The Changing Dynamics in the MENA and the Possible Repercussions of Iran Nuclear Deal on Regional Powers

By Aylin Ünver Noi[1], Associate Researcher at MEDEA Institute and Assistant Professor at Gedik University, Istanbul, Turkey

Arab Spring ignited when Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest local authorities in Tunisia on December 17, 2010. These protests over the absence of any guarantee against government harassment led to the overthrow of dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and civil war in Syria. The Arab uprisings, which have changed autocratic regimes in the MENA, also changed dynamics in the region.[1]

The Arab Spring created both opportunities and challenges for competing states such as Iran and Saudi Arabia to develop its relations with the countries of the region and become more influential in organizing emerging political life in the MENA. Well before the 2011 Arab uprisings, Iran and Saudi Arabia were in competition with each other in exporting their respective models of Shiite and Wahhabi Islamism. At the time, however, the political alignments of countries and subnational groups across the MENA were shaped not just by sectarian differences, but by their political stance towards the West, including Israel, and toward Palestine.[2] Turkey’s active diplomacy in the MENA since 2002 and its “soft power” also made Turkey part of this rivalry in the emerging political life in the MENA.

Iran’s aspirations to regional hegemony posed a direct threat to Saudi Arabia’s domestic stability and its regional influence.[3] Despite the fact that Iran’s government has a clear Persian and Shiite character to it, Sunni Arab Muslims who want to see their own governments stand up more boldly to the West have discovered much to admire in Iran’s foreign policy and its defiance of the West.[4] And since the 1979 Revolution ended the monarchy in Iran, it also led to the deterioration of Iran’s relations with those Muslim countries still ruled by monarchies. In addition to this, the Islamic government’s support for Shiites in the Middle East poses a threat to those Sunni-dominated countries that have sought to suppress Shiites.[5]

When Turkey was ruled by secular and Western-oriented governments, it was a “non-actor” in the MENA and never directly involved itself in the intra-regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, since the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, Turkey’s orientation and involvements in the MENA have begun change. Moreover, in what some analyst have described as “neo-Ottomanism”, Ankara sought to regain influence in the MENA that it had lost over a century ago.[6]

Turkey’s soft power, and its economic, social and political performance during the past decade have inspired the Arab world. Turkey represented a new center of gravity for the countries of MENA due to the freedoms enjoyed by its population in comparison to the majority of Muslim world, its economic growth (seventeenth-largest economy in the world) and its ability to combine Islam and democracy.[7] It has also raised deep questions about Turkey place in the emerging regional order since Turkey has perceived as a role model economically and politically by particularly Tunisia and Egypt in the post-Arab Spring era.[8]

The political upheaval across the MENA region has also produced a new alignment of states with Turkey as its leader. Although Turkish officials have sought to downplay this new alignment and its role in the region in it, the AKP government’s efforts to influence the region have made Turkey a rival of both Saudi Arabia and Iran. This has been evident in Turkey’s foreign policy stances. As a result of its support for anti-Assad opposition groups in Syria, Turkey became a part of this rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Ankara also has developed close relations with the Kurdish Regional Government (which is mostly Sunni) while having disputes with the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, including by protecting fugitive Sunni Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi. Moreover, Turkey has deepened its relations with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab countries, while marginalizing the Salafis.[9]

The Arab Spring has transformed political dynamics across the MENA, including the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran, for its part, actively supported the uprisings and described them as an “Islamic awakening” that was inspired by the Iranian revolution and the country’s long-standing defiance against of the West. While diplomatic relations between Tehran and Cairo had broken off with the 1979 Iran Revolution, Iran’s early support for the Egyptian uprisings provided it with an opportunity to re-establish relations with the Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood- dominated government. Saudi Arabia’s counter-revolutionary stand during the uprisings in Egypt due to the fear of spillover effects of the uprisings to the Saudi Kingdom destabilized and even brought to an end the pro-Western regional alignment that had existed between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s support for the Salafist opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood and later its support for the 3 July 2013 military coup in Egypt can be explained within this framework.[10]

Uprisings in majority-Shiite Bahrain have further escalated tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Demonstrations in Bahrain demanded reform of the Sunni-dominated and Saudi-backed ruling regime and called for Sunni-Shiite unity to end inequality in the enforcement of laws. The Bahraini government portrayed the demonstrators as Shiite radicals backed by Iran who aimed to overthrow the regime and Iran has been accused of interfering with Bahrain’s internal affairs.

