Let us assume that the whole Western world is diligently trying to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue in a way that will bring peace and stability to the Mideast. (Do not laugh in my face…just go quietly to the kitchen, make some coffee, and laugh by yourself.) It is just an assumption, OK? A conversation has to start with something, so we will start with this assumption.
Now, take a look at Israel’s reaction during the delicate semi-public two-level negotiations that have been taking place 1) between Iran and the West, 2) among the many players in Iran’s highly fractured and unstable domestic political process.
One might assume that Israel, concerned as it claims to be, about the possibility of a future Iranian-Israeli nuclear conflict, would hold its breath publicly while quietly reassuring its (patrons? clients?) in Washington that it will support any reasonable compromise to defend its security.
Nope, in the midst of the delicate back-and-fro, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak sabotages the negotiations by publicly demanding that Iran give up its legal right under international law to refine uranium for civilian purposes! This is the act of an official intent on preventing agreement that would stand in the way of complete and unilateral Iranian surrender to Israeli military dominance of the Mideast. So much for any dreams Obama may have had of making his own decisions about U.S. foreign policy.
A few days later, after the issue had, with Barak’s encouragement, become a domestic Iranian hot potato causing Iran to back off, Netanyahu came out publicly in support, perhaps hoping that Israel will not be blamed by the West for screwing the deal if it indeed falls through.
Given the enormous military superiority of nuclear Israel (a fact admitted by Olmert, Carter, and Gates) over non-nuclear Iran, one might at first glance find Israeli military dominance over the Mideast a rational objective on the part of Israel, but this absolute refusal by Israel to countenance a compromise that would permit Iran to play a normal role in Mideast affairs or be treated by anything remotely resembling a common set of rules looks rather less rational in the light of Turkey’s recent behavior.
And Israel appears determined to provoke Turkey into moving away. The viciousness of both Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon and its destruction of Gaza in December 2008, accentuated by its refusal to accept any criticism of its behavior, were hard enough for Turkish leaders to stomach. Then, Israel’s rejection of Turkish efforts to broker an Israeli-Syrian compromise were a direct slap in Istanbul’s face.
Although NATO member Turkey has been trying for years to “join the West” and has traditionally been a close military ally of Israel, it appears that the type of total military dominance over the Mideast that Israeli officials evidently aspire to is, for Turkey’s new moderate but independent-minded leaders, going a step too far.
There would, very simply, be no room whatsoever for Turkish independence or flexibility in the Mideast envisioned by Israeli leaders.
The Mideast Israeli leaders want would be tightly hierarchical. Two sets of rules governing possession of nuclear arms and technology, even for peaceful purposes, would exist – one for Israel and one for everyone else. In addition, Israel would have the right to do to its enemies what it did to Gaza in December 2008 and what it did to Lebanon in 2006. Israel, for example, would have the right to define the type of arms its neighbors could possess, a right it has already asserted regarding the state of Lebanon. Not only non-state actors like Hezbollah but states that violated Israel’s injunctions would be open to attack. Interstate transfer of arms as well would be open to Israel attack.
Turkey evidently foresees such a Mideast as a rather suffocating place in which to catch one’s political breath.
Israel may have succeeded in scuttling the compromise so laboriously worked out by the U.S., Russia, France, Germany, etc. with Iran, but it has already begun paying the price. First, obviously, Iran still has its uranium, despite clear indications in recent days that sincere efforts to negotiate a reasonable compromise (e.g., multiple shipments to trusted third countries, e.g., Turkey, of Iran’s low-grade uranium with multiple return shipments of Western research-grade uranium to establish mutual trust) might very easily produce an agreement the West could live with. Second, the evident Turkish feeling over the past year that Israel is creating an uncomfortable Mideast has been strengthened. This is undoubtedly not the last payment Israel will have to pay for its ambitions. Indeed, the next may be the reemergence of Russia as a major Mideast player, starting with Russian arms shipments to enable Lebanon to defend itself against Israeli aggression.
Imperial overreach in the Mideast over the past decade has opened the door to the emergence of Iran as a regional power. Iran has captured the world’s attention, making itself simultaneously the major adversary of Washington and an invaluable potential partner, needed to resolve both the Iraqi and Afghan quagmires. Iran has achieved the dream of decades in gaining its current level of influence over Iraq, as well.
Now, mini-imperial overreach threatens to provoke a second realignment by pushing Turkey out of Israel’s orbit, thus facilitating its own emergence as a regional power. Turkey of course has whatever resources it has, regardless of the diplomatic shifts, but Turkey’s resources—military, geographic, cultural–are considerable. The change is in the degree to which Turkey is now becoming willing to make use of those resources to assert a position of regional leadership. Given the tense tug-of-war between Israel and Iran in the broader context of the erosion of the U.S. regional military position, Turkey’s repositioning may have even more significance than even its respectable weight would merit.