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The Persian Lion Still Roars

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Why does Iran still harbor such distrust and animosity towards the United States? This question is a key factor for understanding the continuous failures of negotiations, even after the concluded nuclear accord.

Much of Iran’s bitterness and mistrust towards the United States can be traced back to the Iran-Iraq War. Iranians refer to the war as the “Imposed War” because Iranians believe the United States orchestrated and funded Iraq’s war efforts against Iran (Riedel, 2013). In July 1988, a U.S. Navy ship shot down Iran Air flight 655 killing all 290 people aboard. Iran still marks the anniversary of the incident, alleging the U.S. intentionally destroyed the civilian aircraft. Since the U.S. military maneuvers near Abu Musa Island in 1994, the Iranian government is suspicious of any U.S. military presence in the region. This was further compounded by rhetoric such as President Bush’s declaration of Iran as part of the Axis of Evil and Senator McCain’s call for the U.S. to support regime change in Iran. Cyber-attacks like the Stuxnet virus against Iran’s nuclear facilities further increased animosity and suspicion of U.S. policies and goals.

Understanding the Iranian mindset requires an insight into the foundation of their national identity and national security interests. Shia Islam and nationalism are inextricable elements of Iranian culture. Neglecting this knowledge will lead to more exclusionary policies devoid of the cultural aspects that make negotiations more palatable to Iranians. There are two distinct facets of Iranian culture that form the foundation of all relations: Iranian nationalism and Shiite particularism. According to Bar (2004), Iranians have a strong self-image dating back to an ancient civilization. Persian pride pervades every cultural, political, and economic facet in Iranian affairs. Iranian national identity is birthed from a lineage of Persian history, mythology, kings, and a massive empire. Conversely, this self-image drives their discrimination against Arabs and other non-Farsi groups. A successful policy must address the Persian and Iranian nationalism factors. Ignoring the cultural aspect will likely be seen as more exploitation of Iran’s affairs and so-called rightful hegemonic influence in the region.

Iran’s Security Interests

The first security strategy is regime survival. The foundation of the Islamic Republic is the concept of velayat-e fagih, which is rule of the jurist. The Supreme Leader exercises complete governing authority under the guardianship of velayat-e fagih. The constitution was later amended to give the Leader extrajudicial powers to correct any “flaw” in the judiciary. He enjoys the full support of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which refer to him as “Imam” or Source of Enlightenment. The IRGC are the protectors of the revolution and view themselves as the continuity and security of the regime’s ideals.

The second national security interest is defending the country against all adversaries. Initially, this meant defense against military threats from other nation-states but has since evolved to include soft power as well. The Supreme Leader, the IRGC, and the Basij continue emphasizing Iran’s efforts in the soft war supposedly being waged by the West against them. The soft war entails all aspects of soft power against Iran’s Islamic and cultural values.

The third national security interest is expanding Iran’s regional influence. More specifically, this includes all efforts to export Iran’s Shia ideology throughout the region, support Shia uprisings, and become the Shia authority in the region. Davis, Martini, and Alireza further assert, “This involves increasing military support for its allies in the region, especially Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, and, increasingly, Iraq. Iran sees not only Israel but also Sunni Arab states (such as Egypt) and Turkey and Pakistan as geopolitical rivals” (2011).

Considering the Iranian perspective is not just tallying up prior injustices, identifying the cultural and geopolitical causes of conflict provide insight into the state’s mindset. Hunter writes, “Indeed, both sides have become prisoners of the past; both have a long list of grievances. To be limited by the past in analysis, perceptions and policy flexibility is a natural human trait, but in today’s circumstances it would be self-indulgent and self-defeating.” Parasility adds, “After three decades of mutual hostility and infrequent direct diplomatic contacts, differences in political culture and diplomatic style, disproportionate involvement of intermediaries and message carriers, and sometimes confusing and mixed signals from those presumed to be speaking for those in authority, such clarity cannot be assumed.” The recently concluded deal does not, of course, eliminate these concerns or these complex relationships. In fact, engagement with Iran doesn’t only make the nuclear fear not go away, it may make the problem in some ways more daunting and challenging.

