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Iran, USA and Israel

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When considering the direct connection between Iran and the Jewish State, we should never forget the issue of the border between the Golan Heights and Southern Lebanon.

 Nevertheless, while the Islamic Republic of Iran is increasingly interested in a periodic military confrontation with the United States – as it seems currently evident – it is so, also in this case, in an ever more indirect and unconventional way.

 Obviously this regards also the Israeli engagement to defend the country against the missile attacks of Iran, the Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad.

 The various types of overt military clash between Iran and Israel could be: a) a small-scale war on the Litani river border, but much more relevant than the one in 2006.

Or, b) a direct war between Israel and Iran, on the Syrian border and also an autonomous clash with Hezbollah on the Litani river – mainly a missile one –  in connection with the movements of the Shiite forces on the Golan border.

 Finally, c) a war could be possible on two borders between Israel and Iran: the Hezbollah, Iran and probably Syria would simultaneously fight a war against the Jewish State.

 The trigger could be a US, and possibly even Israeli, bombing of an Iranian nuclear site or the continued interdiction of the sea transit of Iranian oil cargo ships or anyway of freighters carrying Iranian oil or natural gas.

 In this context, decisive variables are the behaviour of Russia, which is now Syria’s master and has no interest in an Iranian-Israeli war, as well the behaviour of the United States itself, which could favour an action to support Israel but, probably, not long enough as it would be needed.

 The US political cycle often does not coincide with the necessary length of strategic operations.

 In this scenario there is still a possible danger for Israel, i.e.  a Russia that seeks to mediate or prevent the deployment of all the military options at stake, including the Israeli one. There is still the probable limitedness of the US intervention, as well as the structural inefficiency of international organizations to mediate and achieve peace.

 Hence, if- in the contrast within the US-Israeli-Iranian triangle, we head to a “long war”, an Israeli limited success will be more likely. Conversely, if all parties think of a “short war”, the Jewish State’s chances of success will rise. Finally, if the option is an asymmetrical war, for the time being the variables cannot be calculated.

 Moreover, a strategic need for Israel is to prevent Hezbollah and Iran from spreading the attack into several hotbeds, with a view to weakening their own defence forces.

 As is well-known, Hezbollah has about 100,000 missiles available from the Lebanon, but Iran has many more missiles, although only a few of them can reach the Israeli territory.

 Hence, if Hezbollah does not want to destroy its logistical base on the Litani river and its hegemonic relationship with the current Lebanese government – as a result of the Israeli counterattack in the Lebanon – the Shiite group must think of another possible operation, i.e. the already implemented operation to train its proxies from Iraq and Syria, with Iran’s clear support, so as to create a significant attack force on the Golan Heights.

 So far we have considered only the land warfare. In this three-country context, however, we must also think about the naval confrontation.

 Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Qatar have long been at odds to acquire hegemony in the Western Indian Ocean and hence in the Persian Gulf.

 Here we also need to consider the Chinese maritime Silk Road, which is essential for the future equilibria, not just in the Middle East.

 However, there is the “eastward direction” of the Indian Ocean (and the Gulf itself), which will become increasingly important in the future. This is the direction of the major powers using Middle East oil and gas, as well as the direction of Saudi and UAE economies’ diversification, and finally the direction of Iran’s exit from the sanction regime.

Competition between ports will increase, including between the approximately sixteen ports of the Persian Gulf, while Saudi Arabia is already focusing on the Red Sea ports and the Emirates can currently invest directly only in Saudi infrastructure.

 We also need to consider the new and the old chokepoints: the Strait of Bab-el Mandeb, obviously, but also the Suez Canal.

 Also the militarization of the Red Sea (an anti-Iranian variable in the aforementioned war regions) underlines an already noted trend: Turkey, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran are carving out a strategic niche in the region for their power projections.

 The Emirates’ military bases in Eritrea and Somaliland are designed to ensure safe navigation in the Strait of Bab-El-Mandeb.

 There is also the Saudi military base in Djibouti, parallel to the Chinese and the US base, an essential military control point for the whole Middle East. Finally, in 2017, Turkey obtained the temporary control of Suakin in Sudan.

 Nevertheless, Iran’s Navy is currently the most present one throughout the Red Sea for “anti-piracy operations” – as it calls them.

 The Sunni monarchies’ policy is therefore competition between ports.

  Finally, India is increasingly connected to Oman and will soon build its own military base in Seychelles.

