At the summit of Non Aligned Movements or ‘NAM’ hosted in the Iranian capital Tehran, representatives of the Syrian Government walked out on the speech of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Specifically, Morsi said it was an ‘ethical duty’ to support the Syrians combating the ‘oppressive’ Assad Regime. The Morsi visit and speech themselves are historic in that no Egyptian leader has visited Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution overthrew the Shah of Iran. Even after the Morsi visit relations were not expected to normalize over night between Tehran and Cairo.
The comments made by Morsi are a setback for Iran and not a minor one. Morsi was invited by Iran to the NAM summit the hosting of which is Iran’s forlorn attempt to project itself as a regional power with world influence. Having Morsi attend was an added to attempt to forge a link between the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Arab Spring. Morsi however, has clearly sided with his Sunni Arab brethren in Syria rather than the Shiite Persians of Iran and their Alawite allies in Syria, led by Assad.
What is happening in the Middle East and barely recognized by Western media and diplomatic experts on the region is a polar shift among Muslims in the region. Iran has never been able to export its brand of Islamic revolution beyond its borders. Even its closest doppelganger the Taliban are more aligned with Pakistani Taliban than with Iran. Nor has Iran been able to win the hearts and minds of fellow Shiites in Iraq which was thought to be a danger after the withdrawal of US combat forces. The Shiite led government of Iraq does share sympathies with Iran. But, only as far as their mutual rising nemesis, Turkey.
Before he was toppled in 2003, Saddam Hussein was the revered leader of Sunnis in and outside of Iraq. For them, he was the wall holding back ‘Persians’ when he wasn’t standing up to the ‘imperialist’ Americans. Saddam’s weakness however was his genocides against both Sunni Kurds and Shiite Iraqis as well as his invasion of Kuwait in 1991. Since his toppling and subsequent execution there has been a vacuum of leadership in the Sunni world; a vacuum which Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan has been only too happy to fill.
Aside from Erdogan’s heavy handed support of the Syrian rebels fighting Assad, Erdogan has taken a lead in opposing Israel over Gaza which soured relations very badly between the nations which had long been friends politically and militarily. Relations have not been the same since a relief convoy incident in which several Turks were killed by Israeli forces.
Erdogan has also forged influence with leaders of the Arab Spring movements across North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula meeting with Egypt’s President Morsi as well as then Army head Field Marshall Tantawi. The political party platforms of President Morsi and other newly elected post-Arab Spring governments’ reveal a close similarity to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) platform. Even as far away as Somalia, Erdogan has sought to establish Turkey as a ‘friend’ investing large sums of money and escorting aide convoys to Somalia with Turkish warships.
In Iraq, Turkey will soon begin construction of a steel mill in Basra and has made oil deals with the government of the Kurdish Autonomous Region in the north of the country without any consultations with the Shiite led government in Baghdad creating a diplomatic crisis exacerbated by the unannounced visit to the Kirkuk by Turkey’s foreign minister.
What this shift of power and influence will eventually mean for Turkey’s membership in NATO and US-Turkish relations is unknown except that Erdogan is still taking a diplomatic hard line toward Israel with a hostility never before seen from a Turkish government since Israel’s founding. One thing that is clear however is that Prime Minister Erdogan is well on his way to establishing Turkey as the dominant regional power, militarily, politically and morally in the lands to the south of Turkey, which also happens to have been the lost provinces of the Ottoman Empire which preceded modern Turkey and was ruled by Turkish Sultans.
Secondly, it means that any hopes Iran ever had of finally being able to exert dominance over the Middle East and North Africa and the Gulf kingdoms have likely been forever dashed. Iran’s decrepit economy simply cannot hope to compete with Turkey on any level and economic power is one of the cornerstones of national power. Iran’s military has never been much more than a large national police force more focused on keeping the local population in line than projecting real power abroad. Despite all the claims by ‘experts’ that Iran is a rising military power, the simple fact is that without a nuclear weapon Iran’s troops are a threat to no one but their own people.