Turkey at Crossroads: Strategic Coalition with Saudi Arabia or Convergence with Iran?

Friday, April 17, 2015

Hossein Mofidi Ahmadi, Ph.D. in International Relations &
Visiting Researcher at the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies

During recent days, analysts have been mostly focused on a key question about Turkey. Will Ankara choose to take part in the coalition of Sunni Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, in order to confront Iran in reaction to the current developments in Yemen? And if the answer is yes, will it be a strategic decision on the part of Turkey, or a purely tactical one? Of course, such elements as Turkey’s concerns about Iran's expanding influence in the region; an effort by Turkey to get Saudi Arabia in line with its regional policies; and Turkey’s effort to take advantage of economic opportunities offered by this tactical coalition cannot be ignored. However, Turkey and Saudi Arabia lack the most important requisite for the establishment of a strategic coalition, which is the existence of a common discourse and a securitized approach toward Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival; which is Iran. At the same time, and due to a variety of reasons, we will most probably witness more cooperation and convergence between Iran and Turkey for the management of regional crises in the Middle East in future.

There is, however, a relatively popular viewpoint in this regard, which maintains that in view of the rising influence of the Shia-dominated Iran over regional countries, at last, a strategic coalition will be established between Turkey and Saudi Arabia and other members of the existing coalition of Sunni Arab states, in order to restrict Iran's regional clout. Such a development will certainly increase the conflict between Iran and Turkey. A factor that has further confirmed this viewpoint is the recent unprecedented criticism of Iran's regional policies by the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan before his visit to Iran when he censured Iran's alleged interferences in the internal affairs of regional countries.

There is another viewpoint that has its own proponents who believe that policies adopted by Iran and Turkey, have been and will continue to be divergent on regional issues. They argue that the only factor that has prevented full alliance of Turkey with Saudi Arabia, and will continue to do so, is the important economic relations that Ankara has with Iran. However, it seems that due to various reasons, Turkey’s alignment with a coalition led by Saudi Arabia will be purely tactical and, in future, we will witness increased cooperation and convergence between Iran and Turkey for the management of regional crises.

Now, let’s see what elements confirm the possibility of a tactical alignment between Turkey and the Saudi-led coalition. The most important element is probably Turkey’s concern about growing influence of Iran and Shia groups in the region. This concern on the part of Turkey is rooted in the identity of the country, which comes from Sunni denomination of Islam. The other important element is the existence of an unpromising economic outlook for Turkey’s economy, which will force this country to take advantage of financial assets of Saudi Arabia and other Arab states of the Persian Gulf in order to reinvigorate its own economy. Another goal that Turkey may seek through tactical alignment with Saudi Arabia is an effort by Turkey to change Saudi Arabia’s anti-Muslim Brotherhood policies and get Riyadh in line with Ankara’s policies in Syria, including Turkey’s plan to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria.

Despite the aforesaid points, it seems that the most important requisites for a strategic coalition between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, that is, existence of a common discourse and a securitized approach toward Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, which is Iran, are lacking. Discourse-based differences between Turkey and Saudi Arabia mostly result from their different interpretations of Islam and also the method they choose to manage regional crises. When it comes to the interpretation of Islam, the Islamic dimension of Turkey’s identity is relatively more resilient and more reliant on sophist traditions and secular ethics. From this angle, Turkey’s Islamic identity is less compatible with Saudi Arabia’s identity, which lacks flexibility and is mostly derived from Salafist interpretation of Islam. As for the management of regional crises, we witnessed that Turkey’s ruling party has been trying to distance from its mediatory policies of the past once it faced the complexities of political developments that are known as Arab Spring. However, due to internalization of certain European norms, the tradition according to which Turkey attaches great importance to diplomatic tools for the management of regional crises is still in place. At the same time, preventing the collapse of nation-states in the region, which may turn into failed states, as a result of which jihadist Islamist groups may find those countries fertile grounds for their activities, has been a cornerstone of Turkey’s strategic policies. This is why the government in Ankara has been lending its support to the Yemeni president in accordance with this policy.

Another important point is that relations between Tehran and Ankara have been increasingly desecuritized, especially under the rule of the Justice and Development Party. This trend has been accelerated following the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's pragmatist administration. On the other hand, the regional process that some parties want to reduce to a mere conflict between Shias and Sunnis is, in fact, stemmed in security and psychological issues that are influenced by historical relations between Arabs and Iran, which do not apply to relations between Iran and Turkey.

Meanwhile, from the viewpoint of Turkish officials, a final agreement between Iran and the P5+1 group of countries will lead to Iran's more alignment with the normative order of the international system. Turkey considers itself among important players of that international order. Therefore, it seems that within this framework and despite existence of different systems of governance in Iran and Turkey and their different takes on regional and international issues, gradual withdrawal of the United States from the Middle East will finally lead to more convergence between Iran and Turkey for the management of crises in this tumultuous region.

Key Words: Turkey, Crossroads, Strategic Coalition, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sunni Arab States, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Syria, Arab Spring, Hassan Rouhani, Mofidi Ahmadi

More By Hossein Mofidi Ahmadi:

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