Complex Problem

The most significant continued concern is Iran’s nuclear aspirations. Additionally, other problems include: Iran’s support for terrorist groups; the regime’s hostility towards Israel; the expansion of Shia theology throughout the region; Iranian threats to close the Straits of Hormuz; Iran’s proliferation of instability through proxy groups; and the theological contention between the Qom and Najaf Howza. Iran’s strategic objectives clash with U.S. goals for the region. Robb and Wald (2012) write, “Tehran’s strategic objectives to expand its influence, export revolution and undercut the Middle East peace process have threatened longstanding U.S. efforts to maintain a regional balance of power, defend key allies and support Arab-Israeli peace”. Moreover, Iran’s strategic objectives adversely affect other nations.

Israel

Israel views Iran as the biggest threat to their national security. Israel contends that Iran is will never try to build a peaceful nuclear program but rather that Iran is enriching uranium to build nuclear weapons to use specifically against the Jewish homeland. On October 1, 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). In his remarks, Netanyahu (2013) stated, “Israel will never acquiesce to nuclear arms in the hands of a rogue regime that repeatedly promises to wipe us off the map. Against such a threat, Israel will have no choice but to defend itself.” Israel does not consent to any negotiations that allow Iran to pursue a nuclear program, regardless of the enrichment levels. Israel does not accept containment. This is why Israel still does not accept or consider the new deal as a positive step or one to secure a new kind of Iran for the future.

Turkey

Turkey supports Iran’s pursuit of a peaceful nuclear program and has occasionally acted as a mediator to support Tehran’s efforts. Despite Turkey’s assistance, Iran and Turkey are regional rivals with diametrically opposed worldviews. According to Barkey, “Turkey is a constitutionally secular state where the military is the self-appointed guardian of secularism. Iran is a theocracy in which Islamic law rules and clerics play decisive roles, including control over the military.” (2012). Like its neighbors, Turkey opposes any Iranian efforts to build a nuclear weapon, which Turkey views as a destabilizing, regional factor.

The Gulf States

Iran maintains strained relationships with its regional neighbors. The Gulf States or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), collectively oppose the prospect of a nuclear Iran building a nuclear weapon. The GCC warns that a nuclear Iran would threaten the stability of the region well into the Persian Gulf. This would also change the balance of power by enhancing Iran’s persistent efforts to export its ideology and influence the internal affairs of Gulf Coast states. Some of the most notable examples are the violent, Iranian-supported Shia protests occurring in Bahrain and Yemen and the continued dispute over the islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs (Fulton & Farrar-Wellman, 2011).

Russian and Chinese Interests in Iran

Russia and China have a unique and somewhat symbiotic relationship with Iran. The Iranian government has been steadily increasing exports to both countries despite international sanctions. Russia and China openly state their opposition to any Iranian efforts to build nuclear weapons, but also believed in alternative approaches beyond punitive and extreme sanctions. Both countries have conceded to international sanctions against Iran but also violate the sanctions when it is opportunistic for them both. Russia and Iran continue to bolster the Iranian government through military arms shipments, dual-use technology, oil purchases, and financial transactions. Iran is a strategic partner for them both and serves to limit Western influences in the region in a way that benefits both Chinese and Russian geopolitical interests.

No Easy Fix

Iran’s new accord could and hopefully will signal a new engagement that builds new channels of trust and interaction with rivals, both regional and global. Even if this most optimal outcome does occur, however, the national, cultural, historical, and geopolitical tensions that caused issues to begin with will not completely disappear. Iran not having a nuclear weapon will of course be good news to Europe, the United States, and Israel, just to name a few. But that will by no means stop Iran from pursuing its long-held belief in being an important global player and unquestioned regional hegemon. As the saying goes, the game has only just begun!

