Shifting regional geopolitical dynamics are creating new alliances and competition.
With the election of President Joe Biden's administration in the US and the continued American pivot to Asia, regional dynamics in the Middle East have entered a new phase. All states are adjusting their policies to this new reality, but Iran, in particular, hopes to use this next period to expand its regional zone of influence. While regional states are entering new alliances to limit Iran, Türkiye in particular may enter a new phase of competition with the Islamic Republic.
The Obama administration’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) paved the way for further Iranian aggression in the Middle East. It was Saudi Arabia that tried to confront Iran, engaging in several proxy wars with the Islamic Republic – eventually losing ground and surrendering its influence in the region. Stuck in Yemen for years, Saudi Arabia no longer has meaningful tools to limit Iran in Syria and Iraq.
However, the election of Donald Trump, who exited the nuclear deal and pursued a “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran, gave Arab countries in the Middle East a period of reprieve from worrying about Tehran’s reach. Some Arab states concentrated on limiting Türkiye instead, as they perceived Turkish influence on the Arab world as a direct threat to regime survival.
Iran, on the other hand, played the long game. As the US increasingly turns its focus to China and Russia, Iran is anticipating an opportunity to consolidate its gains and increase its regional leverage.
In January, Iranian-backed Houthi and other militias targeted the UAE with drones and missiles, signalling Iranian capabilities to target the oil-rich Arab states. It was a warning shot clearly received in the Gulf nation. If Iran successfully negotiates a new nuclear deal and is relieved of economic sanctions, Tehran will be able to continue its policies of regional aggression via local proxies.
Cognizant of this new reality, the UAE is trying hard not only to normalise relations with Türkiye but also to evolve it into a strategic partnership for its national security and economic interests. Years of rivalry with Ankara have taught Abu Dhabi of the former’s capabilities, and it appears that it now wants Türkiye by its side.
Israel, too, appears to accept that it needs Türkiye. The recent normalisation of relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv will further expand the emerging alliance in the Middle East to contain Iran. The expectation of a more aggressive Iran – one could say – may have been a catalyst for the rapprochement of Israel and the UAE with Türkiye.
The importance of local partners
While all of the states have their military, economic and other capabilities they can wield against Tehran, it is Türkiye that has local partners in the key sites of Iranian expansion.
Without local partner forces, no state can confront Iran in the Middle East, as the Iranian playbook is based on proxy forces and proxy wars. Without strong local partners to confront Iran, their proxies will win.
In Syria, the Syrian Interim Government and its military, the Syrian National Army, are crucial to confront any possible Iranian aggression. Ankara’s strong relations with the Syrian Interim Government may prove essential in limiting Iran. The Syrian National Army has proven its combat efficiency and is a powerful anti-Iranian force in the Middle East. Most notably, Turkish drones and Türkiye-supported soldiers of the Syrian National Army have eliminated dozens of Iranian-backed Shia militias in Idlib.
In Iraq, Turkish counterterrorism operations against the PKK terror group have reached a new stage in which the Iranian-Turkish rivalry over Iraqi politics will decide the fate of the PKK. Türkiye wants to aid the Iraqi Central Government and the Kurdish Regional Government to re-establish sovereignty over territories currently held by the terror group. Iran wants to shield the PKK to keep Türkiye busy in the north of Iraq and therefore guarantee long-lived Iranian leverage over domestic Iraqi affairs.
In this manner, the results of the recent elections and the formation of a new government are crucial. Iranian allies lost, while the Sadr Movement won, and Turkish allies like the KDP and the Sunni parties won many seats in parliament. It was Türkiye that brought the Sunni Iraqi parties together.
Therefore, recent Turkish counterintelligence operations against Iranian cells in Türkiye could be just the beginning of a new era of Turkish-Iranian competition and regional alliances.
It appears that the UAE, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Syrian Interim Government, the Kurdish Regional Government, the Iraqi Central Government, the anti-Iranian forces in Lebanon, and other Arab states will bet on Türkiye to limit further Iranian aggression.
An increase in Turkish arms sales to the Gulf States, as well as growing economic and military cooperation, can be expected. Regional states that fear Iranian drone attacks and Iranian proxies will want to learn from the Turkish experience.
For Türkiye, its regional interests and the success of its counterterrorism operations will depend on limiting Iran. If Iran manages to achieve another wave of successes like it did against Saudi Arabia during the Obama administration, the results may be irreversible.
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