Arab world (undertaken in six Arab countries in 2010 by the University of Maryland and Zogby International), three regional leaders compete for the top spot in terms of popularity — Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Hassan Nasrallah. Only one of the three — Nasrallah — is an Arab, and he is the only one who is not a head of state or government. In Arab perceptions, Erdogan, who leads the pack by a substantial margin, represents the Turkish model of Muslim democracy; Ahmadinejad represents the Muslim world’s defiance of the West, especially of the United States; and Nasrallah represents Arab and Muslim resistance against Israeli designs. All three share to different degrees dislike of, or antagonism toward, Israel, which is explainable by the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestine and aspirations for military hegemony in the Middle East heartland that is guaranteed by the supply of state-of-the-art American weapons and Israel’s status as the sole nuclear weapons power in the region.
This poll, like several of its predecessors, says a great deal about the sad state of affairs in the Arab world and the low esteem in which much of the Arab population holds its rulers, the latter a function of the wide gulf separating the rulers from the ruled in Arab countries. It is also a good indicator of the goals or values that most Arabs and Muslims cherish — democracy at home, resistance to Israel’s hegemonic policies in the region, and defiance of the perceived global hegemon; namely, the United States.
It is also worth noting that all three figures admired by the Arab publics are associated in one way or another with political manifestations of Islam. The eminent Arab journalist Rami Khouri captured this reality in the following words:
The common denominator among all the Islamist trends is their shared sense of grievances against the three primary forces that they feel degrade their lives: autocratic Arab regimes that run security states usually dominated by a handful of members of a single family; the effect of Israeli policies on Arab societies through military attacks, occupation, and influence on U.S. policy in the region; and the military and political interference of the United States and other Western powers that harms the people in the region.
What this means is that both Turkey and Iran have the sort of “soft power” in the Middle East that no other country — certainly no Arab country or regime — can wield. Turkey’s soft power is largely a function of the legitimacy of its political system and of its leadership at home. This is a model that people in other Middle Eastern countries would like to emulate. Iran’s soft power, on the other hand, is based on the acceptance by large segments of the population in the Middle East of its foreign policy objectives — namely, resistance against global hegemony and assertion of its autonomy in international affairs as an independent player that is willing to bear the cost of defying the concert of powers dominating the international security and economic structures. Furthermore, the perception that these are the only two countries/regimes in the Middle East that are able to stand up to Israel and challenge what is widely seen in the region as predatory behavior adds to Turkey’s and Iran’s popularity among the Arab and Muslim publics. Indeed, the Middle East seems to be inexorably heading toward a Turko-Persian future.
By Mohammed Ayoob
Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor of International Relations at Michigan State University