Regional Power Dynamics: Conflict and Collaboration. MERI Forum 16, S9

Date: 27th October 2016

MERI Forum 2016

In this panel:

Cengiz Çandar, Journalist and Writer, Turkey
Walter Posch, National Defence Academy, Austria
David Romano, Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics, Missouri State University, USA
Irene Costantini, Research Fellow, MERI (Chair)

This is a summary of the panel discussion, please find the full video of the debates and Q&A below.

The regional powers in the Middle East are vying for power, backed by various international actors. With multiple conflicts in the region, the push and pull from these actors, particularly Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia has a significant impact on the reality on the ground. Iran, fresh from its nuclear agreement, is engaging in multiple conflicts – including in Iraq, Syria and Yemen – through establishing local alliances. It also has close ties to both Russia and the Assad regime in Syria. Turkey, on the other hand, is engaging in conflict in its neighbours’ territories, both directly and through alliances, while also being at conflict within its own borders. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has been directly engaged in the war in Yemen and various other actors are engaged in conflict in the region. The key questions that this panel aimed to address were that with these multiple, often incompatible, plans for the region how is the future likely to unfold and what role can these regional actors have in stabilising, or further exacerbating, conflict in the region?

Cengiz Çandar began the session by warning that it is not certain that “the liberation of Mosul is that imminent and inevitable” given that the situation in the region is more complex than ever. He then discussed the two “subpowers” that he identified in the region, beginning with Turkey, which in his view “is getting more and more an autocratic state divorcing from being a civilised state”. He argued that “the domestic imperatives produce this aggressive rhetoric but there are unintended consequences. Everybody needs to worry”. He also regarded Iran as a medium-size revisioned power but with an impact, like Turkey.  Iran’s impact is, however, similarly limited to the one of Turkey’s.

Walter Posch expanded on the issue of Iran in his presentation. He discussed the way in which the ideology in Iran is used to drive and justify policies. In his view, there also exists in Iran a third-world anti-imperialism which is used to justify other policies, as is their nuclear capacity, which should be accepted. Iran uses different narratives in order to justify policy choices that may seem contradictory to Iran’s ideological background, for example to justify relations with secular regimes. He argued that “Iran actively wants to shape the region not necessarily dominate it” and that “if Iran wants a legitimate leading role in the region it must play down its Persian and Shiite identity”. At same time, Tehran keeps a close eye on its own minorities in its border regions, such as the Kurds, the Baluch, or the Azeris.

Finally, David Romano focused on KRG foreign policy. He defined its cornerstone as “demonstrating that it is a safe and solid partner for all actors”. He described a situation in which “there are certain lines that Kurdish parties are trying not to cross” such as not wanting to fight each other like in the past. He suggested that “if they continue this balancing act and play correctly then it could mean a Kurdish Spring”, although he cautioned that “the Arab spring quickly evolved into a nightmare for the Arab states”. He also iterated that “the West wants stability, but this cannot happen without addressing Kurdish grievances and changing status quo”.

In the Q&A session, Walter Posch voiced his concerns about the recent developments in Turkey and its potential destabilising implications for the region. Walter Posch asserted that for the first time he feels that Turkey is becoming a threat to nearby states.  He further added that he doesn’t “‘want a hysterical nationalist Iran next to a hysterical nationalist Turkey”.

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