Partners constantly change in the dance of influence and power
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told members of his ruling Justice and Development Party last month that Turkey had signed an agreement with Moscow to buy the S-400 anti-aircraft weapons system, which will cost Ankara $2.5 billion. The S-400 has a range of up to 400 km and has been described as one of the best air-defense systems currently made. Iranian and Qatari officials are also making visits to Moscow with the aim of acquiring the same system.
Meanwhile, with the issue of Qatar on the rise, Iran and Turkey have sought to use the dispute between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors to boost their regional influence and presence, with a tendency to adopt a position closer to Doha. Since the outbreak of the crisis, Iranian and Turkish officials have had extensive meetings in Ankara and Tehran.
This leaves the door wide open to the possibility of changing regional alliances and the shift of priorities of some countries, including Turkey and Iran, and not excluding Israel. Turkey quickly became involved in the Qatar dispute; the Turkish Parliament passed legislation allowing the deployment of troops at a Turkish military base in Qatar in accordance with a defense agreement signed between the two countries in 2014.
Although Erdogan criticized the decision to boycott Qatar and refused to accuse Doha of funding terrorism, he avoided directly criticizing the countries in the other camp. Turkish companies also announced their readiness to organize food and water supplies for Qatar.
Turkey’s support for Qatar is rooted in the economic and political interests of Doha and Ankara. Turkish companies have won contracts worth more than $13 billion in Qatar’s infrastructure projects linked to the football World Cup in 2022. Turkey believes it should benefit from current opportunities rather than wait for an unknown future. If the relationship between Turkey and Russia, which is for Ankara an oscillating ally, is aggravated or strained for any reason, Ankara could obtain Qatari gas at lower prices than Russia charges.
Turkish involvement in the Qatari crisis may also increase the influence of Turkey militarily after the concentration of its forces in Somalia, Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria, despite the end of Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria in March.
On the other hand, there may be a decline in Ankara’s relations with other Gulf states. There was speculation that Riyadh would end its largest bilateral arms deal with Turkey, worth $2 billion, to buy military vessels and attack helicopters. Saudi investment in Ankara is also expected to decline, although the two countries have made significant progress in terms of trade, which has reached about $20 billion.
Ankara’s position on the Qatari crisis may have contributed to the emergence of calls by some Saudi citizens on social media to boycott Turkish products. However, while the relationship between Ankara and Riyadh may worsen, it will not deteriorate too far because that would weaken the Sunni camp that Riyadh is actively seeking to strengthen in the face Iranian expansion.
As Russia moves to fill the vacuum created by America’s regional withdrawal, old alliances fragment and new ones are formed.
As for Iran, Tehran at the official level committed itself to a cautious stance on the Qatari crisis, and stressed its keenness to continue to strengthen relations with all parties, rejecting measures taken against Qatar. As relations between Gulf states and Qatar became more strained, Iranian officials announced their rejection of punitive measures against Qatar. “The era of sanctions, the severance of diplomatic relations, the closure of borders and the siege of countries have come to an end, and expulsion from blocs is not a way out of the crisis,” said the Iranian president’s political adviser Hamid Abu Talibi.
The supportive Iranian position toward Qatar stems from several calculations and considerations. The first is the already existing range of cooperation. In 2016, the two countries signed an agreement allowing Iranian forces to operate within Qatari territorial waters as part of the pursuit of smugglers and terrorists. Security cooperation has also emerged by exploiting Qatar’s influence with some Syrian armed groups. Qatar has also played a major role in helping to repatriate the bodies of 13 Iranian officers killed in the Syrian city of Khan Toman. Economically, there is a free zone between Doha and Tehran in the Iranian city of Bushehr, created under a 2014 agreement. When the Gulf crisis began, Iran offered Qatar agricultural products and foodstuff exported through three ports in southern Iran.
The second reason for the uniqueness of relations between Qatar and Iran is linked to Tehran’s keenness to restore its relations with Ankara. After months of tension over Ankara’s accusations that Tehran sought to divide the region on sectarian and ethnic grounds, the visit of the Iranian foreign minister to Ankara on May 7, in the context of discussing the Gulf crisis, melted the ice. It paved the way for the visit to Turkey by Iranian military chief of staff, Gen Mohammad Baqeri, and his talks with his Turkish counterpart on various regional issues, including the strained relations between Qatar and Gulf countries.
Both Iran and Turkey are increasing their cooperation with Russia, which has become a key player in the Middle East after the decline of the American influence due to many internal issues at the US administration.
• Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). Twitter: @politblogme
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