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Turkey, Iran and the new Middle East equilibria

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It should never be forgotten that, since the sixth century AD, the displacement of Turkish tribes to Persian territories has generated a Turkish diaspora to Iran, which now accounts for approximately half of the current Iranian population.

Obviously the Turkish Shiites in Iran have always been in favour of a stable peace between the two countries, as early as the “Peace of Zuhab” signed in 1639, which defined the borders between the two countries.

 The stable and continuous relations between modern Iran and Turkey returned to a relative splendor with the rise to power of Erdogan’s AKP in 2002 – a party originated from the Turkish Muslim Brotherhood.

That was the start not only of the neo-Ottoman  foreign policy and the new importance of Central Asia in Turkey’s power projection, but also of the idea of Davutoglu, the Foreign Minister of Erdogan’s first government, who theorized the principle of “no contrast with  neighbours”.

While previously Turkey was projected – in an objectively anomalous way -onto the European West and the Western Mediterranean region, from the Balkans to Italy, Davutoglu’s “moderate Islam” (just to use one of the most well-known nonsense of Western geopolitical jargon) is interested in Asia, in the pan-Turkish reconstruction of a new Turkish influence, going precisely from Iran to China’s borders and beyond, towards the Islamic Xinjiang of Turkish ethnicity.

 Alongside this original commitment to Central Asia, Erdogan uses the new Turkish international prestige to create his own independent actions in the Middle East.

A de facto agreement between Iran and Turkey has been reached in Syria, especially considering the Kurdish claims, which dangerously affect both Turkey and Iran.

While the Iraqi Kurds become independent, consequently Iran witnesses a reduced influence of the Iraqi Shiites. Hence there is also a reduction of the Iranian influence on  Iraq, which has long been an actual enclave of Iran.

 Furthermore, for Turkey, the agreement with Iran and the Russian Federation is a mandatory way for closing the  Kurdish PKK’s leeway in Syria – a party supported, like the other factions of the Kurdish people, mainly by the United States.

 Both Iran and Turkey do not acknowledge and recognize the result of the 2017 Kurdish referendum, which regarded the independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan.

 It was precisely in that year that a stable military alliance between Turkey and Iran was designed, with a meeting between the respective Chiefs of Staff.

 An alliance that also regarded possible common actions.

  The two countries also have Islamic opponents. In particular, both Iran and Turkey fear the creation of a new axis between Saudi Arabia, Emirates and Egypt, supported by the USA – an axis that is above all against Turley, considering its interest in the Persian Gulf and Africa (with the Maghreb region) and is certainly also against Iran.

Moreover, while Turkey has made the most of the new space created by the US madness of the Arab Springs, Iran  has correctly analysed the Arab Springs, above all as a threat to itself, to its security and to its interests in the Arab and Islamic world.

It should also be recalled that the beginning of the war in Syria led to a deterioration of the relations between Turkey and Iran: the former openly supported the Sunni insurgency against Bashar al-Assad, even supplying soldiers and weapons to the “rebel” groups, while the latter was, from the beginning, on Bashar’ side.

Currently, however, the strategic calculations are evidently in favour of an alliance between the two countries.

 There is still an economic link between Turkey and Iran, which is not particularly strong: Iran supplies 20% of the natural gas and 30% of the oil used in Turkey.

Nevertheless, non-oil trade between the two countries is still worth less than 10 billion US dollars a year.

Furthermore there is still a not negligible strategic dispute, namely Idlib. It is still in the hands of the Jihadist “rebels”, whom Turkey supports while Iran besieges. Whoever prevails in Idlib – even with Russia’s hegemonic presence – will have a sort of “mortmain” on the rest of Syria in the regional clash between Turkey and Iran.

 In Iraq, Turkey also tends to protect the Sunni minority population, while Iran has now the actual power in the majority Shiite Iraq.

 Turkey has always played many complex roles in Iraq, even before the US victory in the war against Saddam Hussein.

 Turkey, however, has always refused pressure, even from the United States, to tie itself to the Sunni producers of the Gulf, to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. It has always planned strong diversification of its crude oil imports, also with purchases from Iran, which implies an inevitable strategic correlation with Iran.

