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The seasonal effects of an Arab Spring

The diplomatic and political elites of Iran and Turkey give the impression that they are keen to adopt some form of leading role in the transformation processes of the Arab Spring. But how will their messages be received in the region?
Imad Mansour
25 January 2012

The Arab state system is being re-ordered through societally-driven internal processes. In this system there is now a retreat in foreign policy activity. This is mainly a function of a system-wide introversion on the part of regimes who are focused on their domestic domains, where there are demands for immediate efforts to revise state-building goals and policies in pursuit of economic and political reform. The degree and direction of domestic reforms, and the social reactions they elicit, will vary. But introversion implies – at least in the short-term – diminished interest in institution-building, or collaboration and cooperation within this system. Given that before 2011 outbidding and competition were much more noticeable features of the Arab state system than collaborative security or economic architectures, a retreat to the domestic domain may increase stability throughout the system – which is welcome, given its domestic uncertainties. 

For foreign observers and actors not in this system but with interests in it (e.g. Iran, Israel, Turkey, Russia, and the United States), this re-ordering of priorities might be regarded as positive or negative (or maybe both at the same time) – depending on who you are. Since domestic dynamics in one state frequently spill over into neighbouring states, ruling regimes are very interested in what goes on in their vicinity. With this as the backdrop, for a variety of reasons some of which will be explored here, the evolving dynamics seem to be leaving two regional states with historic interests in the Arab state system – Turkey and Iran – with minor or no role to play; at least until the rules ordering this system take a clearer shape.

From a distance, many of the messages being sent out from the diplomatic and political elite of these two states leave the impression that they are keen to adopt some form of leading role in the transformation processes of the Arab Spring. Iran and Turkey both claim, moreover, to have the kind of political capital that would allow them to play such roles. A critical dimension that needs further analysis and which is lacking in most public discussions, however, relates to the position and receptiveness of regional audiences to Iran and Turkey’s messages. 

Iran: discourses from an era gone by? 

Iran’s position in the ongoing changes across the Arab system is clearer than Turkey’s – in the sense that Iran’s past alliances and policies which emphasized confrontation and military brinkmanship, have not really changed. These policies and accompanying rhetoric are exactly what the Arab system does not seem to be interested in today. As a consequence, Iran has been rather marginal to the Arab Spring, and is being increasingly left out of its progress. 

Iran received (and in select circles continues to receive) some sympathy from Arab audiences because its foreign policy challenges US attempts to define the parameters of state action in the Middle East regional order; also because Iran supports a variety of movements struggling for self-determination and liberation from oppression. Countering Israel, the closest American ally – even if not the only one – is part of Iran’s general foreign policy, translating into staunch support for Hamas and Hezbollah’s resistance. At a time when Arab societies were almost strangled by the grip of their exclusionary regimes, Iran had won itself a sizeable Arab audience. This was strengthened when the Second Palestinian Intifada galvanized the frustrated Arab street to be met only by ongoing Israeli intransigence. For around five years, many Arab capitals (Cairo, Riyadh, and Amman in particular) were engaged in an open struggle against Iran which in great part took the form of attacks against Hamas and Hezbollah, in which they were accused of being 'fifth column' agitators, operating to undermine the stability and security of Arab societies. In turn, Iran accused such regimes (and many others) of complicity with an American-designed-and-led plan to sustain the humiliation and subjugation of movements calling for self-determination (such as the ones noted above). The vying sides used weapons which included harping on about historic (and arguably unbridgeable) differences between Shii and Sunni Islam, merging these with ethnic (also arguably unbridgeable) schisms between Iranians/Persians and Arabs, and framing policies (especially championing Palestinian rights and Lebanon’s sovereignty) which allowed both sides to claim moral superiority, honour, and integrity. 

What was problematic for the Arab capitals noted above, as well as the United States, was that Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas – who hold inferior military and economic power – were able to withstand serious external (military and political) pressures. Moreover, Hamas and Hezbollah proved that a military resistance option to revive the Palestinian cause, protect Lebanon, and challenge Israel was at the same time feasible and practical if there existed a will to that end, especially when Israel had not ruled out the military option in pursuing its national interests. Iranian policies and discourses, in effect, had the promise of being able to revive an honour that had been sacrificed when Arab regimes seemed to be willing to cave in to western interests at the expense of their own societies.

