Emerging Alignments In The Middle East

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Context

Relationships in the Middle East are shifting dramatically over the issue of Syria and Iran. On the one hand, Turkey and the BRICS countries have supported Iranian rights to peaceful nuclear program and have not relented from importing oil from it despite EU and American sanctions. On the other hand, the position of Arab countries and Turkey are similar when its come to the situation in Syria. However, this did not prevent Arab nations from attempting to sideline Turkey from the controversial Arab League conference, recently held in Iraq.

Meanwhile, US is strengthening its ties with the Gulf States, while warning Iran that its window for diplomacy will not be open long. But this does not mean the Gulf countries are united against Iran.Qatar, an emerging regional power, has strongly opposed any military action against Iran.

Analysis

Arab League Summit In Iraq

Attendees were low at the recent Arab League summit held in Baghdad, with most of the Gulf States, Jordan and Morocco absent. While this may have been a blow for the new Iraqi government, there was still cause for them to feel the success of the event, given that it went off without security incident and was the first time in the Arab League history that a summit was chaired by a non-Arab, Shiite leader.

The absence, however, of the most significant players in the region was testament to the shifting relationships in the Middle East. The sunni-shiite divide is becoming increasingly apparent, with the issues of Iran and Syria taking center stage as the regional and world players tussle for influence.

The Gulf States have reservations about Iraq because of the perception that Iran is exerting influence there, and indirectly through Iraq into Syria. They are also uneasy about Iranian reach in the Yemen and feel hemmed in by the long arm of Tehran. In this vein they are increasing their cooperation with the US in matters of defense, even talking about a Gulf-wide missile-defense system with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a recent visit.

At the same time, Qatar is emerging as regional player, and with the head of US command in the region stationed in Qatar, they have some leverage in the situation. Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem Al-Thani recently stated that Qatar was opposed to military action against Iran: “We will not accept, and this is very clear, any act of aggression against Iran (being launched) from Qatar.” This puts them at odds with their powerful Saudi neighbors, but the oil-rich nation has been flexing its muscle of late, and appears to be gaining traction as a regional heavyweight.

The BRICS And Turkey

The sentiment expressed by Qatar was backed by the BRICS nations, who met in Delhi. In a joint statement by the BRICS:

“The situation concerning Iran cannot be allowed to escalate into conflict, the disastrous consequences of which will be in no one’s interest,” said the declaration. “We are concerned about the situation that is emerging around Iran’s nuclear issue,” it continued.

The declaration backed Iran’s right to nuclear power, saying: “[we] support resolution of the issues involved through political and diplomatic means and dialogue between the parties concerned, including between the IAEA and Iran and in accordance with the provisions of the relevant UN Security Council Resolutions.”

This blow to the western power bloc’s refusal to believe Iran is only interested in a peaceful nuclear program was further hammered by Turkey’s assertion recently that Iran’s right to nuclear power should be upheld.

“The government and nation of Turkey has always clearly supported the nuclear positions of the Islamic republic of Iran, and will continue to firmly follow the same policy in the future,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said March 27 while in Iran, the same day the Arab nations were meeting in Baghdad.

Both Turkey and Iran were snubbed from the summit, with the Arab League stating that all non-Arab participants were not included, despite having an EU observer there for the summit. Turkey’s relationship with Iraq has been deteriorating over Iraqi fears that Turkey is exerting undue influence in the country, filling the political void in the absence of a strong and unified Iraqi government. Turkey is looked at with suspicion by the rest of the Arab countries as well, who fear a rise in neo-Ottoman ambitions.

In the mean time, Turkey appears to be sticking to its plans to oppose the US sanctions on Iranian oil, which amount to 30 percent of Turkey’s energy imports. The country is said to be interested in receiving a waiver from the US, however it is anticipated that they will defy the sanctions anyway if such a waiver is not granted.

Syria

The situation in Syria is the other issue polarizing the Middle East. At first the Arab League was quick to call on Bashar al Assad to step down or be removed, however since failing to convince China and Russia at the UN Security Council, they have softened their tone somewhat, instead choosing to back the Kofi Annan-authored peace plan which has been accepted by the Assad regime.

While Annan’s plan was accepted by Assad, there has been no evidence of its being implemented in the three days since Annan met with the Syrian leader. This is further cause for concern, as it drastically narrows the political room for movement if Assad refuses to comply with the terms of a plan he himself has agreed to.

At the same time Turkey is hosting a Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul on Sunday, which is viewed with deep suspicion by Arab nations. The Arab nations are trying to distance themselves from the calls for Assad’s fall, instead focusing on national dialogue as the means to end the conflict. The Istanbul meeting, to which Syrian rebel representatives are invited, is seen as focusing on how to oust the Al Assad regime.

US And Gulf States

The US joins the fears of the Gulf States that Iran is wielding too much influence in Syria, even suspecting them of furnishing arms to the Syrian government, with some suspecting Iraq of also playing a role in propping up the Assad regime with Iranian help.

Clinton hinted at this while in the Gulf, stating that the mutual interest of the US and the Gulf regarding Syria and Iran promotes the need for taking “practical and specific steps to strengthen our mutual security, such as helping our militaries improve interoperability, cooperate on maritime security and missile defense, and coordinate responses to crises.”

Particularly poignant was the talk of a regional missile defense architecture. Going forward, Clinton said, the discussion will focus on “the wide range of common strategic concerns, including preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and curbing its interference in the affairs of its neighbors.”

The shifting relationships in the Middle East are making an already volatile situation even more unstable, with suspicions increasing all around. PoliTact will continue to monitor the evolving situation in Middle East.

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