Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia as Regional Rivals

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Interview with Firouz Dowlatabadi
Iran's Former Ambassador to Turkey

A spate of popular revolutions sweeping Arab countries of the Middle East has created a new wave of rivalry among Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia with each country trying to promote its own political model in the region. During past few months, certain aspects of that rivalry have come to the fore. It seems that Turkey is playing a more active role in this regard. In the following interview, Firouz Dowlatabadi, Iran's former ambassador to Turkey has elaborated on Turkey’s foreign policy as well as political rivalries among Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Q: Mr. Dowlatabadi, “looking to the West” formed the basis of Turkey’s foreign policy before Erdogan came to power. It seems that attitude has changed now. What is the current fundament of Turkey’s foreign policy?

A: The policy of “looking to the West” has not been set aside in Turkey. However, there might be two kinds of attitudes to the West in a country’s foreign policy. They may try to solve problems through interaction with the West or just cooperate with the West. These two approaches are quite different. Before election of Justice and Development Party in Turkey, the main concern of that country’s politicians was accession to the European Union and convergence with the West which they saw as a silver bullet which could remedy Turkey’s political and economic problems. After election of Justice and Development Party, however, Turkey based its foreign policy on collaboration with the neighboring countries and reducing problems with neighbors to zero. Through that strategy, Ankara aimed to secure its foothold in the region while interacting more productively with the West. Therefore, the foreign policy introduced by Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was based on developing regional cooperation as a means of better interaction with the West.

Q: You mean they take an instrumental approach to regional relations?

A: You can interpret it anyway you like. Our interpretation of that policy does not matter. What matters here is that even if a policy begins with an instrumental approach to regional relations, in the long run, it will evolve into a sustained and lasting policy which will set direction of all international negotiations and tactical cooperation of Turkey. Countries with a smart foreign policy try to bolster tactical bonds and turn them into strategic ones. This is the main strategy of Turkey which is being implemented right now.

Q: A case in point which can prove this instrumental approach is Turkey’s position on the Syrian crisis. Turkey had serious relations with Syria in the past, but changed its policy in a short period of time to align it with the West’s policy in Syria. Can this actually mean that Turkey’s approach to regional countries is instrumental and Ankara does not follow a strategic approach to regional states?

A: You can’t say that. Of course, it is not my duty to defend Turkey’s policies. I just want to correct this attitude. When it comes to regional cooperation, country is a more lasting concept than state or government. For instance, have we been in total agreement with Afghan governments in the past 30 years before that of the incumbent President Hamid Karzai? However, despite differences, we worked with Afghan governments. The reason is we are two neighboring nations. Therefore, political upheavals and great waves that are created and are sign of bigger developments may cause countries to make mistakes. They may also have the feeling that getting along with developments will improve their future outlooks. Therefore, this is a tactical issue. The strategic issue is that two countries are neighboring each other and want to develop their relations. If you expect a political development in a country and then a wave of political change is generated there, undoubtedly, you would try to get in line with that wave and new developments in order to guarantee your long-term interests in a better way.

Q: Some believe that Turkey’s foreign policy is based on Neo-Ottomanism. Is that true?

A: There are certain tendencies in that direction, but they are not lasting. This country has once been the seat of the Ottoman Empire and what remains of it has been kept alive by Turkey. Such tendencies are somehow fanciful and incompatible with the realities on the ground. Of course, there are people fostering such tendencies, but it does not mean that the Turkish foreign policy should be considered within that framework in its entirety. Even in Iran, when you talk with people about historical background of the country, some of them are willing for the past glories to be revived, but this does not mean that it is actually possible. Neo-Ottomanism is like that. I think Muslim Brotherhood tendencies are more prominent in Turkey’s foreign policy than Ottomanism.

Q: Muslim Brotherhood tendencies that you mentioned were a result of new developments in the Middle East which have already prompted the aforesaid three countries to try to promote their own models. Do you think that Turkey has been more successful than the other two countries in promoting its model?