 Not to mention the fact that Iran has a great plan at strategic and energy levels, i.e. to permanently avoid the Gulf of Hormuz and make most of the natural gas and oil it extracts transit through the Turkish territory, which would avoid any possible blackmail by Saudi Arabia and its allies, be they Islamic or not.

With specific reference to the relations between Turkey and the United States – the other inevitable factor of the Turkish strategic dilemma – so far the latter has not offset, with its economic power, the damage to Turkey resulting from sanctions against Iran.

Furthermore, noone – apart from the EU and only to a limited extent – has yet provided any support to the Turkish economic and political “effort” of having to manage 3.6 million Syrian refugees who have remained on Turkey’s territory.

 Therefore, the United States absolutely needs to use Turkey – the second NATO military force after the USA – as a bulwark against Iran. Turkey, however, absolutely needs also Iran from the energy viewpoint and for settling  the Kurdish issue between Syria and Iraq.

As already seen, the trade-off between Turkey and Iran is simple: the Shiite Republic supports – with a favourable flow of oil and gas – the Turkish economy, which the USA does not want or can no longer back, while Turkey is now Iran’s only safe passage to avoid the sanctions imposed by the USA on oil and natural gas.

Hence, if the alliance between Iran and Turkey becomes economically relevant, we can no longer imagine scenarios capable of enabling the USAto have a direct and successful contrast with Iran.

 In Syria – the conflict that will determine and distribute the new strategic potentials in the Middle East and in the rest of the world – Turkey endeavoured with Saudi Arabia to create the “rebel” group Jaish Al Fatahin 2015, but the Russian intervention immediately made Saudi Arabia lose any  interest in Syria and forced Turkey to focus  its interest, in Syria, only on the Kurds of the YPG.

Once again, however, we record a gradual divergence of interests between Saudi Arabia and Turkey: while the former started the great exclusion of Qatar – the substantial economic ally of Iran  – in June 2017, also with the US collaboration, the latter immediately supported Qatar.

It did so also with the construction of a new Turkish military base in Qatar.

 Immediately after Turkey’s support for Qatar – also at material level -Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Emirates met at a high level precisely with the leaders of the Kurdish YPG.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia financially supported the Kurds in Raqqa and in the other Syrian areas freed from Isis with the YPG weapons. This is certainly an infra-Islamic clash mainly regarding the freedom of passage towards the European markets, as well as the Turkish or Saudi hegemony in the Maghreb region, made porous, pervious and unstable as a result of the US-sponsored Arab springs or of the insane masochism of some European powers.

Meanwhile, Turkey is trying to expand its influence out of the Middle East, with a view to influencing it from outside.

In this case, the primary focus for Turkey is Pakistan. There was already a “High Level Dialogue” between the military leaders of the two countries, operating since 2003, but Pakistan fully trusts Turkey, one of the very few Islamic countries that did not leave Pakistan alone in the worst of times.

  Also in those times when the US support was lacking.

Turkey has explicitly and, possibly, directly supported the “country of the pure” in its territorial and political claims in Kashmir, in exchange for Pakistan’s technical and intelligence support with regard to the Kurdish issue.

 Also the exchange of weapons between Turkey and Pakistan is remarkable – mainly Turkish heavy weapons, helicopters, aircraft and tanks.

 Also in this case, Turkey has managed to get into a context of bilateral relations between the USA and Pakistan that were very tense, especially after the killing of Osama Bin Laden by the US Special Forces in Abbottabad.

Moreover, Turkey always pursues its commercial aims  by stimulating, at the beginning, the exchange of weapon systems.

 Reverting to the link between Turkey and Iran, as recently said by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the sanctions on Iranian oil, which often transits through the Turkish territory, are worth at least 50 billion US dollars a year, with a sanction-related direct loss of at least 10 billion US dollars.

The US overt aim is to eliminate all Iranian oil exports.

Cui prodest? Firstly, the block of Iranian oil exports greatly favours the North American producers that now sell at least 2,575 barrels a day.

