Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Erdogan vs. Achmadinejad

Have you noticed?

It is increasingly apparent that the leaders of two Muslim non-Arab states are vying for leadership of the Arabs.  Surprising?  Not really.  Audacious?  Yes, that’s more to the point.  These are two very ambitious, opportunistic and, in my view, dangerous individuals.

And who are they?  They are Mahmoud Achmadinejad of Iran and Recip Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.  Interestingly, the states that they lead today dominated what is today the Arab world at various times in the past.

The Persian Empire reached its zenith about 500 BC under Cyrus and encompassed modern day Turkey, and the Middle East stretching across Egypt.  The Ottomon Empire at its apex in the late 19th century encompassed Turkey, the Middle East, North Africa to Morocco, the Balkans and lands almost to Vienna, but never Persia.

Today, Iran and Turkey are large, modernizing societies, each with sophisticated populations approaching 75 million people.  They are both heavily Muslim, the Turks predominantly Sunni and the Iranians predominantly Shia.

It seems clear that Erdogan and Achmadinejad have visions of restoring the historical influence of their respective states over the area that is now the Arab world, not through territorial conquest and subjugation but by making alliances within the Arab world, aiding their respective allies militarily and otherwise, and, not least, demonizing Israel, as a means of extending their influence among Arabs in the street.

Both Turkey and Iran have witnessed a resurgence of Islamic identity over recent decades.  In Iran, a religious theocracy secured power in a revolution against the represssive regime of the Shah.  In Turkey, an Islamic party secured power over secular elements that had been inspired by Ataturk and that had been grouped in the military and bureacuracy.  But Achmadinejad and Erdogan have also harnessed and exploited the forces of old fashioned nationalism in their respective societies in consolidating their power.

Achmadinejad’s anti-Semitic and anti-Israel bents have long been on display.  Erdogan appears to have decided that to achieve his goal to lead Muslim Arab states in the region he must adopt a very strong anti-Israel posture.  Turkey, long an ally of Israel in the region, has now turned into one of its sharpest critics and potential enemies.  Erdogan’s miscalculations with respect to Syria, where he is slowly coming to oppose Assad, seem to have driven him to take an even more virulent position against Israel.

While Erdogan appears popular among some activist Arabs at the moment, and Achmadinejad scores some points among Arab Shia, it is far from clear that either will achieve his dream.  From news reports, both have strongly authoritarian streaks and, not surprising for any political leader, are far more focused on pursuing their own interests than on permitting real pluralism to flourish in their respective states or in the region.  While various Arab groups, most notably Hezbollah and Hamas, look to Achmadinejad for support, and while Erdogan may inspire Arab activists in their struggles against the entrenched regimes, it is unlikely that the Arab countries will wish to bestow a leadership role upon a non-Arab, particularly a Shi’ite who comes from a neighboring state with a history of hostility vis-a-vis Arabs.

As for the Turkish government’s new-found hostility toward Israel, where that goes remains to be seen.  At one time Turkey’s deep interest in joining the European Union seemed to have a moderating effect on Turkish policies but that is less clear.  Turkey, a NATO member, and its leader may still conclude that acting to mobilize regional hostilities against Israel does not serve its longterm interests.