Excluded and under constant security control, many Arab streets were willing to ignore Iran’s own domestic exclusion, and identify with a rhetoric promising to stand up to the ‘arrogance of the West’ and its local allies. In essence, the Arab order before the Arab spring opened up a space for Iran, legitimising its interventions (mainly involving the domestic politics of Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories, and a tightening of the alliance with Syria). 

But the way in which the demonstrations and the opposition camp inside Iran were countered with the use of force during the presidential elections in 2009 and the ensuing domestic ‘mini’ revolution, exposed the hollowness of the Iranian foreign policy rhetoric that (purportedly) supported the meek and disinherited. Then came the Arab Spring when whole societies took the initiative. Iran’s remaining capital has been haemorrhaging on many fronts ever since. Syria, Iran’s primary regional ally is in the throes of a revolt; Palestinians are expecting Hamas and Fatah to make some form of a historic move to reconcile; and Hezbollah (a non-state actor with an independent state-like organizational structure) is being challenged by Lebanese allies and its own constituency to deliver tangible results on its promises of enhancing institutional accountability and national welfare.

Ideas of independence and resistance to exclusion are dominating the state-building narrative in many Arab societies. Moreover, ideas emphasizing strategic calculations and realpolitik now dominate what foreign policy narratives there are, not external adventure, bravado, and militancy. These state-building and foreign policy narratives in societies at the heart of the Arab Spring are bringing about a new order in the Arab state system. This order is – at best – ambivalent about Iran. 

What is Turkey really offering? 

Some claim that Turkey today has leadership ambitions in the Middle East region (at least), and that there are opportunities for Turkey to provide a governing model to emulate in the Arab state system in light of the Arab Spring (mainly provide lessons in the separation of politics and religion, and the ability to be assertive even with allies – especially the United States). Some of these comments are worthy of note. One is that Turkey’s regime continues to use political diplomacy and/or military force in pursuit of core national interests, supreme among which is territorial integrity and sovereignty. Hence, imposing stability on the south eastern borders through military campaigns in Kurdish-populated areas in contiguous Iraq, and to a much limited and indirect degree in Syria, is a strategic Turkish goal.

Such a policy is integrally connected to Turkey’s domestic political and socio-economic preoccupation with diffusing existing and potential tensions emanating from the Kurdish question; it impacts on Turkey’s Arab relations because of the trans-border operations, the effect on refugees and the displaced, and the continued violation of the sovereignty of Iraq and Syria. Until a lasting solution is developed, the Kurdish question will most likely diminish the capital Turkey can claim to have as a conduit for an important role – perhaps a coveted leadership one – in the Arab system. 

We must meanwhile observe how some Turkish diplomats and many pundits point to a wide range of assertive Turkish foreign policies as evidence of Turkey’s newfound ‘elevated’ position in the Middle East. Formal public diplomatic and political communications, posturing, and policies on issues ranging from the Gaza Flotilla Affair to the support provided to Arab Spring activists (and many others), are framed by Turkish officials in terms of championing human rights and freedoms. All these supposedly echo Turkish values. On the one hand, and following the above, the internal Kurdish question undermines such Turkish political posturing given that it remains unresolved. On the other hand, this basket of messages from Turkey has yet to enlighten analysts regarding how Ankara perceives a 'new' Middle East, and what its position in it would be. Debates in the public space inside Turkey itself have revolved around what Neo-Ottomanism is exactly and how it connects with, or diverges from, Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s ‘strategic depth’ – and what both would imply for Turkey’s regional relations.

What I believe exists today is a lack of clarity in the Turkish ruling regime (and among elites) on strategic foreign policy options, complicated by a case of status incongruence: in essence, while decision making circles agree that Turkey should be a bigger player in the Middle East (and perhaps globally), they remain in need of clear guidance and a blueprint. 

Indeed, Turkey has earned capital in many Arab streets, owing mainly to its critique of Israel (after the killing of Turkish nationals on the flotilla), and the declarations of Prime Minister Erdogan in support of the demands for freedom in the Arab Spring. But Turkey took a reserved position (some say a blunder) on the startup of the NATO-led mission in Libya (even if it changed its mind later on in the course of the conflict), and also seems to have been moving in an unsteady pace (with no clear pattern) towards the domestic revolt in Syria. In essence, there is no clear picture to indicate that Turkey has crafted a foreign policy role which it can market within the Arab system – not up till now at any rate.