 The USA is currently the major producer of crude oil in the world and it is slightly ahead of both Saudi Arabia and the  Russian Federation.

 Secondly, the sanctions against Iran also favour Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni producers in the Gulf, that would  cover – with their oil – the market previously held by Iran.

 And, from the very beginning, China and Turkey have been the harshest opponents of the US sanctions.

 The two largest consumers of Iranian oil and the two countries that are building – with due slowness – two geopolitical areas which are increasingly far from the possible operations and influence of the United States.

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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Middle East

China-US and the Iran nuclear deal

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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian that Beijing would firmly support a resumption of negotiations on a nuclear pact [China Media Group-CCTV via Reuters]

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with  Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi on Friday, January 14, 2022 in the city of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu province.  Both of them discussed a gamut of issues pertaining to the Iran-China relationship, as well as the security situation in the Middle East.

A summary of the meeting published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry underscored the point, that Foreign Ministers of Iran and China agreed on the need for  strengthening bilateral cooperation in a number of areas under the umbrella of the 25 year Agreement known as ‘Comprehensive Cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China’. This agreement had been signed between both countries in March 2021 during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani, but the Iranian Foreign Minister announced the launch of the agreement on January 14, 2022.

During the meeting between Wang Yi and Hossein Amir Abdollahian there was a realization of the fact, that cooperation between both countries needed to be enhanced not only in areas like energy and infrastructure (the focus of the 25 year comprehensive cooperation was on infrastructure and energy), but also in other spheres like education, people to people contacts, medicine and agriculture. Iran also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and said that it firmly supported the One China policy.

The timing of this visit is interesting, Iran is in talks with other signatories (including China) to the JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal 2015 for the revival of the 2015 agreement. While Iran has asked for removal of economic sanctions which were imposed by the US after it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the US has said that time is running out, and it is important for Iran to return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement.  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview said

‘Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon’

The US Secretary of State also indicated, that if the negotiations were not successful, then US would explore other options along with other allies.

During the course of the meeting on January 14, 2022 Wang Yi is supposed to have told his Chinese counterpart, that while China supported negotiations for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal 2015, the onus for revival was on the US since it had withdrawn in 2018.

The visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to China was also significant, because Foreign Ministers of four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — and Secretary General of GCC,  Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf were in China from January 10-14, 2022 with the aim of expanding bilateral ties – especially with regard to energy cooperation and trade. According to many analysts, the visit of GCC officials to China was driven not just by economic factors, but also the growing proximity between Iran and Beijing.

In conclusion, China is important for Iran from an economic perspective. Iran has repeatedly stated, that if US does not remove the economic sanctions it had imposed in 2018, it will focus on strengthening economic links with China (significantly, China has been purchasing oil from Iran over the past three years in spite of the sanctions imposed by the US. The Ebrahim Raisi administration has repeatedly referred to an ‘Asia centric’ policy which prioritises ties with China.

Beijing is seeking to enhance its clout in the Middle East as US ties with certain members of the GCC, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia have witnessed a clear downward spiral in recent months (US has been uncomfortable with the use of China’s 5G technology by UAE and the growing security linkages between Beijing and Saudi Arabia). One of the major economic reasons for the GCC gravitating towards China is Washington’s thrust on reducing its dependence upon GCC for fulfilling its oil needs. Beijing can utilize its good ties with Iran and GCC and play a role in improving links between both.

The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is likely to become more complex, and while there is not an iota of doubt, that the US influence in the Middle East is likely to remain intact, China is fast catching up.

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Middle East

Egypt vis-à-vis the UAE: Who is Driving Whom?

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Image source: atalayar.com

“Being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a little fish in a large pond” is a maxim that aptly summarizes Egyptian regional foreign policy over the past few decades. However, the blow dealt to the Egyptian State in the course of the 2011 uprising continues to distort its domestic and regional politics and it has also prompted the United Arab Emirates to become heavily engaged in Middle East politics, resulting in the waning of Egypt’s dominant role in the region!

