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The Real Strategic Challenge That Turkey and Iran Pose to Israel

As the interlinked dramas of Israel’s attack on Turkish civilian ships on the high seas and the Obama Administration’s push for a new Iran sanctions resolution in the Security Council play out, some in the American foreign policy establishment are beginning to realize that the Middle East — and America’s place in it — are changing in profound ways.

Turkey’s deepening engagement in the region is an extremely important catalyst for change.  Of course, this is not a new or suddenly breaking news story.  Turkey’s refusal to allow U.S. forces to invade Iraq from Turkish territory in 2003 — not long after Erdoğan’s AKP had come to power — should have been a wake-up call.  At the time, though, Turkey’s decision was dismissed by the Washington establishment with a mix of disbelief and a refusal to appreciate how popular the decision was in Turkey.

After Turkey’s key role, along with Brazil, in brokering the recent nuclear deal with Iran and Erdoğan’s strong reaction to the Israeli attack on Turkish-flagged vessels, the U.S. foreign policy establishment is now compelled, by force of events, to recognize that something important is afoot.  In this regard, we were struck by David Ignatius’ most recent column in the Washington Post, “Flotilla Raid Offers Israel a Learning Opportunity.”  He writes,

By attacking the relief flotilla, Israel picked a fight with Turkey, a more dangerous foe than Hamas.  The quarrel has been brewing for the past several years, and it’s a huge strategic change in the Middle East.  Once Israel’s most important regional ally, Turkey now seeks to challenge Israel’s hegemony as the local superpower.  Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a Muslim populist with a charismatic message: We won’t let Israel push us around.  Where Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is often a buffoon, Erdoğan is a genuinely tough if erratic rival.

Ignatius underestimates Ahmadinejad and the Islamic Republic’s challenge to Israel.  But, to his credit, he puts his finger on the most important strategic implication of Erdoğan’s challenge — it is fundamentally a challenge to Israel’s sense of unfettered hegemony over the region.

In explaining why Israel decided to attack Turkish ships headed for Gaza, Ignatius writes, with blazing clarity, “The answer is that over many years, Israel has become accustomed to unchallenged freedom of military action in the Middle East.”  That is absolutely correct, and Israel is determined to preserve this freedom of action, whatever the cost — and to persuade craven American politicians and the more gullible parts of the American public that both vital U.S. interests and Israel’s very survival are at stake in preserving it, even when that is manifestly not the case.

We have previously made a similar argument about what is at stake for Israel in the disposition of the Iranian nuclear issue.  The Islamic Republic’s nuclear program is hardly an “existential threat” to Israel.  But, a nuclear-capable Iran might, at the margins, begin to impose some limits on Israel’s absolute freedom to use military force unilaterally, wherever it wants, and for whatever purpose it favors.

The Israeli argument against Iran’s nuclear development — like its argument against Turkey’s pique over having Turkish vessels attacked on the high seas, its argument that settlements in occupied territory are completely legal, and its argument that blockading a civilian population in Gaza is also completely legal — is not based on rational analysis of actual physical threats.  All of these arguments are directed towards the preservation of Israel’s regional hegemony, embodied in its unchallenged freedom of military action in the Middle East.

From this perspective, Iran and Turkey pose very similar “threats” to Israel.  Iran’s re-emergence as a powerful regional player (with its principal regional foes, Iraq and Afghanistan, neutered by U.S. invasions) with the potential for a nuclear weapons “option” could effectively check Israel’s ability to use force unilaterally whenever and wherever it chooses.  And, Turkey’s challenge to the siege of Gaza by Israel (and, let’s be fair, Egypt, too) could, if successful, have a similar effect.


Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was published in The Race for Iran on 3 June 2010 under a Creative Commons licenses.



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