Ambiguity is not a bad thing, and in many ways it is really understandable given the magnitude and unexpected developments brought about by the Arab Spring. But ambiguity does not help provide outside observers (i.e. non-Turkish diplomats) with an insight into its regime’s worldview towards the Arab Spring, and what it is that Turkey is offering exactly and officially in this context. 

Moreover, if we take the trouble to sift through the diplomatic rhetoric shrouded in policy ambiguities about Turkey’s position on what is emerging regionally, especially on the Arab Spring, we will recognise some stable continuities in Turkish foreign policy. At their base is the Kemalist idea of ‘peace at home, peace abroad’; this implies a prioritization of any domestic and external concerns that might have an effect on the state’s territorial sovereignty, and the need to deal with them efficiently – which in effect means risking friendships and shaking alliances. Turkey would capitalize on and react to emerging regional (and global) opportunities and constraints in the pursuit of this goal.

Add to this that various foreign policy sub-goals are guided by an aversion to partaking in polarizing regional (and global?) conflicts and alliances. What in essence this boils down to, at least for me, is that from a ‘supply side’ perspective – and relative to the substantive changes in the Arab system – Turkey has yet to offer/propose a novel narrative or alternate strategic approach. What Turkey offers today is not leadership.

A ‘demand side’ perspective would show that the regional environment offers Turkey a mixed bag of opportunities, constraints, and ambiguities. If we are to analyze three dominant (sub)systems in the Middle East - the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian protracted conflict domains and the Arab state system - in search of (tentative) demands or gaps that need action, none of these seem to offer openings for Turkish leadership. In the Arab state system, demands for leadership ended with Egypt in the 1967 War, and it is highly unlikely they will surface in the foreseeable future, especially when the Arab Spring is demanding that regimes solidify state sovereignty. Meanwhile, in the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Turkey cannot meet demands for substantive interventions in conflict management, mediation, termination, or resolution. Any substantive/meaningful intervention in these conflicts is tailor-made only for the United States, not Turkey (nor any other state). 

In light of the Arab Spring, these (sub)systems would maybe generate opportunities for a lower- (middle?) level role; it is here that Turkey might fit best. For example, as a state, Turkey’s economic capabilities are somewhat limited even if it is ambitious to be a regional hub. But that does not preclude Turkish entrepreneurs’ active and sustained attempts to forge lasting partnerships and better develop what they perceive as potential regional complementarities. Alternatively, perhaps Turkey can offer a medium for track two meetings or some form of dialogue.

Meanwhile, the Turkish experience with Islamic parties can provide lessons for some Arab counterparts; this is true today since the inclusionary structure of governance which has made the Turkish experience possible since the 1980s is currently being locally developed in many Arab societies. It remains the case that organized demand and supply dynamics are yet to be formulated, and are far from matching. 

Concluding remarks 

Two constraints on Turkey are noteworthy, and they will return us to the comparison with Iran. For one, animosities and mistrust inherited from the formative years of the Arab state system and Ottoman decline surface through commentaries every now and then. Neither side has confronted them systematically in an effort to put them to rest; perhaps their negative impact is exaggerated, but how should we think about their influence on inter-societal relations? What would that mean for formal governmental relations? Second, how would incoming Arab regimes who are trying hard to stabilize their domestic politics, react to the elaborate and overconfident Turkish rhetoric that seems to want to speak directly to the Arab street? Might Turkey not face the same disadvantages that have turned many Arab audiences away from Iran?

And if tensions emerge in formal relations between regimes, might not the lingering inherited tensions (in the first constraint) form a convenient medium to undermine any new Turkish supplied role? After all, when times were rough between Arab capitals and Iran, as I noted above, the Persian/Arab divide was instrumentalized by political agents to lob accusations and counteraccusations.

Iranian and Turkish messages about their important positions in a transitioning Arab system come from two different backgrounds and offer varied promises in terms of policy; they both might be hard-pressed to find an all-attentive Arab audience. But then for decision makers, the external and domestic policy domains are intricately joined; and so it might be that a significant part of such messages is really intended for a receiving domestic audience. It remains to be better analyzed, but foreign policy posturing has been well invested domestically in power balancing (e.g. among the various political actors) and/or electoral purposes. 

Arab societies and regimes that lived through domestic turmoil this year and are now exploring and imaging the future together, have no exact road map as to where they are heading. What they agree on, however, is weariness of outside interventions. So, while its effects will continue to be uncertain, it is not likely that the Arab Spring will end anytime soon.

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