The Mideast is dominated by three sectarian religious states–Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran–and a fourth state that has yet to make up its mind: Turkey. In this incendiary political environment, the best hope for moderate, just governance of this region may well rest on the unlikely emergence of long-term, strategic Turkish-Iranian cooperation.
The very obstacles to the counter-intuitive emergence of a stable, effective Turkish-Iranian axis are the keys to its possible emergence: Sunni Turkey and Shi’i Iran would both have to rise above zero-sum sectarianism; each would have to focus its future aspirations away from sectarian-based regional militancy toward economic development; each would have to come to terms with the right of Kurds to pursue their own aspirations even as Turks and Iranians pursue theirs. Such a tripartite miracle simultaneously achieved by both states would be an historic surprise but has its own powerful logic. First, in both Turkey and Iran significant forces appear to support such non-sectarian modernization. Second, Iran has the hydrocarbons Turkey needs, while Turkey stands geographically, politically, and financially in the right place to serve as middleman for Iranian hydrocarbon export to Western Europe. Third, each is currently exposed diplomatically, so they need each other’s political support. Conveniently, these three arguments in support of a moderate Turkish-Iranian axis in the dangerously extremist region naturally fall out in a logical order. The mutual diplomatic support each needs right now is an easy step for both sides, especially with Davutoglu still voicing support for his good-neighbor policy and Rouhani looking for moderate regional achievements to buttress his domestic position. As the two stick their toes into the congenial waters of diplomatic cooperation, their mutual efforts to enhance economic cooperation–already well under way–will both be enhanced and themselves further enhance broader diplomatic coordination, and their mutual need for long-term defense against the so-called “Islamic State” only underscore the timeliness of the whole process. Finally, as momentum builds, the truly hard part of the process can take shape, with Turkey giving up whatever pretensions it may have to lead regional Sunnis and Iran giving up fundamentalist Shi’i crusading. While regional collapse into sectarian warfare may be far more probable, the emergence of a powerful Turkish-Iranian center rests on powerful logic.
The dynamics of such an historic transformation of the Middle Eastern political system arguably center on two dimensions: inclusiveness and commitment to economic development. A state can be discriminatory (e.g., Turkey toward the Kurds or Israel toward the Palestinians) even while it focuses on economic development, but this is an illogical and unstable position in which sectarian conflict tends to undermine economic progress; inclusiveness logically maximizes growth potential since it encourages the joint efforts of all citizens pulling together to bake a bigger pie rather than fighting over their shares of a small pie (e.g., illegal Israeli settlers burning Palestinian olive groves). If a state dedicated to inclusivity and development represents one logical alternative, a state dedicated to exclusivity (e.g., the typical Mideastern religious state) and cultural homogeneity rather than modernization represents the other logical alternative.
The “Turkey/Iran Futures” diagram illustrates this simplistic, two-dimensional model of politics in which the green quadrant represents the ideal of a modern state and the red quadrant represents the ideal of a sectarian, fundamentalist state emphasizing orthodoxy over economic development and likely to be warlike and expansionist. How likely Iran and Turkey are to move simultaneously toward the “modern state” position may be evaluated in terms of current trends and the probability of a positive feedback loop arising in which movement by one party might promote a similar movement by the other party.
At the moment, numerous pressures are enticing movement by both Turkey and Iran toward the ideal of inclusivity plus economic development, with Iran moderating its stance both as a result of Rouhani’s electoral victory and in response to the Islamic State challenge and Turkey balanced delicately at a tipping point. It remains very unclear if these pressures will combine so as to become the dominant dynamic influencing the behavior of either state, much less both; as will be shown in the next part of this analysis, tracking recent behavior offers some clues.