Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 August 2020

The US election will not deter Iran or Turkey from their expansionist projects

Both countries are run by deeply ideological regimes in a multi-polar world

Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, with Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan are pursuing deeply ideological projects in the Middle East. AP Photo
Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, with Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan are pursuing deeply ideological projects in the Middle East. AP Photo

The Turkish leadership has adopted the same political model as the Iranian leadership, imposing its ideological agenda internally and flexing its military muscle regionally. They are both determined to export their religious ideologies to Arab countries – Turkey dreams of leading Sunni Arabs while Iran seeks to rally Shia Arabs – with both quests based on delusions of grandeur.

Sunni-Shia strife is at the heart of their projects. The weakening of several Arab states in recent times has encouraged Turkey to seek to restore the glories of its Ottoman past while Iran wants to convince itself that Persians are superior to Arabs. But the sectarian strike amounts to a precious gift for Israel, as this serves to weaken the Jewish state's enemies. Also to Israel's advantage is the fact that neither Turkey not Iran seeks a direct confrontation with Tel Aviv.

In much the same way, the preservation of tense relations with the West appears to be an ideological trait shared by both countries. Tactically, Ankara and Tehran feign hostility towards the West. Yet strategically, they are keen to not escalate tensions, particularly with the US.

The point is, for all their adventurism, they know that their geopolitical moves do not exist in a vacuum. And that there could be a price to pay for any overreach on their part. With 114 days left until the US presidential election that pits incumbent Donald Trump against Joe Biden, the question therefore is how both countries, but specifically Iran, are factoring it into their geopolitical calculations.

They are both unpredictable entities, so it is hard to tell.

Today, Turkey is playing a destabilising role in North Africa through its policies in Libya and Tunisia, knowing full well that Washington lacks the appetite to intervene in the war-torn country. In a way, Ankara is helping the US by indirectly keeping Russia's ambitions there in check. Could this change after the US election?

Iran, meanwhile, is partially responsible for the economic and political problems in Lebanon. For its part, it has come to dominate Lebanon through the extremist group Hezbollah, which is allied with disparate political entities led by President Michel Aoun, Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Hassan Diab.

In Iraq, Tehran is facing more difficulties due to the US troop presence. The fact also remains that Iraq has a functioning state even as Lebanon has an abnormal one. At the same time, however, Iran is sabotaging Iraq’s future with the help of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, a coalition of militia groups that stand accused of assassinating leading national and intellectual figures, such as Husham Al Hashimi, with the purpose of intimidating anyone who dares think outside the Iranian box.

Iraqi extremism expert Husham Al Hashimi was shot dead outside his home in Baghdad earlier this month. AFP
Iraqi extremism expert Husham Al Hashimi was shot dead outside his home in Baghdad earlier this month. AFP

In the context of Tehran-Washington relations, what is happening at sea is just as important as what is going on inland.

Tehran’s senior military leaders are expected to retaliate against US attempts to seize Iranian oil tankers en route to Venezuela, Washington's adversary in South America. But what are the prospects of a stinging response from Tehran? There is no clear answer yet.

I am led to believe that the regime might seize oil tankers owned by Gulf countries. It will no doubt desire to exact even greater damage than that. But in reality, its hands are tied despite its advanced military capabilities. The leadership in Tehran pretends to be strong but it is under domestic and international siege as a result of an erosion of popular trust and approval, as well as of crippling US-led sanctions.

If it remains calm in the face of the tanker seizures, the regime would appear weak with potentially a heavy price to pay domestically. On the other hand, in the unlikely event that it responds militarily by – for example – shutting down the Strait of Hormuz, this would play into the hands of American foreign policy hawks in an election season.

Such is the extent of the regime's unpredictability that there seems to be a lack of consensus – at least among experts I spoke to – on whether it will risk incurring the wrath of America or, instead, wait to see if who will win the November election.

Speaking at the 10th e-policy circle of the Beirut Institute Summit in Abu Dhabi earlier in the week, Brett McGurk, a US national security veteran who served in three consecutive administrations, said the Iranians will be forced to take some form of action. “My experience with the Iranians is that they follow our domestic politics extremely closely, so I think they are probably calculating if there may well be an incident," he said. On the chances of a military confrontation before the election, Mr McGurk said: “I wouldn't put it past the Iranians to do something."

Tactically, Ankara and Tehran feign hostility towards the West. Yet strategically, they are keen to not escalate tensions, particularly with the US.

John Sawers, the former chief of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, holds a different view. “My own sense is that the risks of a clash in the Middle East have gone up, but I think the Iranians will probably be relatively calm in the senses in the same way they were to my surprise after the killing of Qassem Sulemani," he said during the same discussion, while referring to the assassination of Iran's most influential commander in Baghdad in January.

Both Mr McGurk and Mr Sawers believe that the US election will be historic and that a Biden presidency would be more reassuring for America's allies, with the latter predicting that a second Trump term would amount to a “rocky ride” for the world.

The question is whether Mr Biden will be inclined to revive some of the policies of former president Barack Obama, in whose administration he served as vice president, particularly those reflecting its accommodation of the Iranian regime and the Turkish-backed Muslim Brotherhood. After all, Susan Rice and Valerie Jarrett – both officials in the Obama White House – are said to be on Mr Biden's shortlist for vice president.

Mr McGurk, though, warned against drawing such a conclusion. He said what the Obama administration pursued in Egypt, by extending support to the erstwhile Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government in Cairo reflected “a unique moment in history with the Arab Spring and with everything that came of it".

Indeed, the world is a different place from what it was during the Arab uprisings in 2011. Whatever be the outcome of the election, therefore, both Iran and Turkey will be expected to continue their expansionist projects, sometimes even in co-ordination, such as in Syria.

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute

Updated: July 11, 2020 07:17 PM

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