Middle East Chessboard: How Iran, Turkey and Qatar Can Counterbalance Emerging Israeli-Gulf ‘Bloc’

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Tehran and Ankara subjected the two Persian Gulf kingdoms to tough criticism, accusing them of betraying the Palestinian cause. In addition to this, Iranian political and military circles have issued strongly worded warnings to the Arab monarchies: the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an elite branch of the Iranian Armed Forces, denounced the normalisation deal as “historical foolishness”; the Iranian foreign ministry condemned it as “strategic idiocy”; while Armed Forces Chief of Staff Mohammad Bagheri stressed that Iran’s policy towards the UAE will “fundamentally change”. For his part, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani emphasised that Abu Dhabi and Manama would be responsible for “any consequences” resulting from their deal with Israel.

Sputnik: Why does Iran consider the conclusion of normalisation pacts between Persian Gulf countries and Israel as a security threat? How could the aforementioned peace pacts change the balance of power in the Middle East and affect Iran’s Axis of Resistance in the long run?

Mahan Abedin: Presently configured these so-called peace agreements are not a threat to Iran. Both UAE and Bahrain are in essence small newly-established states with little to no strategic depth. Also, neither of these countries was ever in a conflict with Israel. Far from it, they are both at best marginal states with little to no impact on the core Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, both countries (and especially the UAE) have had at least 20 years of covert ties and business dealings with the Israelis. So, the so-called peace agreements are just formalising what has been the reality for at least two decades. In that sense, it is no big deal. However, from an Iranian point of view, two potential developments are of concern.

First, if these agreements escalate and are embraced by larger Arab states (say Algeria, Morocco or even Saudi Arabia) then that relieves the pressure on Israel and pushes the Palestinian quest for statehood to the very margins.

Second, if either of these Persian Gulf states accedes to Israeli demands to establish intelligence or even military assets on their soil then naturally that’s a concern.

But I believe Iran can deter both UAE and Bahrain from placing their relationships with Israel on a more serious level. Iranian military commanders – both state armed forces and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – have warned UAE to desist from any provocative action. At any rate, there is no serious threat to the “Axis of Resistance”, as Iran effectively encircles Israel via its allies in Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian Territories. Unlike Iran, Israel is a small state with little to no strategic depth. By contrast, Iran is a regional giant (both geographically and demographically) and it can contain any threat emanating from an Israel-Persian Gulf axis.

© AP Photo / Ebrahim Noroozi
Missiles are displayed by the Iranian army in a military parade marking National Army Day

Sputnik: In your recent article for the Middle East Eye you noted that Iran and Turkey should close ranks to counterbalance the emerging Israeli-Persian Gulf partnership. Could Turco-Iranian common interests outweigh their differences? Is a close alliance between Ankara and Tehran possible given their ideological differences (Sunni vs Shia) and the fact that Turkey remains a NATO ally?

Mahan Abedin: It is true that Iran and Turkey are regional rivals and there are lots that divide them at both the strategic and ideological levels. Iran and Turkey for instance play conflicting roles in Syria. But these divisions should not be exaggerated; after all Iran is not in conflict with moderate Sunni Islamists. Furthermore, Iran and Turkey have been at peace for 200 years. The last Iranian-Turkish conflict (between the Qajar and Ottoman Empires) concluded in 1823.

There are enormous connections between Iran and Turkey at the trading, business and people to people levels. There is deep mutual respect between the two nations. Therefore, the elements are of a closer cooperation, but this will never develop into a formal alliance. Political and strategic considerations are a barrier to that. But greater coordination is certainly possible especially as Turkey is gradually moving away from the US, EU and by extension NATO.

© REUTERS / Yasin Bulbul/Presidential Palace
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (R) shakes hands with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey April 16, 2016

Sputnik: If Iran, Qatar and Turkey manage to team up, what other regional players may join their partnership? Could China and Pakistan play a role in this potential structure?

Mahan Abedin: “Teaming up” is the wrong phrase here. We are not talking about formal structures, especially as there is no need for it. The three countries interact perfectly well with each other, with Iran and Turkey are even managing their differences on Syria, as demonstrated by the Iran-Russia-Turkey Astana peace process. As for the second part of your question, this issue does not require outside intervention, with countries like Pakistan or China joining the process. Iran, Qatar and Turkey have deep interests in keeping the Palestinian quest for statehood alive. For political, ideological and strategic reasons they cannot allow Israel to pummel the Palestinians into oblivion. I believe if they work better together – coordinating wherever possible at the diplomatic, political, intelligence and military levels – then they are more than a match for Israel and a few relatively weak Arab states.

© Sputnik / Mikhail Alayeddin
Palmyra recaptured by Syrian Arab Army backed by Russian Air Force

Sputnik: The US has stepped up pressure against Hezbollah in Lebanon, imposed sanctions on Syria and continues to maintain its military presence in the oil-rich regions of the Arab Republic. Both are part of Iran’s Axis of Resistance. Is it possible that the US will resort to a military option against Tehran if its attempts to destroy Iran’s allies one by one fail?

Mahan Abedin: The US cannot defeat Hezbollah or the Syrian state. It has tried for decades and failed. In fact, US interventions have only made these two regional players stronger. The situation in Syria is complex, with multiple foreign powers pursuing contrasting and at some points conflictual goals, but Iran is the strongest power on the ground, at least politically. Iran has a formal alliance with Syria (which counts as the Islamic Republic’s sole formal alliance in the international arena) stretching back to the early 1980s when Syria sided with Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. There are no realistic scenarios in which the US would engage Iran militarily, as the Americans are all too aware of the huge costs involved, not to mention the uncertain outcome.

I believe Iran can capitalise on its huge political advantage (in the form of dependable local allies and a sympathetic regional public opinion) and in addition utilise diplomatic tools to achieve its stated objective of driving out US forces from both Iraq and Syria.