A: Every government has a method and a value. For example, liberalism which became prevalent in Europe was a value for governance. In France, that value gave birth to a presidential government, while it was established as a parliamentary monarchy in Britain, and emerged as a party system in Italy. I think that two models exist right now. One is Iran's model which is known as Velayat-e Faqih and which is based on the leadership of a religious leader. If the same value creates another form of government in another country which is still based on Islam, it cannot be considered a difference because every country adopts models on the basis of its own historical and ideological tenets. The important thing is the value on which a system is based. If a monarchial government is concerned about promoting Islam, it would not be different from a republican or parliamentary system which aims to promote Islam. The main issue is the value on which it is based. There are two apparent forms of government. One if ours and the other one is theirs. Our government is more serious about Islam while theirs is less so. Their less serious attention to Islam is either due to domestic political conditions, or because of general tendencies of people in those countries. We must differentiate between these two. What is evident in the current regional developments is that their tendency toward us is more powerful. This has been clearly proven in Egypt and Tunisia and will soon show itself in other countries. Perhaps, there will be differences on the surface or in terms of mechanism and they may seem more similar to Turkey on the outside, but on the inside and in terms of content, they are sure to be closer to us.

Q: Differences in values also seem to exist. To bring a pertinent example, one difference is in the model that the two countries use to interact with the West. We have been struggling against the West in the past 30 years, but does the model proposed by the Muslim Brotherhood also believe in such a struggle?

A: We have been, willingly or unwillingly, engaged in a long challenge with the West. While they are looking for a solution to do away with that challenge, we are also willing to solve this issue according to our own rules. I believe that if national governments take the helm in those countries, they will have challenges with the West despite outward closeness because they will give priority to their own national interests. However, they will use a different model to overcome that challenge compared to the model we use. For example, the government of Turkish premier Erdogan is a national government and, therefore, it has done its best to protect its own national interests. For example, it did not approve of the US invasion of Iraq and has taken its own positions on Israel. At times, it has also abrogated past agreements with Israel. Looking at Europe, you would see that the Americans are trying to interfere in the internal affairs of Greece, Spain, and Denmark. But since governments in those countries are national governments, their challenge with the United States is not as serious as the challenge that has caused so much tension in our relations with the West. Of course, they have differences with the United States in the field of foreign policy. If it were not for a few special problems in our relations with the West, perhaps those relations could have been better. At least, this has been proven with respect to Europe.

Q: Can we conclude that struggling against the West is not intrinsic to the Iranian foreign policy? Is that correct?

A: No, this is not an intrinsic trait of our foreign policy. However, a country which wants to stand up against big powers and talk to them on equal standing should be ready to pay the cost. We are currently trying to face the West on an equal standing. For example, we want to engage the US as equals while many countries do not do that and prefer to pursue their national interests in a different way. Therefore, we are facing certain challenges, but they may have to overcome fewer challenges and their challenges may be different in quality compared to ours. Therefore, fighting against the West and the United States is not intrinsic to the Iranian foreign policy. Even with regard to relations with the United States, Imam Khomeini said if they mend their ways, there will be no problem for doing that. This means that if they stop interfering in Iran's internal affairs and give up anti-Iranian rules and behaviors and recognize Iran's national interests, Iran will also recognize lawful interests of the United States, will enter into negotiations with it, and establish relations with Washington.

Anyway, such issues are of interest in politics and nobody can issue a permanent and final verdict. The sole issue which is intrinsic to our foreign policy and cannot be considered separate from our political system is illegitimacy of the occupying regime of Israel.

Q: Do Arab countries, which have experienced popular revolutions, have problems with Israel?

A: Sure. The present demands of the Egyptian people with regard to Israel are different from what was going on under the country’s former dictator, Hosni Mubarak. This issue will be also repeated in Tunisia, Libya, and Jordan.

Q: Has the Syrian opposition taken the same position?