 In the future Saudi Arabia will enter Sinai permanently, in continuity with its future bases in the Red Sea.

 This will greatly change the Israeli Southern security dimension.

 Conversely, the Emirates will increasingly head to the Mediterranean or to Cyprus, Libya, Spain and France.

 Hence, as can easily be guessed, the Sunni maritime powers’ closure to Iran’s “long-arm” operations will be almost complete.

 At terrestrial level, there is already the “Arab alliance” against Iran, a project of President Trump’s Administration and of Israel.

 The problem is 2020, precisely the year in which the United Nations will put an end to the embargo against Iran, in keeping with Resolution No. 2231.

 Furthermore, the “alliance” also proposes to Israel the Arab Peace Initiative, the old regulatory framework of 2002, which is anyway already overtaken by events.

 According to The Economist, Saudi Arabia would even buy 100 billion of defence equipment from Israel.

 In short, Israel’s remote defence area is not 100% sure, but anyway reliable, at least until the first signs of a clash.

 We still wonder, however, how could a conflict between Iran and the USA develop.

 Probably Iran would directly hit the US military structures, without anyway hitting Saudi Arabia and the other US allies in the region.

 Moreover, as already stated by a Pasdaran leader, if the USA sent troops to the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, Iran would hit the US cargo ships with missiles or “new top secret weapons”.

 In all likelihood, there would also be sabotage operations against Saudi Arabia and the Emirates – very similar to those recently occurred in the Gulf- so as to prevent the US and Israeli friendly powers from immediately entering the conflict between Iran and the United States (as well as Israel).

 Furthermore, considering that Saudi Arabia has always carefully hit the Iranian oil and gas export routes, for years there will be attacks on Saudi and Emirates’ freighters by the Houthi insurgency in Yemen and by other Shiite minorities armed by Iran.

 Iran will have no qualms about using its missile sector to drive away the military troops arriving in the Gulf and to harshly hit the US bases in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

The war between Iran and the United States will be fought on Israeli territory alone.

 In this case, Iran could use both Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Southern Israel.

  The Syrian military organizations that are now trained by the Pasdaran in Syria itself will also be involved.

 The same holds true for the Shiite networks -again armed by Iran – already operating in Iraq.

 For the United States, the area of confrontation with Iran could go from the Euphrates area to its base in Tanf, on the border between Iraq, Syria and Jordan.

 Another Iranian target is the US military bases in Iraq.

 From Iraq, Iran’s direct point of contact with the United States is the Gulf of Oman.

 From the Gulf of Oman to Yemen there is the above mentioned Houthi insurgency. Hence we can see that Iran has a continuity between land and sea that other countries in the region have not.

 We also need to consider Iran’s recently reactivated enrichment of uranium.

 According to some analysts of the RAND Corporation, if it were relevant for the manufacturing of a new series of nuclear weapons – as cannot certainly be ruled out – the chances of a war between the USA and Iran (and hence Israel) would rise by approximately 35%.

 Furthermore, if we witnessed a military clash between the United States, Israel and Iran, the oil barrel price should reach approximately 150 US dollars, but there could also be a share of US oil and natural gas entering again the global market, which would significantly lower the oil barrel price.

 This is unlikely, at least until the next presidential election in 2020.

 Moreover, scientists believe that – considering the current 4.5% rate of uranium enrichment – the nuclear risk of bombing Iran is such that there is no danger of radiation outside the borders.

 What about Russia?

  For Russia Iran is a major bulwark to stop and curb the US power in the Middle East and to influence – from the United States – the world cycle of oil and gas prices, thus indirectly determining Russia’s economy cycles.

 Russia, however, wants to avoid confrontation with the USA in the Middle East.

 Another factor to consider are the sales of the very efficient Russian S-400 anti-missile system, which is already in the Turkish arsenals and will soon be in the Qatari ones.

 Moreover,Russia wants the EU to implement the INSTEX system that can make the European companies avoid the US sanction regime against Iran.

Russia also wants a powerful, autonomous and secular Syrian regime.

 It also wants any possible de-escalation between Iran and Israel.

 This is the system of forces in the field, with all the related variables.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Saudi religious moderation: the world’s foremost publisher of Qur’ans has yet to get the message

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When the religious affairs minister of Guinea-Conakry visited Jeddah last week, his Saudi counterpart gifted him 50,000 Qur’ans.

