Turkey, Iran, Israel: The Mideast’s Strategic Horizon

I can’t remember the last time I read something as cogently argued about the current strategic landscape in the Middle East as this Washington Quarterly article (.pdf) by Alistair Crooke. Avoiding the typical hysteria and alarmism often on display in such analyses, Crooke sketches out the tectonic shifts that are inexorably driving the emergence of Turkey, Iran and to a lesser extent Syria as the new arc of influence in the region — what Crooke calls the “Northern Tier.” As Ben Katcher observes, the article overlaps quite a bit with Stephen Kinzer’s thesis, as well.

The obvious temptation is to read this, as Kinzer seems to, as an exclusive either/or choice for the U.S. between Turkey and Iran on the one hand, and Israel and Saudi Arabia on the other. For now, Turkey seems the only actor involved that is avoiding that trap.

What’s interesting, though, is the way in which the Turkey-Iran “axis,” to the extent it will solidify, recreates the U.S. regional alignment pre-1979, only with the element of Islam returned to the mix (more prominently in Iran, of course). Perhaps that element really will make it impossible to recreate a stable regional triangle that includes Israel, with the U.S. as an offshore guarantor.

Still, call me a hopeless optimist, but of the four regional powers involved, the only real irreconciliable that I see is Saudi Arabia. That’s why the understandable but myopic obstacles to an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord are so maddening. From a strategic point of view, Israel is attacking the leaves (Hamas-fired missiles from Gaza) instead of the roots (Iran). The answer, though, isn’t a military showdown, but a political settlement. For now, the balance of power — as opposed to influence — still favors Israel, but time is not on its side.

As for those who think this will emerge as a West vs. East divide, I’d suggest that the diminishing relevance of the Atlantic alliance will over time lead to a corresponding decrease in Europe’s commitment to Israel. Which means that a realistic scenario for 10 years from now could have Turkey as an EU member, transiting Iranian gas to European markets.

As Kinzer says, this kind of radical shift in alliance structures can’t happen overnight, but they do depend on a big idea to catalyze them. Which is why it’s worth keeping in mind that the strategic architecture he’s talking about as the endgame did in fact exist in the past. It’s obvious that Turkish strategic thinking is at an inflection point these days, and I think it’s fairly safe to say that the same can be said for the U.S., although it needs a push when it comes to Iran and its nuclear program. (By which I mean a bold offer to accept domestic uranium enrichment under transparent IAEA supervision.)

What remains to be seen is whether Iran and Israel can look beyond their immediate local and tactical threats, to see the regional and strategic horizon in the distance.

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