A: The issue of the Syrian opposition is quite different. I do not support the method of governance in Syria and I believe that the reforms process should proceed with power and speed by the country’s President Bashar Assad because authoritarian rule cannot continue anymore. If Bashar Assad can reach a general agreement with his country’s people, which he is trying to do, his government will be able to demand more from Israel than just restoration of the Golan Heights to Syrian sovereignty.

Therefore, Assad should go on with the process of reforms because it will lead to creation of a more powerful current in the face of Israel whose goals will not be limited to reclaiming the Golan Heights from Israel and will certainly demand more.

Q: Some believe that Israel prefers Assad to his opposition. What is your opinion?

A: Not at all. This is not true. How Israel can be happy with an enemy which has prevented implementation of Camp David Accord during the past 30 years? Israel certainly wants Assad to go, but it is facing problems for achieving that goal. Bashar Assad’s regime is quite powerful, but it should continue to implement reforms and never give up the reform process.

Q: Many analysts maintain that the current tension in the region is originally between Sunnis and Shias and they analyze all other issues from this viewpoint. Is our foreign policy based on supporting Shias in the region?

A: We must not basically give an ideological aspect to differences between Shias and Sunnis because they are not essentially of an ideological nature. Those differences are, in fact, different interpretations of secondary issues of religion, not primary ones. Therefore, we must not approach them from an ideological viewpoint. The next point is that Iran should naturally defend Shias, but this does not mean that if Shias form a minority in a country, Iran should help them to ignore that reality. Iran's foreign policy made strategic mistakes in this regard in the 1990s. An instance was Iran's policy toward Shia minority in Afghanistan. They lacked adequate potentials. On the contrary, Iran's correct policy toward the Lebanese Shias has totally changed the situation in that country. Therefore, Iran should avoid of entering into an ideological vicious circle because this issue is essentially not of an ideological nature. In addition, Shias should not forget the rules of game in domestic policies: a minority is just a minority.

Q: At least, Saudi Arabia is seeking to start an ideological game between Shias and Sunnis in the region. Shias enjoy a majority in Bahrain and, therefore, the situation should be different if the rules of political game are taken into consideration.

A: Increase in Iran's power should be analyzed from two angles. Firstly, it should be analyzed from the standpoint of Shiism, which is the country’s dominant religion, and secondly, it should be analyzed from the viewpoint of Iran as a sovereign country. It seems that Saudi Arabia has problems with Iran from both viewpoints. The main problem for Riyadh, however, is empowerment of Iran as a country. Therefore, review of Iran's relations with Saudi Arabia in the past 30 years will show that relations between the two countries have been cordial at many junctures. However, at the present juncture, Saudi Arabia is concerned about empowerment of Shias in Bahrain, not from an ideological viewpoint, but because their empowerment will increase Iran's influence in that country.

Q: What do you think is the best solution to this conflict?

A: Basically, we must not consider Saudi Arabia as a regional power. Saudi Arabia has beefed up its security on the strength of its energy resources, but strictly speaking, Saudi Arabia is not a regional power. Therefore, the current situation should not be considered a power game. If Iran's relations with the United States change, Saudi Arabia’s complete array of anti-Iranian policies will lose its efficacy. At the same time, we should avoid of falling in the US trap. Iran should maintain relations with its neighbors on the basis of clear principles. A conflicting policy will not be effective in this regard. If Iran believes in minority – majority rule, it should call for the rule to be observed in all countries.

At present, increase in Iran's regional clout is the main concern of Saudi Arabia though Iran no more fits within regional power equations. The nuclear Iran is now part of an international balance of power equation and this can be disconcerting for certain countries.

Q: Do you think that more than being concerned about the so-called Shia Crescent, Saudi Arabia is afraid about a more powerful Iran?

A: I think this is true. Ideological problems are usually lasting and are never suspended. Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia are 65 years old. There was a period of warm relations after 1988, which changed after the first Persian Gulf War. It then improved again until six years ago when tension rose once more. Therefore, more than being attributable to ideology, this is a predominantly political matter.

Key Words: Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Political Rivalries, Regional Relations, Dowlatabadi

Source: Iranian Diplomacy (IRD)
Translated By: Iran Review

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