Saudi Islamic affairs minister Abdullatif Bin Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh offered the holy books as part of his ministry’s efforts to print and distribute them and spread their teachings.

The Qur’ans were produced by the King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur’an, which annually distributes millions of copies. Scholar Nora Derbal asserts that the Qur’ans “perpetuate a distinct Wahhabi reading of the scripture.”

Similarly, Saudi Arabia distributed in Afghanistan in the last years of the US-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani thousands of Qur’ans produced by the printing complex, according to Mr. Ghani’s former education minister, Mirwais Balkhi. Mr. Balkhi indicated that the Qur’ans were identical to those distributed by the kingdom for decades.

Mr. Ghani and Mr. Balkhi fled Afghanistan last year as US troops withdrew from the country and the Taliban took over.

Human Rights Watch and Impact-se, an education-focused Israeli research group, reported last year that Saudi Arabia, pressured for some two decades post-9/11 by the United States and others to remove supremacist references to Jews, Christian, and Shiites in its schoolbooks, had recently made significant progress in doing so.

However, the two groups noted that Saudi Arabia had kept in place fundamental concepts of an ultra-conservative, anti-pluralistic, and intolerant interpretation of Islam.

The same appears true for the world’s largest printer and distributor of Qur’ans, the King Fahd Complex.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has, since his rise in 2015, been primarily focussed on social and economic rather than religious reform.

Mr. Bin Salman significantly enhanced professional and personal opportunities for women, including lifting the ban on women’s driving and loosening gender segregation and enabled the emergence of a Western-style entertainment sector in the once austere kingdom.

Nevertheless, Saudi Islam scholar Besnik Sinani suggests that “state pressure on Salafism in Saudi Arabia will primarily focus on social aspects of Salafi teaching, while doctrinal aspects will probably receive less attention.”

The continued production and distribution of Qur’ans that included unaltered ultra-conservative interpretations sits uneasily with Mr. Bin Salman’s effort to emphasize nationalism rather than religion as the core of Saudi identity and project a more moderate and tolerant image of the kingdom’s Islam.

The Saudi spin is not in the Arabic text of the Qur’an that is identical irrespective of who prints it, but in parenthetical additions, primarily in translated versions, that modify the meaning of specific Qur’anic passages.

Commenting in 2005 on the King Fahd Complex’s English translation, the most widely disseminated Qur’an in the English-speaking world, the late Islam scholar Khaleel Mohammed asserted that it “reads more like a supremacist Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian polemic than a rendition of the Islamic scripture.”

Religion scholar Peter Mandaville noted in a recently published book on decades of Saudi export of ultra-conservative Islam that “it is the kingdom’s outsized role in the printing and distribution of the Qur’an as rendered in other languages that becomes relevant in the present context.”

Ms. Derbal, Mr. Sinani and this author contributed chapters to Mr. Mandaville’s edited volume.

The King Fahd Complex said that it had produced 18 million copies of its various publications in 2017/18 in multiple languages in its most recent production figures. Earlier it reported that it had printed and distributed 127 million copies of the Qur’an in the 22 years between 1985 and 2007. The Complex did not respond to emailed queries on whether parenthetical texts have been recently changed.

The apparent absence of revisions of parenthetical texts reinforces suggestions that Mr. Bin Salman is more concerned about socio-political considerations, regime survival, and the projection of the kingdom as countering extremism and jihadism than he is about reforming Saudi Islam.

It also spotlights the tension between the role Saudi Arabia envisions as the custodian of Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, and the needs of a modern state that wants to attract foreign investment to help ween its economy off dependency on oil exports.

Finally, the continued distribution of Qur’ans with seemingly unaltered commentary speaks to the balance Mr. Bin Salman may still need to strike with the country’s once-powerful religious establishment despite subjugating the clergy to his will.

The continued global distribution of unaltered Qur’an commentary calls into question the sincerity of the Saudi moderation campaign, particularly when juxtaposed with rival efforts by other major Muslim countries to project themselves as beacons of a moderate form of Islam.

Last week, Saudi Arabia’s Muslim World League convened some 100 Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist religious leaders to “establish a set of values common to all major world religions and a vision for enhancing understanding, cooperation, and solidarity amongst world religions.”

