by Graham E. Fuller
Does anybody remember the old Cold War geopolitical concept of the “Northern Tier states?” They consisted of three countries—Turkey, Iran and Pakistan (sometimes Afghanistan) that lay along the southern border of the Soviet Union; they were perceived in the West as a potential bulwark against Soviet aggression southwards into the Middle East. Is it just possible that we are witnessing today the possible recrudescence of a “Northern Tier” bloc? But this time it would not be united against Russia at all. On the contrary these three states demonstrate warming geopolitical congeniality with many aspects of Russian, Chinese, and “Eurasian” geopolitical views.
The ongoing crisis in Yemen may have become the midwife to such a development. If so, it is Iran that seems to be pulling the pieces together of a new loose power coalition in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia’s much publicized creation of a supposed ten-nation Sunni coalition to fight “the Iranian and Shi’ite threat” in Yemen and the Gulf recently took two major body blows: the unexpected defection of both Turkey and Pakistan from the Saudi camp as active partners in the military campaign in Yemen—after having initially indicated they would join in.
Yes, it’s notable that Turkey, Iran and Pakistan are all three non-Arab states in the Middle East. But in speaking of a new “Northern Tier” we’re not really talking about an Arab vs non-Arab bloc. The differences are more ideological and geopolitical; they involve differing visions of the future that may reorder the geopolitical map in the Middle East. The “Northern Tier states” could come to constitute a new informal power bloc that challenges Riyadh’s bold new—and reactionary—ambitions in the region.
Two differing narratives of the Yemeni struggle now compete.
The Saudis boast of forging a bold and sweeping Sunni coalition to block a much-hyped threat of Iranian/Shi’ite imperialism that is supposedly taking over Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Gulf and now Yemen. Riyadh worries that Iran will soon emerge out from under US-imposed sanctions to take its place as a legitimate player on the regional stage. Washington is no longer perceived as a reliably anti-Iranian force.
But an alternative narrative suggest a different source of Saudi fear—one that stems not from theological disagreement at all, but from fear of the political goals of the Iranian revolution: revolution, overthrow of entrenched elites, anti-monarchical posture, support for meaningful democratic structures—(yes, Iran’s parliament is more activist and independent than almost any Arab state), direct challenge to the long-standing American political and military domination of the Middle East, strong support for the Palestinian cause, and a feisty nationalism. Much of the “Arab street” has admired Iran for its independence and gutsiness in challenging Washington.
Turkey of course has the best, and most well-established and functioning democracy in the region, notwithstanding sometimes rough domestic politics. And Pakistan, along with its Islamic trappings, has operated within democratic structures for many decades, albeit punctuated by periodic military rule. All three represent “modern” states in terms of institutions, and their strikingly developed and diversified economies and class structures.
These states differ in yet another major respect from the Arab states of the Middle East. Turkey and Iran maintain strong national identities, and Pakistan is striving to build based on a strong regional personality. All three are multi-ethnic states, but the legitimacy of the state concept among them is not basically open to challenge, although work to reconcile some domestic minority dissatisfactions is still needed. The future concept and borders of these states is not in question (although Pakistan has been severely shaken by the destructive fallout from the failing US war in Afghanistan.)
It is much harder to say this about most Arab states today. Only Egypt has a strong regional identity within classic geographic borders—and its potential as a “modern state” has been crippled by bad long-standing bad governance. It no longer has any vision for the region or the Arab world—neither Islamist, nor Arab nationalist, nor democratic, nor socialist. Few other major states in the Arab world are politically functional today either. Iraq had a regional geographic Mesopotamian identity but war has destroyed it for the foreseeable future. The small Gulf states, while often reasonably well run, live off oil, and are archaic and defensive in their political and social structures. Stability, where it exists in the Arab world, is largely imposed by monarchs and presidents-for-life.
What happened to bring about a Turkish turnaround on the Saudi coalition? I was frankly surprised at Ankara’s initial support in March for Riyadh’s campaign in Yemen, and more so at Erdo?an’s harshly outspoken criticisms of Iran’s role in the region at the time. This short-lived Turkish turn to Riyadh stood in direct contradiction to long-standing Turkish policies. In my recent book, “Turkey and the Arab Spring,” I describe Ankara and Riyadh as essentially representing ideological polarities: on sectarianism, democracy, globalization, secularism, multiculturalism, modernity, and the Muslim Brotherhood. They agree only on the need to overthrow the Asad regime.
Perhaps Erdo?an’s early decision was best understood as opportunism—an initial concern not to be left out of what might become a “new Arab force.” Yet during a relatively tense visit to Tehran in early April Erdo?an backed away from further criticism of Iran and from participation in the Saudi campaign against Yemen—a notable slap in the face to Riyadh. Iran is still the most important country to Turkey in the Middle East, in economic, energy and geopolitical terms. And Ankara must be mindful of its own large Alevi (quasi-Shi’ite) minority. How much was Iranian influence behind this sudden change of heart?
No less dramatic was the about-face of Pakistan. Islamabad initially seemed to look positively upon Riyadh’s call for Pakistani troops and military support in the Yemen campaign. But Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif, despite his close personal ties to Saudi Arabia, then decided to refer the issue to Parliament, well aware that public opinion in Pakistan ran against involvement of Pakistani troops in the distant Yemeni conflict. Strikingly, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif visited Islamabad just at that time to call for joint Islamic action for a peaceful negotiated solution. How much did Iran influence the Pakistani about-face as well?
There may not yet be any “’Northern Tier” bloc as such. Yet there is much logic behind a confluence of views among these states on many issues. Such an informal bloc would represent a significantly more progressive, moderate and forward-looking coalition than the present Saudi-driven “Sunni coalition” that is divisive, ideological, destructive and sectarian. The region cries out for something more progressive than the Saudi/Sunni coalition’s reactionary view of the future. The approbation of both Russia and China for these non-interventionist geopolitical policies of the “Northern Tier” additionally lends these states greater clout. Such a bloc would also represent a clear non-Arab vision for the Middle East at a time when the Arab world itself seems to lack any visionary and constructive leadership representing a genuinely modernist future.
Arabs may not wish to listen to non-Arabs, but they themselves offer little alternative right now in the bleak landscape of the Arab world. Hopefully Washington will not allow itself to become stuck with the “counter-revolutionary” Arab coalition as the basis of future American policy in the area either.
Photo: Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official and author of many books on the Middle East. His latest book is “Breaking Faith: a novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” See grahamefuller.com