When the uprisings in Yemen began in January 2011, the country soon became another theater for Saudi-Iranian rivalry. Iran condemned the Saudi-backed government’s crackdown on protestors. Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, who had served as vice president under Saleh and had the support of Saudi Arabia and the US, became Yemen’s new president after the overthrow of Ali Abdallah Saleh. He could not win the support of the Houthi, Southern Yemenis and regional tribal and religious factions affiliated with al-Qaeda.[11] Iran has sought to use Yemen as a pressure point against Saudi Arabia and all countries in the Arab Gulf by simultaneously supporting both Sunni and Shiite activists.[12] The situation in Yemen shows that the Saudi-Iran rivalry is not strictly sectarian since Iran has demonstrated a capacity to reach across religious divides to work with Sunni groups that share an anti-Saudi or anti-US agenda.[13] In comparison to Turkey’s stance in support of change in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, Turkey preferred a cautious stance and has stayed silent on developments in Bahrain and Yemen.[14]

When the Arab uprisings spread to Syria, Saudi Arabia has changed its earlier counter-revolutionary position and strongly supported regime change in Damascus.[15] Syria is major Arab ally of Iran and its connection to Hezbollah in Lebanon. This explains clearly why Saudi Arabia changed its earlier counter-revolutionary position when the uprisings reached in Syria. Syria thus became another place, which reveals Saudi-Iran rivalry in the region. As a result of its support for opposition forces against Assad regime, Turkey became part of this rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Arab Spring?

The fire of the revolution was lit by the Arabs who shared similar sense of frustration and powerlessness with Mohammad Bouazizi, who set himself on fire to protest local authorities in Tunisia on December 17, 2010, along with their demands for jobs, better living conditions, fundamental freedoms, human rights and democracy. These were the uprisings of the people who were seeking for dignity, freedom and democracy.

The question of whether this Arab Islamic awakening represents a step forward or backward for human rights and democracy came to the agenda because of marginalization of those rights by some fundamentalist religious political groups in the post-Arab Spring era. Sharia law as a source of legislation became contentious issue between Islamists and Liberals/Seculars/Christians. People in Tunisia and Egypt have claimed that the newly elected Islamist governments have failed to meet economic and political needs and expectations of its people. Disappointment of the people in the post-Arab Spring era led to new wave of anti-governmental protests. The Arap Spring that made democratic elections possible in the MENA turned into anti-democratic form through military coup d’état in Egypt, and call for resignation of the democratically elected ruling party in Tunisia.

Democratic transition in the MENA frustrated by increasing authoritarian tendencies, military coup d’état and toppling of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, calls for the resignation of Ennahda in Tunisia, the outbreaks of clan, community, sectarian and street fighting in Libya and Yemen, civil war in Syria and the polarization of societies as Secular versus Islamist, Salafist versus Sufis, Muslims versus Christians instead of realization of pluralistic representative democracies in the MENA.

Changes in the Rule of the Game

The post-Arab Spring era that changed the status quo in the MENA has created both opportunities and challenges for the regional powers. Yet, unexpected and the following uncertain environment made the situation for them quite complicated to adopt their policies to the new emerging order. The rising Islamic tendencies, which even sometime turned into rivals with one another, became major trend among the countries of this region and shaped countries’ policies.

Turkey has perceived as a role model due to the freedoms enjoyed by its population in comparison to the majority of the Muslim world, its economic growth and its ability to combine Islam and democracy for the countries of the region in the post-Arab Spring era.  Growing criticism that Turkish government is becoming more religious and authoritarian owing to the fact that it creates more public space for religion (Sunni form) less secular freedoms led to questioning Turkey’s position as a role model for post-revolutionary Arab Spring countries, particularly after Gezi Park anti-governmental demonstrations in Turkey.[16] In addition to developments in Turkey’s internal affairs, changes in Ankara’s approach to the MENA made a considerable effect on Turkey’s “soft power”. AKP’s policy of “zero problem with its neighbors” and “developing relations with all Muslim states” has shifted toward a policy more focused on developing relations with mostly Sunni Muslim states and Sunni subnational actors like the Kurds in the post-Arab Spring era.[17]

Turkey’s position, as a country which has improved its ties with Egypt, particularly after the election victories of Muslim Brotherhood in the post-Arab Spring era, deteriorated when Turkish ambassador declared by Cairo as persona non grata and has been expelled and ties downgraded to the level of charge d’affaires because of Turkish Prime Minister’s words.[18] Moreover, call for the resignation of Tunisia’s Ennahda which has special ties with Ankara, ongoing status quo of Syria’s Assad regime, possibility of tension between Turkey and Iraqi Shiite Central government over energy deal between Turkey and KRG are some of the developments of the region, which might hinder Turkey to sustain its role as a leading regional power in the MENA. Changes in the rule of the game in the MENA might enforce Ankara to be more pragmatic and to change its approach, which can be described as sectarian-based diplomacy due to its negative effects on the national interest of Turkey.