Once a major Saudi vehicle for the global propagation of Saudi religious ultra-conservatism, the League has been turned into Mr. Bin Salman’s megaphone. It issues lofty statements and organises high-profile conferences that project Saudi Arabia as a leader of moderation and an example of tolerance.

The League, under the leadership of former justice minister Mohammed al-Issa, has emphasised its outreach to Jewish leaders and communities. Mr. Al-Issa led a delegation of Muslim religious leaders in 2020 on a ground-breaking visit to Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi extermination camp in Poland.

However, there is little evidence, beyond Mr. Al-Issa’s gestures, statements, and engagement with Jewish leaders, that the League has joined in a practical way the fight against anti-Semitism that, like Islamophobia, is on the rise.

Similarly, Saudi moderation has not meant that the kingdom has lifted its ban on building non-Muslim houses of worship on its territory.

The Riyadh conference followed Nahdlatul Ulama’s footsteps, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement with 90 million followers in the world’s largest Muslim majority country and most populous democracy. Nahdlatul Ulama leader Yahya Cholil Staquf spoke at the conference.

In recent years, the Indonesian group has forged alliances with Evangelical entities like the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), Jewish organisations and religious leaders, and various Muslim groups across the globe. Nahdlatul Ulama sees the alliances as a way to establish common ground based on shared humanitarian values that would enable them to counter discrimination and religion-driven prejudice, bigotry, and violence.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept of Humanitarian Islam advocates reform of what it deems “obsolete” and “problematic” elements of Islamic law, including those that encourage segregation, discrimination, and/or violence towards anyone perceived to be a non-Muslim. It further accepts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, unlike the Saudis, without reservations.

The unrestricted embrace of the UN declaration by Indonesia and its largest Muslim movement has meant that conversion, considered to be apostasy under Islamic law, is legal in the Southeast Asian nation. As a result, Indonesia, unlike Middle Eastern states where Christian communities have dwindled due to conflict, wars, and targeted attacks, has witnessed significant growth of its Christian communities.

Christians account for ten percent of Indonesia’s population. Researchers Duane Alexander Miller and Patrick Johnstone reported in 2015 that 6.5 million Indonesian had converted to Christianity since 1960.

That is not to say that Christians and other non-Muslim minorities have not endured attacks on churches, suicide bombings, and various forms of discrimination. The attacks have prompted Nahdlatul Ulama’s five million-strong militia to protect churches in vulnerable areas during holidays such as Christmas. The militia has also trained Christians to enable them to watch over their houses of worship.

Putting its money where its mouth is, a gathering of 20,000 Nahdlatul Ulama religious scholars issued in 2019 a fatwa or religious opinion eliminating the Muslim legal concept of the kafir or infidel.

Twelve years earlier, the group’s then spiritual leader and former Indonesian president Abdurahman Wahid, together with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, organised a conference in the archipelago state to acknowledge the Holocaust and denounce denial of the Nazi genocide against the Jews. The meeting came on the heels of a gathering in Tehran convened by then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that denied the existence of the Holocaust.

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Iran Gives Russia Two and a Half Cheers

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Photo: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Moscow, March 15 2022. Credit: @Amirabdolahian via Twitter.

Iran’s rulers enthusiastically seek to destroy the liberal world order and therefore support Russia’s aggression. But they can’t manage full-throated support.

For Iran, the invasion of Ukraine is closely related to the very essence of the present world order. Much like Russia, Iran has been voicing its discontent at the way the international system has operated since the end of the Cold War. More broadly, Iran and Russia see the world through strikingly similar lenses. Both keenly anticipate the end of the multipolar world and the end of the West’s geopolitical preponderance.

Iran had its reasons to think this way. The US unipolar moment after 1991 provoked a deep fear of imminent encirclement, with American bases in Afghanistan and Iraq cited as evidence. Like Russia, the Islamic Republic views itself as a separate civilization that needs to be not only acknowledged by outside players, but also to be given ana suitable geopolitical space to project influence.

Both Russia and Iran are very clear about their respective spheres of influence. For Russia, it is the territories that once constituted the Soviet empire. For Iran, it is the contiguous states reaching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean — Iraq, Syria, Lebanon — plus Yemen. When the two former imperial powers have overlapping strategic interests such as, for instance, in the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea, they apply the concept of regionalism. This implies the blocking out of non-regional powers from exercising outsize economic and military influence, and mostly revolves around an order dominated by the powers which border on a region.

