Iran, Turkey, Cyprus and the balance of power in the Middle East
New Europe 28 July 2012
By Robert Ellis
The civil war in Syria fails to overshadow the main item on the agenda – the looming confrontation with Iran. The head of Britain’s MI6, Sir John Sawers, recently warned that Iran will become a nuclear weapons state within two years, by which time Israel or the United States will have to decide to launch a military strike.
In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, an American professor, Kenneth Waltz, has argued that the best way to restore stability to the Middle East would be for Iran to possess nuclear weapons and create a balance of power between Iran and Israel. Waltz dismisses that the Iranian regime is irrational and claims that Iran desires nuclear weapons to provide for its own security. In so doing, Waltz makes the same mistake as European leaders in the 1930s, who without reading Mein Kampf argued that German rearmament posed no threat.
Waltz makes no mention of the Iranian regime’s belief in the Twelfth Imam, who supposedly has hidden in a well near the holy city of Qom since the ninth century.
President Ahmadinejad is reported to have ordered his cabinet to write a letter to the Imam and drop it down the well. The Twelvers would like to create the right apocalyptic conditions for the Imam’s return as the world’s saviour, the Mahdi, so there is a fear of what can happen if these lunatics develop a nuclear weapon.
Turkey, both as a member of NATO and a regional power, plays a key role in this situation. The Turkish premier, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has declared that Iran’s nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes, and for the same reason Turkey and Brazil two years ago voted against a Security Council resolution to impose new sanctions on Iran.
But in an interview with Forbes Magazine President Abdullah Gül stated that he believed it was Iran’s final aspiration to have a nuclear weapon and that this would trigger an arms race in the Middle East.
The same ambiguity marks Turkey’s relations with Iran. On the one hand Erdogan calls Ahmadinejad "our friend” but on the other Erdogan’s visit to Egypt and his promotion of ‘the Turkish model’ has annoyed Iran. Ayatollah Khamenei’s military adviser said that Erdogan’s presentation of the secular model was "unexpected and unimaginable” and warned that trade ties with Turkey would be in jeopardy if Turkey did not change tack.
Erdogan has earlier called Syria’s Bashar al-Assad "my brother” but Erdogan’s support for the opposition has strained relations with Teheran. Ahmadinejad has also criticized Turkey for allowing the deployment of NATO’s missile shield, which is "aimed at defending the Zionist regime”. However, on his visit to Teheran in March Erdogan assured Iran that the radar system could be dismantled if NATO failed to comply with Turkey’s conditions, which included not sharing data with Israel.
Despite these tensions trade between Turkey and Iran is flourishing. Two years ago Erdogan spoke of trebling the bilateral trade volume from an annual $10 billion to $30 billion, but on a recent visit to Teheran the Turkish Minister of Development talked of increasing the trade exchange to $35 billion by 2015.
Iran is now Turkey’s third largest trading partner after Germany and Britain. Most of Turkey’s import consists of natural gas and oil, and even though Turkey has bowed to U.S. pressure and reduced its import of oil, Iran is still Turkey’s main supplier.
Iran is now cut off from SWIFT, the global payments network, and instead has begun to deal in gold. Therefore, in the first five months of the year three-quarters of Turkey’s gold exports went to Iran, an eightfold increase from the same period in 2011.
There has also been a marked increase in the number of Iranian companies registered in Turkey, a number of which have been established to evade sanctions. Erdogan has earlier stated, "We are Iran’s door opening to Europe”, and this may well be the case.
Cyprus, which has just taken over the EU presidency, plays the same ambiguous role in the region. Since independence in 1960 Cyprus has been non-allied, but Cyprus’ first president, Archbishop Makarios, tried to play NATO off against the Soviet bloc in his pursuit of enosis (union with Greece). Ultimately, this resulted in the Greek junta’s coup, Turkey’s invasion and the island’s partition in 1974.
Now Cyprus’ communist president, Demetris Christofias, is trying to play the EU off against Russia in the hope of securing better terms for a bailout from the EU. Russia has already lent Cyprus €2.5 billion but Christofias has asked Russia for an additional five billion. Russian warships have for the first time docked at Limassol port en route to Syria, and in January a Russian ship with a cargo of ammunition bound for Syria also put in at Limassol but was allowed to proceed.
As the Russian paper Nezavisimaya Gazeta commented in a headline: "Moscow buys the economy of Cyprus”. The question is whether it has also bought the government.
At the same time, the alliance between Cyprus and Israel to exploit natural gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean constitutes a potential area of conflict between these two countries and Turkey.