The spread of Sunni Salafi form of Islam and al-Qaeda affiliated jihadist groups in the MENA became one of the important factors, which led to changes in relations between the actors of the region. Sunni radicalization in the MENA in the post-Arab Spring era along with global financial and economic crisis and the need for new markets, the US’ decreasing demand for oil due to its oil boom and decreasing production scale not only have changed the relations between the countries of the MENA, the US and its allies, but also paved the possibility for normalization of relations between Iran and US.

Earlier steps, which were taken by the US governments, also signaled the changes in the US policy to the MENA and its possible effects on Saudi Arabia-US relations. The US war on Iraq 2003, which removed Saudi Arabia’s land buffer against Iran and led to emergence of Shiite central government in Iraq, the US’ stance toward Arab uprising in Egypt when Hosni Mubarak was step down and its backing of democratic movements during the Arab awakening and its reluctance to take military action in Syria have distanced Saudi Arabia from its longtime ally, the US. All these actions of the US have contributed to Iran’s interests and helped Iran to enhance its influence in the MENA.

Possible Repercussions of Iran Nuclear Deal on Regional Powers

Saudi Arabia reacted the Iran nuclear deal with concern owing to its rivalry with Iran in the MENA, the possible US-Iran rapprochement and its repercussion on Saudi Arabia’s interest in the region. As one of Saudi official stated that Saudi Arabia concern increasing influence of Iran in the countries like Lebanon and Bahrain and become a bigger threat since “nuclear deal reached would mean Iran would widen their influence in the region”. [19] Nuclear deal with Iran which has been welcomed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) cabinet with the hope that it will represent a step forward to a permanent agreement that would preserve the stability of the region and protect it from tension and the danger of nuclear proliferation” pointed out an important concern of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states in the region.[20]

Since 1940s, the possession of nuclear power by one actor on the international scene obliged others, particularly those states in competition or under hostility, to do the same, due to the threat of using nuclear power as a form of blackmail or to compel others to act in preferred ways. Some analysts argue that nuclear deal with Iran has a potential to motivate other countries of the region, particularly rivals, to establish their own nuclear programs. Strategic disequilibrium between countries that possess nuclear power, and those do not, seem a major obstacle to nuclear-free MENA.[21]  Yet, some analyst like Kenneth N. Waltz says that accepting nuclear Iran will not lead to the nuclear renaissance in the MENA. He gives Israel as an example to the country of the MENA that has nuclear power.  He argues that Israel did not lead to nuclear competition in the region although it even acquired the atomic bomb in the 1960s when it was at war with many of its neighbors.[22]

Nuclear Iran might lead two possible outcomes, either nuclear proliferation in the MENA as claimed by many scholars and increasing rivalry among regional powers or as Kenneth N. Waltz argued that it would not trigger nuclear proliferation in the MENA.[23] Iran’s new approach to the MENA and its performance to keep its promises following its interim nuclear deal and the steps which will be taken to protect the region from tension and the danger of nuclear proliferation along with Iran’s possible rapprochement with the US will be major determining factors on these outcomes.

Yet, it is obvious to say that the emerging picture in the MENA as a result of new developments along with Iran nuclear deal possibly create more advantageous position for Iran to increase its sphere of influence in the MENA in comparison to Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Developments in Turkey-Egyptian and Turkey-Syrian relations have already indicated us this reality by reverting the Turkey’s newly established good relations with Syria and Egypt into non-relation. In other words, Turkey-Egyptian and Turkey-Syrian relations hit the bottom. Turkey’s deteriorated relations with Egypt, Syria and Israel do not only have negative impact on Turkey’s economy, but also on its plans to host oil and gas pipelines in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean. A deal between Turkey and KRG to export Kurdish oil to Turkey outside the control of Iraqi Shiite Central government is another important issue that has potential to add one more countries –Iraqi Central government – to the list of countries, which has no relations with Turkey.