This largely explains why Iran sees the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity that, if successful, could hasten the end of the liberal world order. This is why it has largely toed the Russian line and explained what it describes as legitimate motives behind the invasion. Thus the expansion of NATO into eastern Europe was cited as having provoked Russian moves. “The root of the crisis in Ukraine is the US policies that create the crisis, and Ukraine is one victim of these policies,” argued Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei following the invasion.

To a certain degree, Iran’s approach to Ukraine has been also influenced by mishaps in bilateral relations which largely began with the accidental downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet by Iranian surface-to-air missiles in January 2020, killing 176 people. The regime first denied responsibility, and later blamed human error.

Iran, like several other of Russia’s friends and defenders,  the ideal scenario would have been a quick war in which the Kremlin achieved its major goals.

Protracted war, however, sends a bad signal. It signals that the liberal order was not in such steep decline after all, and that Russia’s calls for a new era in international relations have been far from realistic. The unsuccessful war also shows Iran that the collective West still has very significant power and — despite well-aired differences — an ability to rapidly coalesce to defend the existing rules-based order. Worse, for these countries, the sanctions imposed on Russia go further; demonstrating the West’s ability to make significant economic sacrifices to make its anger felt. In other words, Russia’s failure in Ukraine actually strengthened the West and made it more united than at any point since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US.

A reinvigorated liberal order is the last thing that Iran wants, given its own troubled relations with the collective West. The continuing negotiations on a revived nuclear deal will be heavily impacted by how Russia’s war proceeds, and how the US and EU continue to respond to the aggression. Iran fears that a defeated Russia might be so angered as to use its critical position to endanger the talks, vital to the lifting of the West’s crippling sanctions.

And despite rhetorical support for Russia, Iran has been careful not to overestimate Russia’s power. It is now far from clear that the Kremlin has achieved its long-term goal of “safeguarding” its western frontier. Indeed, the Putin regime may have done the opposite now that it has driven Finland and Sweden into the NATO fold. Western sanctions on Russia are likely to remain for a long time, threatening long-term Russian economic (and possible regime) stability.

Moreover, Russia’s fostering of separatist entities (following the recognition of the so called Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” and other breakaway entities in Georgia and Moldova) is a highly polarizing subject in Iran. True there has been a shift toward embracing Russia’s position over Ukraine, but Iran remains deeply committed to the “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the affairs of other states and territorial integrity. This is hardly surprising given its own struggles against potential separatism in the peripheries of the country.

Many Iranians also sympathize with Ukraine’s plight, which for some evokes Iran’s defeats in the early 19th century wars when Qajars had to cede the eastern part of the South Caucasus to Russia. This forms part of a historically deeply rooted, anti-imperialist sentiment in Iran.

Iran is therefore likely to largely abstain from endorsing Russia’s separatist ambitions in Eastern Ukraine. It will also eschew, where possible, support for Russia in international forums. Emblematic of this policy was the March 2 meeting in the United Nations General Assembly when Iran, rather than siding with Russia, abstained from the vote which condemned the invasion.

Russia’s poor military performance, and the West’s ability to act unanimously, serve as a warning for the Islamic Republic that it may one day have to soak up even more Western pressure if Europe, the US, and other democracies act in union.

In the meantime, like China, Iran will hope to benefit from the magnetic pull of the Ukraine war. With so much governmental, military and diplomatic attention demanded by the conflict, it will for the time being serve as a distraction from Iran’s ambitions elsewhere. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Ignoring the Middle East at one’s peril: Turkey plays games in NATO

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Image source: NATO

Amid speculation about a reduced US military commitment to security in the Middle East, Turkey has spotlighted the region’s ability to act as a disruptive force if its interests are neglected.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan set off alarm bells this week, declaring that he was not “positive” about possible Finnish and Swedish applications for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

NATO membership is contingent on a unanimous vote in favour by the organisation’s 30 members. Turkey has NATO’s second-largest standing army. 

The vast majority of NATO members appear to endorse Finnish and Swedish membership. NATO members hope to approve the applications at a summit next month.

A potential Turkish veto would complicate efforts to maintain trans-Atlantic unity in the face of the Russian invasion.

Mr. Erdogan’s pressure tactics mirror the maneuvers of his fellow strongman, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban. Mr. Orban threatens European Union unity by resisting a bloc-wide boycott of Russian energy.

Earlier, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia rejected US requests to raise oil production in an effort to lower prices and help Europe reduce its dependence on Russian energy.