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The Mediterranean: Will Turkey be successful in pulling Egypt to its side?

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The Mediterranean acts as a channel connecting Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The region has, however, become a bone of contention due to varying political setups, religions and cultural values, economic resources, and the existence of crisis situations. The maritime dispute between Turkey and Greece is highly contentious, developing new complexities that worries the international community. Greece prefersinternational arbitrationwhile Turkey favors the option of bilateral negotiationsconstituting asthe main cause of friction between the two countries.

Historically, root of the crisis also lies in conflicting claims by Turkey and Greece concerning maritime boundaries and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), threatening Ankara’s “Blue Homeland”doctrine. To further aggravate the situation, the dispute has now been intertwined withdisputes in the eastern Mediterranean among Turkey and a coalition of countries including France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates that are doused in geopolitical tensions, energy disputes and Libyan conflict.

Gas discoveries in eastern Mediterranean have increased Turkey’s greed for hydrocarbon exploration. Turkey aims to solve its longstanding economic challenges and reduce its energy dependency due to which the country has increased its energy-related exploration activities in the region resulting in a major gas discovery thus shaping the region towards resource competition. Moreover, Turkey seeks to establish itself as an energy hub for Europe and has signed several oil and gas pipeline deals with Azerbaijan, Iraq, Iran, and Russia. However, its aspirations have significantly remained unsuccessful, and the gas discoveries have deepened its concerns of being left out from the region’s emerging energy and security order due to the creation of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF).

Conflict in the Mediterranean has unwittingly pushed Libya into a proxy war. Scuffle between Libyan National Army (LNA) and Government of National Accord (GNA) has pushed Turkey to increase its support for GNA by sending troops and weapons to Libya which is a move directly affecting the ongoing situation in the region. GNA signing its EEZ agreement with Turkey while Greece turning to LNA and signing an agreement with Egypt have contributed to exacerbating the dispute. Not only this, but major European powers have shown keen interest in the region that patently require Turkey’s support in terms of migration and counterterrorism. If the conflict between the Turkish-backed GNA and the LNA stabilizes, this would result in an ordered flow of migrants to Europe.

Moreover, Europeans do not wish to abandon a 2016 German-brokered deal between Turkey and the European Union (EU) that allows Turkey to maintain a considerable control over refugee movements into Europe. On counterterrorism, France to fight against the terrorism in southern Libya and Benghazi, allied with Haftar against Turkey, despite recognizing the GNA’s sovereignty.  France has developed security partnerships with UAE and Egypt, who are opponents of Turkey in the region.

Egypt’s possession of two liquefication facilities, making the country act as both an exporter and re-exporter of LNG including a potential Cyprus-Egypt pipeline beneficial to Egypt in terms of economic stability, and help establish itself as a regional power. Cyprus-Egypt pipeline will allow Cyprus to export gas from the Aphrodite gas field to Egypt for liquefaction and Egypt would then reexport LNG to the European market. Turkey, however, argues that revenue generated from the process must be shared with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TNRC). Turkey’s continuation on the belligerent course will bring consequences for Egypt making its support for Greece more prominent. Turkey also stands with Mediterranean cooperation through initiatives like the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum that focuses on exploitation and regional energy resource sale.

Turkey is keen to become a regional gas trade hub thus looks forward to the initiative of a Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) which transfers from Azerbaijan to Europe through Turkey. Reducing the region’s reliance on Russian gas could certainly achieve the goals. Talks between Israel and Turkey of a pipeline from Israel to Europe were also initiated, however relations between Turkey and Israel have deteriorated following Erdogan blatantly supporting Palestine. This led Israel to work with Cyprus and Greece on the EastMed pipeline, stemming in devaluation of the Trans-Anatolian pipeline.