The United Arab Emirates is truly an aspirational, entrepreneurial nation! In fact, the word “entrepreneurship” could have been invented to define the flourishing city of Dubai. The UAE has often declared that as a small nation, it needs to establish alliances to pursue its regional political agenda while Egypt is universally recognized for its regional leadership, has one of the best regional military forces, and has always charmed the Arab world with its soft power. Nonetheless, collaboration between the two nations would not necessarily give rise to an entrepreneurial supremacy force! 

Egypt and the UAE share a common enemy: political Islamists. Yet each nation has its own distinct dynamic and the size of the political Islamist element in each of the two countries is different. The UAE is a politically stable nation and an economic pioneer with a small population – a combination of factors that naturally immunize the nation against the spread of political Islamists across the region. In contrast, Egypt’s economic difficulties, overpopulation, intensifying political repression, along with its high illiteracy rate, constitute an accumulation of elements that serves to intensify the magnitude of the secreted, deep-rooted, Egyptian political Islamists.

The alliance formed between the two nations following the inauguration of Egypt’s President Al Sisi was based on UAE money and Egyptian power. It supported and helped expand the domestic political power of a number of unsubstantiated Arab politicians, such as Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and the Chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, Lieutenant-General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan. The common denominator among these politicians is that they are all fundamentally opposed to political Islamists.

Although distancing political Islamists from ruling their nations may constitute a temporary success, it certainly is not enough to strengthen the power of the alliance’s affiliates. The absence of true democracy, intensified repression by Arab rulers and the natural evolution of Arab citizens towards freedom will, for better or for worse, lead to the re-emergence of political Islamists. Meanwhile, Emirati wealth will always attract Arab hustlers ready to offer illusory political promises to cash in the money.   

The UAE has generously injected substantial amounts of money into the Egyptian economy and consequently the Egyptian State has exclusively privileged Emirati enterprises with numerous business opportunities, yet the UAE has not helped Egypt with the most critical regional threat it is confronting: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s exaggerated fascination with UAE modernization has prompted him to duplicate many Emirati projects – building the tallest tower in Africa is one example.

The UAE’s regional foreign policy that hinges upon exploiting its wealth to confront the political Islamist threat is neither comprehensible nor viable. The Emirates, in essence, doesn’t have the capacity to be a regional political player, even given the overriding of Egypt’s waning power. Meanwhile, Al Sisi has been working to depoliticize Egypt completely, perceiving Egypt as an encumbrance rather than a resource-rich nation – a policy that has resulted in narrowing Egypt’s economic and political aspirations, limiting them to the constant seeking of financial aid from wealthy neighbors.

The regional mediating role that Egypt used to play prior to the Arab uprising has been taken over by European nations such France, Germany and Italy, in addition of course to the essential and ongoing role of the United States. Profound bureaucracy and rampant corruption will always keep Egypt from becoming a second UAE! Irrespective of which nation is in the driver’s seat, this partnership has proven to be unsuccessful. Egypt is definitely better off withdrawing from the alliance, even at the expense of forgoing Emirati financial support.

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Middle East

Kurdish Education in Turkey: A Joint Responsibility

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Turkish elites often see Kurds as posing a mortal threat to their homeland’s territorial integrity. Kurdish elites often harbor pan-Kurdish dreams of their own.

Modern Turkish nationalism based its identity on statist secularism practiced by Muslims who are Turks. The secularist paradigm of a “Turkish Nation” struggled hard with accommodating Christians (Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians) and Kurdish-speaking Muslims. Kurdish coreligionists were expected to become Turks, i.e., to abandon their cultural heritage for the “greater good” of a homogenous Turkish nation.

This cultural-identity conundrum led to a century-long violent conflict, but also to genuine efforts by many Kurds and Turks to reach a common vision that would accommodate both Turkey’s territorial integrity and Kurdish cultural rights.

The rise to power of Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 appeared to imply a watershed, bringing about a measure of cultural liberalization toward the Kurds. More Islam seemed at first to signal less nationalistic chauvinism.

