The strongholds of history and geography in the Mideast

As a result of the recent agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, over the next 15 years Iran will refrain from enriching or acquiring materials such as uranium or plutonium for use in nuclear weapons. In exchange, the United Nations Security Council, Europe and the United States will begin to lift the sanctions currently in place against Iran.

However, the accord still leaves room for Iran to emerge as a nuclear threshold power over the long term. Israel’s continued opposition to the agreement is thus not unfounded.

Another rival in the region, Saudi Arabia, is also privately less than sanguine about the new detente between the U.S. and Iran. Ever since the establishment of the Shiite regime in Iraq, the opposition of Sunni Iraqis has intensified, putting the country well on its way to becoming a failed state. This also means the gradual loss of Iraq’s function as a “buffer zone” between the predominantly Shiite Iran and the overwhelmingly Sunni Saudi Arabia. Indeed, what’s currently unfolding in Yemen is a proxy war between those two powers.

Among Iran’s strengths are the stability afforded by its sole control of such topographical features as the Iranian plateau, the historical legacy and collective memory of the Persian empire across the entire region, and a population of 79 million (by comparison, the population of Saudi Arabia is 31 million). Due to its advantageous location, moreover, Iran has the ability to close off the Strait of Hormuz any time it wishes.

Another strategic location within the Middle East is the top of the Arabian Peninsula. The pioneering geopolitical strategist Halford Mackinder once described this location as the land bridge linking the Eurasian and African continents. Whoever controls this area controls the entire Middle East.

At present Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt, controls this area. However, a future regime crisis in Saudi Arabia, or its Iraq-style deterioration, would create a power vacuum. In that event, Iran and Turkey may together fill the vacuum.

For the U.S., Turkish cooperation is becoming more and more important in the fight to eradicate Islamic State-type religious extremists because oversight of the Turkish-Syrian border and the use of Turkish military airfields for launching aerial bombings against IS targets are indispensable to this fight.

One of Turkey’s strengths is its sole control over the Middle East’s third strategic location, the Anatolian land bridge. Another Turkish strength is that the territory and memory of the Ottoman Empire remain deeply embedded in the region. The Turkish population, moreover, stands at 78 million. Furthermore, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers originate in Turkey. A Turkish dam at the upper reaches of the Euphrates is responsible for the supply of water to residents of the Palestinian West Bank.

Ever since its foundation, Turkey has looked to Western models in its modernization. In 1987, Turkey applied for membership in the European Community. In 2005 it embarked upon negotiations for entry into the European Union.

In the ensuing decade, however, Turkey appears to have realized that EU membership may be an impossible dream. Having been rejected by Western Europe, Turkey’s sense of alienation is prompting the country instead to “look East” — toward the Middle East and Central Asia.

Five years ago, Turkey and Brazil voluntarily took on the role of intermediaries between Iran and the international community in the diplomatic negotiations surrounding proposed economic sanctions against Iran. This was the first sign of Turkey’s look East initiative.

Both Turkey and Iran will likely play important roles in stabilizing the Middle East in the future. The interests of the two countries are complicated, as demonstrated by the current Syrian crisis, in which Iran supports President Bashar Assad’s regime while Turkey supports the anti-government forces. In the future, however, there is also the potential for the two nations to deepen their relationship.

Turkey is conscious of its role as the regional power providing an important bridge between Europe and the Mideast, and is considering a plan for the construction of a pipeline transporting Iranian oil and gasoline to Europe. If ties between the two countries stabilize, Iran may go along with this plan.

The combined 157 million population of Turkey and Iran is greater than that of the 12 Arab countries of Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsula combined. By 2050, the populations of both Turkey and Iran are set to near the 100 million mark. Within the Middle East, only Turkey and Iran are certain to remain “real powers.” With the exception of Egypt, the Arab countries located between Turkey and Iran will all likely be reduced to existence as “virtual” powers.

In 1916, ahead of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse, Britain and France drew up the Sykes-Picot Agreement. This agreement would later place Ottoman territory under the mandate of the two countries; new borders were drawn in order to establish their respective spheres of influence. Countries such as Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait all came into being as a result of this agreement. In 2014, Islamic State “soldiers” declared an online video that they had “destroyed the Sykes-Picot” border.

A new geopolitical conflict, which seeks to destroy both maps and history, is now under way. The key question in this new conflict is whether or not Iran and Turkey will act as the strongholds of the region’s history and geography.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation and former editor-in-chief of The Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.

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