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Shai Baitel

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The Race for Primacy in the Middle East

Posted: 11/15/10 09:23 AM ET

The Middle East is about to change. No, the dysfunctional political systems are not about to become more free or fair or democratic. National economies are not going to improve and create jobs and perspectives for its people. Women will not see more equality and opportunities. Education will not prepare the youth better for the future. It is about to change because of a dynamic race over primacy in the region. And it is not the usual suspects such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia, who are competing for the leadership role. The region is witnessing an unusual contest. In a curious twist, those rivals are neither Arab nor traditional Sunni Muslim. It is non-Arab Turkey and Shiite Iran who threw their hats in the ring and despite all displays and declarations of friendship they compete to dominate the region.

The Middle East is, in many respects, among the most important but volatile regions of the world. It contains about perhaps 70 percent of the world's known oil and gas energy reserves. Religious and ethnic rivalries are in abundance. It is a hub of international terrorism as well as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It is the place where the Arab-Israeli conflict still festers after decades of a quest for peace and Israel continues to serve as the perpetual lightning rod. In a shrewd move, both Turkey and Iran exploit and highlight this enmity against Israel in order to win the hearts of the Arab world. And the Arabs, surprisingly, do away with their pride and welcome outside leadership.

The region's regimes are as dysfunctional as ever and hold on to power through schemes and oppression, sometimes with acquiescence from the West. Egypt, the most populous country and traditionally in the driver's seat in the Arab world, is awaiting yet another term of octogenarian president Hosni Mubarak. The succession is again wide open after his son Gamal seemed to be in position to take over the top job in the next elections. The state of emergency continues perpetually. Legislation is nodded off in Egypt's puppet parliament while the Muslim Brotherhood is oppressed and marginalized.

Syria is nothing but a tyranny ruled by a ruthless Alawite minority, which preserves quiet through military power. Lebanon is sinking back into disarray after the Cedar Revolution, with Hezbollah being a state within a state. Jordan's weak monarchy with its majority Palestinian is never far from upheaval. A protectorate country, Saudi Arabia does not step up to the plate, with its ailing ruler and succession anyone's guess. And Iraq? Well, Iraq is still adrift after months and months without a functioning government, despite recent events.

Iran and Turkey are stepping into this power vacuum. No day goes by without the news from the Middle East not providing new clues and it does not take much imagination to recognize the bigger picture. Both countries are about to slug it out to be the leader in the region.
In mid-October, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Lebanon. The significance and symbolism of this trip cannot be underestimated. Despite the charade of a "state visit" to a sovereign nation, he was the landlord visiting his property, checking the front in the war against Isarel. The "new" Lebanon, with Hizbullah domineering, is the next stepping stone to a radical Iranian Shiite axis that includes Syria, the new Iraq. Iran successfully bolsters Hezbollah and it's only a matter of time for Lebanon to fall, aided and abetted by the West's negligence and short attention span. Saudi Arabia and Egypt will not be able to prevent it and even Syria will have to realize that Iran is the boss in Lebanon.

Hamas is the other avenue with which Iran attempts to squeeze Israel establish and to assure power and influence. The Iranian race to acquire nuclear weapons capability, though, is the single most blatant and threatening avenue of Iran to threaten its neighbors and the region. It is gradually but persistently succeeding in break the will and resistance of the Arabs against their Shiite supremacy in the Middle East.

The fallout of the provoked Gaza flotilla incident and Turkey's shrill response to it has provided a clear indication of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's agenda. This response, firmly establishing Ankara as the defender of the Palestinian cause, though, was just the last in a line of events and actions indicating Turkey's ascendance in the Middle East. The mildly Islamist "Justice and Development Party" (AK Party) came to power in 2002, a victory warmly welcomed in Arab countries. A year later Ankara decided to refuse to cooperate with the U.S.'s plans in the Iraq War. In 2009, Turkey condemned Israel for the Gaza War and Erdogan stormed off the stage at the World Economic Forum after an argument about Israel's policies and actions with Israel's President Shimon Peres. While Turkey's anger at Israel might be genuine, its passion of the condemnation, even hatred of the Jewish State, is calculated. It speaks volumes with whom Turkey wants to associate itself.

With this anti-Israel, anti-Western, and pro-Muslim and pro-Palestinian behavior Turkey can reaffirm itself as champion in the Arab world and succeed where Arab regimes have failed. A recent poll conducted in the Middle East is testament to Turkey's popularity. It showed that it ranked second in Arab respondents' opinions, after Saudi Arabia, with 75 percent of respondents having very favorable or favorable views of Turkey. The number of respondents who perceived Turkey very favorably or favorably was particularly high in Syria, Jordan, as well as in the Palestinian Territories. There, Turkey was the most positively regarded country. Together with other elements such as economic prowess, this role bestows Turkey with legitimacy and credibility to claim leadership in the Middle East.

Turkey and Iran share the goal to dominate and lead the Middle East. With their aim identified it is important to understand what unites and what divides the two countries, with both being allies -- their trade and economic relations have been improving tremendously, despite the United Nations and U.S./European Union sanction regime, both have an interest in a stable Iraq -- and rivals at the same time.

A closer look reveals an interesting picture. Both countries perceive the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as key issue and main leverage to achieve predominance in the region. Turkey firmly embraces the Palestinian cause, presenting itself as its main advocate. The Turkish approach is one of advocacy, diplomacy and public relations, at the expense of the relations with Israel and the United States. Iran equally champions the Palestinians. Tehran's approach, though, is decidedly violent and, with regard to Israel, genocidal. Tehran loathes Israel more than it loves the Palestinians.

Turkey is moderately (Sunni) Muslim while Iran is radically Shiite, the defender of the Islamic Revolution, which it seeks to export to the Middle East. In Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's secular legacy is in danger. The country is at a crossroads, with questions about Erdogan's and his party's true intentions abound. Turkey will either stay true to secular Kemalism or drift further toward Islam and give up on more democratic elements. There are grave doubts about the viability of the current experimental structure of being a democracy and mildly Islamist.

It is worth noting that both countries had very close strategic relations with the United States. The Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 put an end to that. Iran made the United States its enemy. For its part, Turkey is gradually drifting away from its Western partners today. According to recent Turkish media reports, Turkey's National Security Council has amended the country's central policy paper outlining Turkey's foreign and home policy for the next five years to define Israel as a central threat to Turkey. Troubling enough, Turkish media noted the amendment represented the first time Israel had been seen as a threat on Turkey since 1949. It is instructive that the document no longer features Iran, Russia, Iraq and Syria.

The puzzle is becoming clear: Two players, neither Arab nor traditionally Sunni Muslim, have established themselves as contenders for leadership in the region. Iran is operating in a dividing, militant, and threatening and even genocidal modus, which echoes the drive toward exporting the Islamic Revolution. Turkey, NATO member and EU accession candidate, witnesses the strengthening of its Islamic elements and demands to be regarded as major power in the region and beyond. The country's tools remain diplomacy and public relations, trying to engage disputing parties. Turkey's past and present offers to mediate between Israel and Syria and its role, together with Brazil, to broker a deal on the Iranian nuclear issue are examples of that approach. What both have in common is their desire to dominate and be shown respect, using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as bait to seduce the Arab world.

The race toward primacy in the Middle East is in full swing. What we are witnessing is nothing less than the seminal competition over the heart of the Arab/Muslim world. Two regional players are in an epic battle for the same goal, albeit from fundamentally different angles to advance totally different agendas. Let's all buckle up.