IMPACT-se, a think tank focusing on peace and tolerance in school education, pointed out in “Two Languages One Country,” a 2019 report that showed liberal elements being introduced in the Turkish curriculum by the AKP government. These “included the introduction of a Kurdish language elective program, the teaching of evolution, expressions of cultural openness, and displays of tolerance toward minorities.”

And while no open debate was permitted, IMPACT-se noted “a slight improvement over past textbooks in recognizing the Kurds, although they are still generally ignored.” Yet, the name “Kurd” is no longer obliterated from the curriculum. Kurdish-language textbooks were authored as part of a wider Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement.

In June 2012, the Turkish government announced for the first time, that a Kurdish elective language course entitled: “Living Languages and Dialects” (Yaşayan Diller ve Lehçeler), would be offered as an elective language for Grades 5–7 for two hours per week.

IMPACT-se studied these textbooks (published in 2014 and 2015 in Kurmanji and Zazaki) in its report  and found that the elective Kurdish-language program strengthens Kurdish culture and identity, while assuming a pan-Kurdish worldview devoid of hate against Turks. Included are Kurdish-historic places in Turkey, Iran and Iraq (but not Syria). The textbooks cover issues such as the Kurdish diaspora in Europe, the Kurdish national holiday of Newroz, with the underlying revolutionary message of uprising against tyranny. Children’s names are exclusively Kurdish. Turks and Turkey are not represented in the elective Kurdish books (but are obviously present across the rest of the curriculum).

The latter is a surprising and counter-intuitive finding. Textbooks published by Turkey’s Ministry of Education focus solely on the Kurdish side, with pan-Kurdish messaging, and no Turkish context. There could be several explanations for this, but the fact remains that Turkish-Kurdish relations are still not present in Turkey’s Kurdish language program.

The overall conclusion of IMPACT-se has been that this program is pioneering and generally excellent. There are some problems, however. One problem is that the elective program is minimalistic and does not meet Kurdish cultural needs. However, the program ignores the Turkish-Kurdish dilemma, hence projecting an inverted mirror image of the Turkish curriculum at large, which ignores the Kurdish question. There is no peace education in either curriculum. Therefore, IMPACT-se recommended enhancing the Kurdish-language program, while adding a healthy dose of pertinent peace education to the curriculum’s Turkish and Kurdish textbooks.

Sadly, the last few years have also seen broader moves by the Turkish government to quash Kurdish cultural and educational freedoms. The armed conflict between separatist groups and the Turkish military resumed in 2015, followed by the 2016 detention of high-ranking officials of the peaceful pro-minority People’s Democratic Party (HDP). By 2020, 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors on the HDP ticket in previous years had been forced out or arrested by security forces.

Simultaneously, elective programs such as Kurdish have been neglected and largely replaced by religious “elective” courses, which are often mandatory. Specifically, elective Kurdish courses are being clamped down or de facto erased in certain schools (despite being originally offered in 28 cities and with an expected enrollment as high as 160,000).

And then there is the question of full education in Kurdish. Article 42 of the Turkish Constitution bans the “teaching of any language other than Turkish as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institution of education.” And yet, Turkish authorities looked the other way between 2013 and 2016, as five fully Kurdish elementary private schools were opened in the southeastern provinces of Diyarbakır, Şırnak and Hakkari. The last of these schools, Ferzad Kemanger in Diyarbakır, was closed on October 9, 2016. Apparently these schools conveyed pan-Kurdish messaging (Ferzad Kemanger was an Iranian-Kurdish elementary school teacher. He was wrongly accused of being a terrorist and executed by Tehran in 2010).

There can be no Kurdish heritage without Kurdish languages, making the current situation untenable. Kurdish education should become a priority again.

But this is not enough. A common Turkish-Kurdish vision should be developed. Educationally, a serious effort should be directed toward educating both Turks and Kurds about the other’s identity, culture, shared history, commonalties, conflicts and interactions. 

Two ethnicities sharing one homeland in a volatile region pose a great challenge for both. A careful educational plan can lay the groundwork for peace and prosperity. Kurdish education in Turkey should be considered a joint responsibility leading to a common vision.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect an official position of IMPACT-se.

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