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The Middle East at the crossroads - part II

By Dilip Hiro - posted Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Long, unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - coupled with the global recession triggered by Wall Street excesses - are widely seen as symptoms of the relative decline in US economic and military clout. Rising middle powers such as Turkey and Iran in the Middle East and Brazil in South America now challenge the diplomatic supremacy of America.

Last week, the new contours of diplomatic power were on display in Istanbul. The city was the site of the summit of 20-member Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building in Asia, presided over by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It also provided a venue for the first Turkish-Arab Cooperation Forum, chaired by Turkey. A member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization - and until recently a rare regional ally of Israel - Turkey basked in the international limelight. An emboldened Turkey also defied Washington, voting against the US-sponsored resolution on Iran sanctions at the UN Security Council.

Radically changed domestic political configuration and an altered external environment have spurred Turkey, the largest Muslim nation bordering Europe, to a leading role.


In mid-May, along with his Brazilian counterpart, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu signed a deal with the Iranian foreign minister, undercutting US efforts to isolate Iran for refusing to abandon its uranium-enrichment program. Iran agreed to ship 1,200 kilograms of its low-enriched uranium to its new friend Turkey rather than Russia as proposed by the European Union. In return, Russia and France would provide 120 kilograms of medium-enriched uranium for a medical research reactor in Tehran.

A fortnight later, Turkey found itself at centre-stage when Israel’s elite naval force attacked a flotilla, sponsored by a Turkish human rights organisation, on its way to blockaded Gaza with civilian supplies. That assault, codenamed Operation Sea Winds, left nine Turks dead and killed the two-decades-old special relationship between Turkey and Israel.

These episodes established Turkey, straddling Europe and Asia, as a rising middle power in a strategic region. These incidents, far from being stray, are an integral part of a process which began with a peaceful political earthquake - the November 2002 victory of the Justice and Development Party, Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi or AKP, a reformist party with Islamic origins, ending a half century of opportunistic coalition governments in Turkey.

It is a descendant, albeit moderate, of two earlier Islamic parties, banned by the ultra-secularist judges of the Constitutional Court in 1998 and 2001 for violating the country’s secular constitution.

Along with a sweeping anti-corruption drive by the AKP government, led by Erdogan, was an overarching review foreign policy.

To fully realise its power and influence, argued Davutoglu, then political science professor and Erdogan advisor, Turkey must utilise the strategic depth of its neighbourhood, focusing first on those with whom it has cultural affinity. This led Erdogan's administration to forge cordial links with Iran and Syria. The government mediated between Syria and Israel to resolve the issue of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights - without much success due to change of governments in Israel. After re-election in July 2007, the Erdogan government proceeded to reconcile with historic foes, Armenia and Greece.


As a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, Turkey worked closely with Brazil to construct a deal on the long-running issue of Tehran’s nuclear program that restored core elements of the October 2009 agreement that unraveled after Iran changed its mind.

To Turkey’s disappointment, the Obama administration backtracked, insisting on a priori suspension of enrichment, reverting back to its predecessor’s stance, which was unacceptable to Tehran. This did not surprise most Turks: a 2009 Pew Global Attitudes survey conducted showed that only 14 per cent had a favourable view of the US, the lowest figure among 25 nations surveyed.

In pursuit of its adopted doctrine of cultural affinity, Turkey hosted the 57-member Islamic Conference Organization summit in June 2004. Backed by Saudi Arabia and Iran, its nominee was appointed ICO secretary-general.

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Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online ( Copyright © 2010, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.

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About the Author

Dilip Hiro is the author of The Iranian Labyrinth and Secrets and Lies: Operation ‘Iraqi Freedom’ and After and, most recently, Blood of the Earth: The Battle for the World's Vanishing Oil Resources, published by Nation Books.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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