Most of the Middle Eastern countries have recalibratedtheir foreign policy following Joe Biden’s presidential win in the United States. Similarly, both Turkey and Egypt have begun to revise their foreign policies as well. The two countries have initiated a series of new diplomatic dialogue including Turkey and Greece signing a maritime delimitation agreement in August 2020.Nonetheless Egypt did not accept Greece’s thesis of having claims over islands in the south of Aegean Sea and it also announced a new oil and gas exploration bid with taking Turkey’s coordinates of the continental shelf into consideration. Moreover, Egypt began to change its Libya policy and improve relations with GNA. Turkey has stated that it is willing to negotiate dialogue with Egypt and focus on common interests.

Understanding the new developments, it is suggested to continue to alleviate tensions as the two countries enjoy same moral values at cultural level, given their shared past and historical ties. That is only possible if the expansionist pan-Islamistproject stops with Erdogan and does not continue with future Turkish governments. Cairo and Ankara must move together on the issues concerning Palestine, Libyan conflict, and the eastern Mediterranean. Despite possible pressure from the Democrats in the Biden administration, Egypt seems reluctant to consider convergence on Islamic synthesisand integration of Muslim brotherhood. Complete normalization of relations between the two sides may take time therefore to establish trust in one another, all parties must take certain confidence-building steps.

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Israel and Turkey in search of solutions

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Twelve and eleven years have elapsed since the Davos and Mavi Marmara incidents, respectively, and Turkey-Israel relations are undergoing intense recovery efforts. They are two important Eastern neighbours and influence regional stability.

Currently, as in the past, relations between the two countries have a structure based on realpolitik, thus pursuing a relationship of balance/interest, and hinge around the Palestinian issue and Israel’s position as the White House’s privileged counterpart. However, let us now briefly summarise the history of Turkish-Jewish relations.

The first important event that comes to mind when mentioning Jews and Turks is that when over 200,000 Jews were expelled by the Spanish Inquisition in 1491, the Ottoman Empire invited them to settle in its territory.

Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognise Israel in 1949. Israel’s first diplomatic Mission to Turkey was opened on January 7, 1950 but, following the Suez crisis in 1956, relations were reduced to the level of chargé d’affaires. In the second Arab-Israeli war of 1967, Turkey chose not to get involved and it did not allow relations to break off completely.

The 1990s saw a positive trend and development in terms of bilateral relations. After the second Gulf War in 1991 -which, as you may recall, followed the first Iraqi one of 1980-1988 in which the whole world was against Iran (with the only exception of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Syria, Libya and the moral support of Enver Hoxha’s Albania) – Turkey was at the centre of security policy in the region. In that context, Turkey-Israel relations were seriously rekindled.

In 1993, Turkey upgraded diplomatic relations with Israel to ambassadorial level. The signing of the Oslo Accords between Palestine and Israel led to closer relations. The 1996 military cooperation agreement was signed between the two countries in the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, which provided significant logistical and intelligence support to both sides.

In the 2000s, there was a further rapprochement with Israel, due to the “zero problems with neighbours” policy promoted by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party. I still remember issue No. 3/1999 of the Italian review of geopolitics “Limes” entitled “Turkey-Israel, the New Alliance”.

In 2002, an Israeli company undertook the project of modernising twelve M-60 tanks belonging to the Turkish armed forces. In 2004, Turkey agreed to sell water to Israel from the Manavgat River.

Prime Minister Erdoğan’s visit to Israel in 2005 was a turning point in terms of mediation between Palestine and Israel and further advancement of bilateral relations. In 2007, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas spoke at the Turkish Grand National Assembly one day apart. High-level visits from Israel continued.

On December 22, 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came to Ankara and met with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In that meeting, significant progress was made regarding Turkey’s mediation between Israel and Syria.

Apart from the aforementioned incidents, the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations occurred five days after the above stated meeting, i.e. Operation “Cast Lead” against Gaza on December 27, 2008. After that event, relations between the two sides were never the same as before.

