Washington and the Saudi-Iranian-Turkish axis

Sunday 31/07/2016

Many are viewing crises in the Middle East through the prism of a US-Iranian rapprochement that has upended the regional status quo. Will this emerging reality ultimately lead to greater stability or more conflict and chaos?

The recent coup attempt in Turkey is one sign of the new status quo, with Turkey accusing Washington, and particularly US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, of being responsible.

Although the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was a major step forward in terms of relations between Tehran and the P5+1 world powers, there are outstanding issues between the United States and Iran that need to be addressed.

Despite this, there is real effort from both sides to develop a strategic relationship in the region, including on issues that are major sources of dispute. The building of bridges of trust in terms of coordination between the United States and Iran in Iraq has seen Washington agree to send 560 more soldiers to assist the Iraqis, who are being supported by Iran-backed militias, in the liberation of territory held by the Islamic State (ISIS).

Shia religious figures in Iraq are saying that the US change of tack is based on Washington’s view of Shia Islam, as opposed to Sunni Islam, which is practiced — albeit in a radical form — by jihadists such as ISIS and its ilk. This could encourage Tehran and Washington to increase cooperation in the fight against terrorism and broaden security cooperation and coordination in other areas.

Therefore, it is easy to understand Washington’s increasing unease towards the role of Turkey, which is ruled by the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) that seems to want to play a larger role in the Middle East. There is also Ankara’s conflict with armed Kurdish groups, the same ones that are US allies in the war against ISIS.

The nuclear agreement helped both sides, providing much-needed sanctions relief to a beleaguered Iranian economy in return for Iranian security cooperation with the United States in the Middle East. This rapprochement has served both countries’ strategic interests.

This is how US President Barack Obama has succeeded in bringing a country that had been a pillar of predecessor George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” in from the cold. This is the same strategy that Obama used to produce a new policy towards Cuba and reveals how he has sought to upend existing foreign policy to create a new web of alliances.

Ultimately, the United States under Obama seems to be trying to neutralise its old enemies however it can, although this does not take into account non-state actors such as ISIS. This is reminiscent of Turkey’s “zero enemies” policy put forward by former Foreign minister and prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

As the relationship between Washington and Tehran becomes closer, so the relationship between the United States and the region’s other main power, Saudi Arabia, worsens. The same could be argued about Washington’s relationship with Ankara.

This, of course, is stoking Arab Gulf anger towards Washington, although without spilling into outright hostility and there has been increasing criticism of the US president. According to most Sunni Arabs, rapprochement with Iran is taking place at the expense of Arab interests.

As for what the future holds, that will depend entirely on who is the next occupant of the White House. Riyadh is biding its time until the end of the Obama administration, particularly as many Arabs blame Obama for the chaos throughout the region. Only time will tell what awaits the region from a President Hillary Clinton or a President Donald Trump.