December 22, 2011

Shifting dynamics between Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran

Wilson Center Ottaway

Washington D.C.— The Woodrow Wilson International Center hosted an expert panel discussing the changing relationship between Syria, Iran, and Turkey amidst the Arab Spring and increasing regional tensions.

“We’re not talking about friends and we’re not really talking about enemies…we’re talking about states that are making due with what they have in front of them,” said Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University Henri Barkey. The dynamic between these three countries, he said, is “a three-way competition” based upon “an enduring competition for resources and position.”

This triangular relationship is “critical due to the role of shaping the future of regional security architecture,” said National Iranian American Council’s Trita Parsi. Iran “has been a long time opponent of the status quo and the American-led security order in the region,” he said.  But the status quo is shifting and Iran has capitalized on mistakes made by the U.S. in the Middle East. 

However, while the changing dynamic has helped Iran expand its geopolitical positioning through its influence in southern Iraq, its alliance with Syria, and its nuclear program, Parsi said Iran is facing diminishing returns.  The aftermath of its 2009 Presidential elections and its declining soft power in the region have made Iran realize “it faces few short-term opportunities to expand its influence,” according to Parsi.  Iran, he said, “is on the defensive vis-à-vis Turkey, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and developments in Syria.” 

For Saudi Arabia, the U.S. Administration’s support for some of the democratic movements in the region have stoked concerns, said Parsi, opening the pathway to a mutually beneficial relationship between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center David Ottaway agreed.  “If you look at their history, you would not immediately say that they would become friends,” he said, describing the emerging relationship between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. But Saudi Arabia and Turkey’s relationship is “based on immediate state interests.” As the competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia has come to the forefront, Turkey has tried to balance its commercial alliances, calculating political positions to ensure Turkish interests vis-à-vis commercial trade.

“Commerce and exports are critical” to Turkey’s economy, noted Barkey, which is why, in the past, Turkey has favored a policy of wanting “zero problems” with neighboring states. But in light of the increasingly fluid situation in the region, Turkey has learned to adapt effectively. He said the most clear example of changing alliances in the region is the partnership of Saudi Arabia and Turkey in support of Syria’s opposition, a cause for concern for Iran. Barkey said he believes that Assad’s regime will fall, but what will remain is “more and more chaos in the region.

Ottaway and Parsi said the biggest “game changer” is hinged on U.S. and Iran.  “What’s going to override everything is some kind of more serious confrontation with Iran,” said Ottaway.  “If the West goes ahead with its attempts to squeeze Iran on oil exports, this could trigger something. I just get a feeling that something is going to happen with Iran that’s going to overshadow whatever pro-democracy movement.”

Parsi warned about the risk of an accidental U.S.-Iran war, brought on by a “lack of communication [which] brings about misperceptions which leads to miscalculations which then leads to escalations.”

“We still don’t have any real sustainable diplomacy that brings about the kind of de-escalatory mechanism that ensures that, even if there is a confrontation, we can dial it back.”




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