Recently, however, statements of goodwill have been made by both countries to normalise political relations. In December 2020, President Erdoğan stated he wanted to improve relations with Israel and said: “It is not possible for us to accept Israel’s attitude towards the Palestinian territories. This is the point in which we differ from Israel – otherwise, our heart desires to improve our relations with it as well”.

In its relations with Israel, Turkey is posing the Palestinian issue as a condition. When we look at it from the opposite perspective, the Palestinian issue is a vital matter for Israel. It is therefore a severe obstacle to bilateral relations.

On the other hand, many regional issues such as Eastern Mediterranean, Syria and some security issues in the region require the cooperation of these two key countries. For this reason, it is clear that both sides wish at least to end the crisis, reduce rhetoric at leadership level and focus on cooperation and realpolitik areas.

In the coming months, efforts will certainly be made to strike a balance between these intentions and the conditions that make it necessary to restart bilateral relations with Israel on an equal footing. As improved relations with Israel will also positively influence Turkey’s relations with the United States.

Turkey seeks to avoid the USA and the EU imposing sanctions that could go so far as to increase anti-Western neo-Ottoman rhetoric, while improved relations with Israel could offer a positive outcome not only to avoid the aforementioned damage, but also to solve the Turkish issues related to Eastern Mediterranean, territorial waters, Libya and Syria. Turkey has no intention of backing down on such issues that it deems vital. Quite the reverse. It would like to convey positive messages at the level of talks and Summits.

Another important matter of friction between Turkey and Israel is the use of oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean reserves between Egypt, Israel, Greece and Cyprus (Nicosia).

This approach is excluding Turkey. The USA and the EU also strongly support the current situation (which we addressed in a previous article) for the additional reason that France has been included in the equation.

The alignment of forces and fronts in these maritime areas were also widely seen during the civil war in Libya, where Turkey, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France, as well as other players such as Russia, Italy, etc. came into the picture.

Ultimately, a point of contact between Turkey and Israel is the mediation role that the former could play in relations between Iran and Israel, especially after the improvement of Turkish-Iranian relations.

Indeed, in the aftermath of the U.S. airstrike in Baghdad – which killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani on January 3, 2020 -the Turkish Foreign Minister stated that the U.S. action would increase insecurity and instability in the region. He also reported that Turkey was worried about rising tensions between the United States and Iran that could turn Iraq back into an area of conflict to the detriment of peace and stability in the region. There was also a condolence phone call from President Erdoğan to Iranian President Rouhani, urging him to avoid a conflictual escalation with the United States following the airstrike.

Consequently, it is in the Turkish President’s interest to maintain an open channel with Iran, so that he himself can soften the mutual tensions between Israel and Iran, and – in turn – Israeli diplomacy can influence President Biden’s choices, albeit less pro-Israel than Donald Trump’s.

Turkey is known to have many relationship problems with the United States – especially after the attempted coup of July 15-16, 2016 and including the aforementioned oil issue – and realises that only Israel can resolve the situation smoothly.

In fact, Israel-USA relations are not at their best as they were under President Trump. President Erdoğan seems to be unaware of this fact, but indeed the Turkish President knows that the only voice the White House can hear is Israel’s, and certainly not the voice of the Gulf monarchies, currently at odds with Turkey.

Israel keeps a low profile on the statements made by President Erdoğan with regard to the Palestinians- since it believes them to be consequential – as well as in relation to a series of clearly anti-Zionist attitudes of the Turkish people.

We are certain, however, that President Erdoğan’s declarations of openness and Israeli acquiescence will surely yield concrete results.

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The 25-year China-Iran agreement

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On March 27, 2021, a document entitled “Comprehensive Document of Iran-China Cooperation” was signed by Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, and his Chinese counterpart. The Iranian regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had previously called “the agreement between the presidents of Iran and China correct and wise.” However, the Iranian people have widely criticized it as entirely against their national interests. Iranian officials have not even publicized the document’s contents yet probably because it is highly contentious.

