Iran and Turkey need more than desperate moves to face the US

Neither Iran nor Turkey has multi-option strategies. They only have one-option strategies.
Sunday 19/08/2018
An Iranian woman walks past a mural depicting a gun painted on the wall of the former US embassy in Tehran, on August 7. (AFP)
Backfiring policies. An Iranian woman walks past a mural depicting a gun painted on the wall of the former US embassy in Tehran, on August 7. (AFP)

When it comes to relations with the United States, Iran and Turkey are relying more and more on “single-option” policies. They are desperately clutching at straws, as the saying goes.

Every time the United States draws the net a little tighter on the Iranian regime, the only choice for Iran is to hang on to the nuclear deal. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan can’t find anything to blackmail the Americans with except the case of pastor Andrew Brunson.

It has become clear that economic sanctions are going to be the big stick with which the Americans intend to keep the Islamists of the region in line. The Trump administration has concluded that the problem is not with the Islamists’ branches but rather their source.

Washington is not really irked by Iran’s sticking with the nuclear deal or by Brunson’s continued detention. Of course, US President Donald Trump would like to see the pastor freed and returned to the United States with the right pomp and circumstances just in time for the US elections in November but the US government agencies have a different opinion.

With Iran, the more it stays in the deal, the more sanctions the United States can impose on it and the more painful they become for the Iranians.

Brunson’s detention was a stroke of luck for the US administration. It provided a cover of legitimacy for sanctions the administration imposed on two Turkish ministers and for doubling tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminium imports to the United States. The Americans needed justifications for their unprecedented act of sanctioning a NATO ally. So, Erdogan’s stubbornness is good news for the Americans.

The other NATO members have not even criticised the US actions against Turkey. There is no mystery there because Erdogan has hardly any friends left in Europe to take his side. They simply stood by as he took a political slap. Erdogan’s case may be personal for Trump but for the US agencies, it was strategic.

Erdogan failed to understand that the pressure he put on the Syrian Kurds and the US military bases east of the Euphrates had a direct effect on the US strategic planning for the area. Reducing the number of bases or withdrawing certain personnel and equipment just to please Turkey would result in several holes in the US strategic deployment in the Middle East.

Erdogan’s rebellious tone and his exaggerated rhetoric were not helping. All they did was turn the US-Turkish disagreement into a personal issue for Trump. In any case, whether for personal or strategic reasons, it has become necessary for the Americans to punish Turkey.

So, if Iran and Turkey see in the nuclear deal and the detention of a pastor, respectively, as the straw to grasp for their safety, Washington considers both situations as rocks with which it will drown the extremist regimes in both countries.

There is no doubt the post-world war two liberal world order is being ripped apart and reassembled on new bases. The United States and its European allies don’t see eye-to-eye on many issues, such as the position to take with respect to Russia, the Iranian deal and US protective trade measures.

It is not true that this is a Western problem only. The Middle East will witness fundamental changes following the shift of this world order, even if those features, as usual, will be decided by the West.

It was pure chance that Iran and Turkey became the key variables of the equations for a new Middle East. The outcome of the West’s tug of war with Iran and Turkey will set the path for the region for many decades.

If Iran and Turkey could hold until a new Middle East takes shape or if they could manoeuvre to force the American side to make concessions, then they will become the only two forces in the region which, along with Israel, could give shape to the power equation in the region. They won’t have any Arab competitor.

However, if they fall in their struggle with the United States, then the region will need an Arab coalition to fill the void or fall prey to chaos.

The problem is that neither Iran nor Turkey has multi-option strategies. They only have one-option strategies, which, frankly, do not impress the American side in any way. Both countries look like they have their backs to the wall and are taking punches without even thinking of punching back.

Erdogan wants to avoid Turkey serving as the example to other US allies in the region of what to expect in case they dare cross the United States. US officials have noticed a growing desire on the part of America’s allies in the region, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to take the initiative of defending their own interests without paying attention to Washington’s views or objectives.

If this tendency towards independence among America’s allies in the region, even if it were only in appearance, is left unchecked, then the new Middle East order runs the risk of becoming based on decentralised decisions and moving away from international control. If that happens, the United States risks losing its role as policeman of the world, a role that was fundamental in shaping the post-world war two balance of power.

The Middle East is a miniature model for the changes going on worldwide. In the Trump era, international politics is based on crossing allies and befriending former enemies. This is also what we are seeing in the Middle East. Trump is offering to negotiate with Tehran, Washington’s enemy, but is tightening the screws on Ankara, Washington’s ally. Surely, both Iran and Turkey will need more than two straws to stay afloat.

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