The two Gulf states appear to have since sought to quietly backtrack on their refusal.

In late April, France’s TotalEnergies chartered a tanker to load Abu Dhabi crude in early May for Europe, the first such shipment in two years.

Saudi Arabia has quietly used its regional pricing mechanisms to redirect from Asia to Europe Arab “medium,” the Saudi crude that is the closest substitute for the main Russian export blend, Urals, for which European refineries are configured.

Mr. Erdogan linked his NATO objection to alleged Finnish and Swedish support for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which has been designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States, and the EU.

The PKK has waged a decades-long insurgency in southeast Turkey in support of Kurds’ national, ethnic, and cultural rights. Kurds account for up to 20 per cent of the country’s 84 million population.

Turkey has recently pounded PKK positions in northern Iraq in a military operation named Operation Claw Lock

Turkey is at odds with the United States over American support for Syrian Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State. Turkey asserts that America’s Syrian Kurdish allies are aligned with the PKK.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned that Turkey opposes a US decision this week to exempt from sanctions against Syria regions controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

“This is a selective and discriminatory move,” Mr. Cavusoglu said, noting that the exemption did not include Kurdish areas of Syria controlled by Turkey and its Syrian proxies.

Referring to the NATO membership applications, Mr. Erdogan charged that “Scandinavian countries are like some kind of guest house for terrorist organisations. They’re even in parliament.”

Mr. Erdogan’s objections relate primarily to Sweden, with Finland risking becoming collateral damage.

Sweden is home to a significant Kurdish community and hosts Europe’s top Kurdish soccer team that empathises with the PKK and Turkish Kurdish aspirations. In addition, six Swedish members of parliament are ethnic Kurds.

Turkey scholar Howard Eissenstat suggested that Turkey’s NATO objection may be a turning point. “Much of Turkey’s strategic flexibility has come from the fact that its priorities are seen as peripheral issues for its most important Western allies. Finnish and Swedish entry into NATO, in the current context, absolutely not peripheral,” Mr. Eissenstat tweeted.

The Turkish objection demonstrates the Middle East’s potential to derail US and European policy in other parts of the world.

Middle Eastern states walk a fine line when using their potential to disrupt to achieve political goals of their own. The cautious backtracking on Ukraine-related oil supplies demonstrates the limits and/or risks of Middle Eastern brinkmanship.

So does the fact that Ukraine has moved NATO’s center of gravity to northern Europe and away from its southern flank, which Turkey anchors.

Moreover, Turkey risks endangering significant improvements in its long-strained relations with the United States.

Turkish mediation in the Ukraine crisis and military support for Ukraine prompted US President Joe Biden to move ahead with plans to upgrade Turkey’s fleet of F-16 fighter planes and discuss selling it newer, advanced  F-16 models even though Turkey has neither condemned Russia nor imposed sanctions.

Some analysts suggest Turkey may use its objection to regain access to the United States’ F-35 fighter jet program. The US cancelled in 2019 a sale of the jet to Turkey after the NATO member acquired Russia’s S-400 anti-missile defence system.

Mr. Erdogan has “done this kind of tactic before. He will use it as leverage to get a good deal for Turkey,” said retired US Navy Admiral James Foggo, dean of the Center for Maritime Strategy.

A top aide to Mr. Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, appeared to confirm Mr. Foggo’s analysis.

“We are not closing the door. But we are basically raising this issue as a matter of national security for Turkey,” Mr. Kalin said, referring to the Turkish leader’s NATO remarks. “Of course, we want to have a discussion, a negotiation with Swedish counterparts.”

Spelling out Turkish demands, Mr. Kalin went on to say that “what needs to be done is clear: they have to stop allowing PKK outlets, activities, organisations, individuals and other types of presence to…exist in those countries.”

Mr. Erdogan’s brinkmanship may have its limits, but it illustrates that one ignores the Middle East at one’s peril.

However, engaging Middle Eastern autocrats does not necessarily mean ignoring their rampant violations of human rights and repression of freedoms.

For the United States and Europe, the trick will be developing a policy that balances accommodating autocrats’, at times, disruptive demands, often aimed at ensuring regime survival, with the need to remain loyal to democratic values amid a struggle over whose values will underwrite a 21st-century world order.

However, that would require a degree of creative policymaking and diplomacy that seems to be a rare commodity.

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