In 2019, excerpts from this document were revealed by the Economist Petroleum news site. The details included:

  • China invests $460 billion in Iranian oil and transportation sectors. China will get its investment back from the sale of Iranian crude during the first five years.
  • China buys Iranian petroleum products at least 32% cheaper.
  • The Chinese can decide before other companies whether to participate in completing all or part of a petrochemical project.
  • 50,000 Chinese security personnel will be deployed to protect Chinese projects in Iran.
  • China has the right to delay the repayment of its debts for up to two years in exchange for Iranian products’ purchase.
  • At least one Russian company will be allowed to participate in the Tabriz-Ankara gas pipeline design together with the Chinese operator.
  • Every year, 110 senior Revolutionary Guards officers travel to China and Russia for military training. 110 Chinese and Russian advisers will be stationed in Iran to train Revolutionary Guards officers.
  • Development of Iranian military equipment and facilities will be outsourced to China, and Chinese and Russian military aircraft and ships will operate the developed facilities.

Even some circles within the regime have criticized the agreement. The state-run Arman newspaper wrote, “China has a 25-year contract with Iran and is investing $460 billion in Iran. It is somewhat ambiguous. Presently, China is holding the money it owes us and blames it on the U.S. sanctions. How can we trust this country to invest $460 billion in Iran?”

Last year, Iran and China had the lowest trade in the previous 16 years, and according to statistics, by the end of 2020, the volume of trade between Iran and China was about $16 billion, which, including undocumented oil sales, still does not reach $20 billion.

Jalal Mirzaei, a former member of Iran’s parliament, said: “If in the future the tensions between Tehran and Washington are moderated, and we see the lifting of some of the sanctions, China can also provide the basis for implementing the provisions of this document, but if the situation continues like today, Beijing will not make any effort to implement the document, as it is essentially unable to take concrete action on the ground because of the sanctions.”

China’s objectives

Iran is vital to China in two ways, through its geopolitical location and its geo-economic importance. China knows that it does not have enough natural resources and is currently having a hard time supplying them from Russia and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia supplies its energy needs from oil giant Aramco, half of which is owned by the United States. That is why China is looking for a safe alternative that the United States will not influence, and the only option is Iran. They may also have a two-pronged plan in Iran, which involves using Iran’s profitable market and making Iran into a lever of pressure against the United States for additional concessions.

The Iranian regime’s objectives

The deal could deepen China’s influence in the Middle East and undermine U.S. efforts to isolate the Iranian regime. While the international dispute over the Iranian regime’s nuclear program has not been resolved, it is unclear how much this agreement could be implemented. The regime intends to make it a bargaining chip in possible future nuclear negotiations. However, some of Iran’s top authorities believe that China and Russia cannot be trusted 100 percent.

Due to the sanctions, the regime has a tough time to continue providing financial support to its proxy militias in the region. The regime also faced two major domestic uprisings in 2017 and 2019. Khamenei’s regime survived the widespread uprisings by committing a massacre, killing 1,500 young protesters in the 2019 uprising alone, according to the Iranian opposition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and later confirmed by the Iranian regime’s Interior Ministry officials. Now with the coronavirus pandemic, Khamenei has been able to delay another major uprising.

Iran’s economy is on the verge of collapse. Khamenei must bow to western countries’ demands regarding the nuclear issue, including an end to its regional interventions and its ballistic missile program. Khamenei will struggle to save his regime from s imminent uprisings and a deteriorating economy that will undoubtedly facilitate more protests by the army of the unemployed and the hungry at any moment.

Unlike the 2015 JCPOA, the Iranian regime in 2021 is in a much weaker position. In fact, by many accounts, it is the weakest in its 40-year history. By signing the recent Iran-China agreement and auctioning Iranian resources, Khamenei wants to pressure the United States to surrender and restore the 2015 JCPOA as quickly as possible. But in the end, this pivot will not counteract domestic pressures that target the regime’s very existence.

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