Ever since the Turkish parliament's fateful decision to deny the United States a northern front against Saddam Hussein's regime back in early 2003, Iraq has emerged as the defining foreign policy issue between Washington and Ankara. But now, a different—and potentially even more serious—challenge to strategic ties looms on the horizon. Today, the international crisis over Iran's nuclear ambitions is deepening. Over the past four years, the world community has uncovered unmistakable signs that the Iranian regime has embarked upon an all-out drive to acquire an offensive nuclear capability, and recent developments have only served to confirm that it is making major progress toward this goal. Indeed, this effort is already beginning to change the Middle East in a number of concrete, and ominous, ways.
The interest in going nuclear
The first is the growing potential for a new arms race in the region, as Iran's jittery neighbors scramble to acquire strategic counterweights to a potential Iranian nuclear bomb. The numbers tell the story; four years ago, on the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom, just one confirmed nuclear aspirant—Iran itself—could be found in the Middle East. Today, at least eight more (Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen and Egypt) have made initial indications that they are interested in going nuclear. In and of themselves, these parallel efforts are liable to make the Middle East a much more dangerous place over the next decade.
The second deals with the region's shifting balance of power. Over the past six years, the Middle East has witnessed an unprecedented infusion of Western political, economic and military capital in support of the War on Terror and Operation Iraqi Freedom. During that same period, however, a number of Gulf nations have drifted unmistakably into Tehran's orbit. Their strategic choices speak volumes about the lack of confidence among countries in the region in a long-term American presence there. And, even ahead of any major changes to U.S. policy, the resulting tilt toward Tehran can be expected to make the Persian Gulf less and less hospitable for the United States and its allies.
The third is the mounting potential for expanded regional proliferation. After all, back in September 2005, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad elevated the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to declaratory state policy when he publicly announced his intention to share his country's nuclear advances with other Islamic states. More troubling still is the fact that Iran's powerful clerical army, the Pasdaran, simultaneously controls both the regime's weapons of mass destruction and its contacts with a host of regional radicals—making it capable of dramatically increasing the destructive potential of terrorists, should it choose to do so.
Fourth, and related, is the growing likelihood of an upsurge in regional terrorism. In its 1979 constitution, codified just months after the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini swept to power in Tehran, the newly-established Islamic Republic committed itself to "exporting" its radical revolutionary message throughout the Middle East, and beyond. Twenty-eight years later, Iran's commitment to this goal remains unwavering. And, protected by a nuclear umbrella, an emboldened Iran is likely to try and expand this role still further, threatening regional stability in the process.
Most of all, however, Iran's nuclear advances are likely to lead to a rollback of regional pluralism. Already, there are alarming signs that Iran's nuclear successes are emboldening ideological fellow-travelers such as Lebanon's Hezbollah and the al-Mahdi Army in Iraq. If and when it does occur, the Sunni backlash against these groups—and against associated Shi'a communities—can be expected to make the Middle East increasingly repressive, unrepresentative and authoritarian.
Turkey's possible role
For Turkey, these developments represent both crisis and opportunity. Should it choose to do so, Turkey could play a major strategic role in the looming showdown with the Islamic Republic—serving as a hedge against proliferation to and from Iran in the Eastern Mediterranean, and a counterweight to Tehran's radical brand of political Islam in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Even if it does not, Turkish support for serious containment of Iran (via economic sanctions and diplomatic censure) would go a long way toward mending the frayed ties between Ankara and Washington.
However, if its growing relationship with Iran makes Turkey increasingly undependable as a partner to the U.S., strategic ties are bound to suffer. Whatever the Turkish government ultimately decides, it would do well to recognize that if Iraq was the bellwether of the past four years of the Turkish-American relationship, Iran is likely to dictate the state of the bilateral affair for the next four. And it would do even better to begin planning accordingly.