The end of isolation of Iran from international arena and normalization of its relations with the US might lead to more powerful Iran that has much more ability to enhance its influence in the MENA which is totally contrary to the Saudi Arabia’s interest. Following the Iran interim nuclear deal, some Saudi analysts have argued that Saudi Arabia will adopt a “new defense doctrine” focused on resisting Iranian influence in the MENA in other words containing Iran.[24] Although it is still questionable whether normalization of US-Iran relations is possible under ongoing opposition of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Gulf countries, hawks in the US Congress and hardliners in Iran, changing dynamics in the MENA seem to enforce regional actors to change or at least adopt their approaches to the new emerging MENA. The question here is that whether these changes will deepen the existing hostility and rivalry between regional powers or enforce them to cooperate in resolving the problems of the MENA?

[1] Aylin Ünver Noi is assistant professor at the Department of International Relations, Gedik University. She is also vice-director of European Union Application and Research Center, Gedik University. She is author of the books entitled “Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative: Competing or Complementary Projects?” (published in English by University Press of America in 2011) and “Avrupa’da Yükselen Milliyetçilik” (published in Turkish by IQ in 2007). She is also editor of the book entitled “Islam and Democracy: Perspectives on the Arab Spring” (published in English by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in 2013).

[1] Aylin Ünver Noi, Introduction, in Islam and Democracy: Perspectives on the Arab Spring, New Castle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013. Aylin Ünver Noi, Arab Spring and Its Effects on Regional Alignments, in Islam and Democracy: Perspectives on the Arab Spring, New Castle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013.

[2] Aylin Ünver Noi, “A Clash of Islamic Models” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology. Vol. 15, No. (2013).

[3] Yigal Carmon, Y. Yehoshua, A. Savyon, and H. Migron, “An Escalating Regional Cold War—Part I: 
The 2009 Gaza War,” February 2, 2009, 
http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/3281.htm (October 4, 2010).

[4] Graham E. Fuller, The New Turkish Republic: Turkey as a Pivotal State in the Muslim World, (Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2010), 105; Ali M. Ansari, Confronting Iran: The Failure of American Foreign Policy and the Next Great Crisis in the Middle East, (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 179.

[5] Lionel Beehner, “Arab Views of a Nuclear Iran,” April 20, 2006, http://www.cfr.org/publication/10491/ (March 21, 2010).

[6] Aylin Ünver Noi, “A Clash of Islamic Models”

[7] Aylin Ünver Noi, The Arab Spring: Should Turkey Coordinate its Foreign Policy with the European Union? Mediterranean Quarterly, 23, No. 3, (Summer 2012): 77.

[8] Aylin Ünver Noi, “A Clash of Islamic Models”.

[9] Ibid. P. 65.

[10] Ibid. P. 62. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait gave twelve billion USD financial assistance to Egypt to stabilize its politics and repair its state finances after military overthrow of elected president Mohammed Mursi.Reuters, “Gulf billions buy Egypt economy breathing space”, July 10, 2013. http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/07/10/us-egypt-protests-aid-idUSBRE9690HR20130710.

[11] Peter Alsis, Marissa Allison and Anthony H. Cordesman, “US and Iranian Strategic Competition in the Gulf States and Yemen,” 2012, 50


[12] Eric Schmitt and Robert F. Worth, “With Arms for Yemen Rebels, Iran Seeks Wider Mideast Role,” New York Times, March 15, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/15/world/middleeast/aiding-yemen-rebels-iran-seeks-wider-mideast-role.html?pagewanted=all (August 17, 2012)

[13] Muaad Al-Maqtari, “Saudi Arabia Accuses Iran of Supporting Ansar Al-Sharia in Yemen,” Yemen Times, April 30, 2012

http://www.yementimes.com/en/1568/news/781/Saudi-Arabia%C2%A0accuses%C2%A0Iran-of-supporting-Ansar-Al-Sharia-in%C2%A0Yemen.htm(August 17, 2012).

[14] Aaron Stein, “Turkey Looks at Yemen Protests from a Distance,” SES Turkiye, 28 October 2011, turkey.setimes.com/en_GB/articles/ses/articles/features/departments/world/2011/10/28/ feature-01

[15] The minority Shiite Alawite sect rules over the majority Sunni Muslims in Syria. Tariq Ramadan, Islam and the Arab Awakening, (New York: Oxfrod University Press, 2012) 39.

[16] The peaceful protests began on 28 May, 2013 over plans to redevelop Gezi Park in Taksim, Istanbul has spread to other cities of Turkey owing to “excessive use of force” by police and Prime Minister’s speeches. The protestors accuse Turkish government of becoming increasingly authoritarian. The more power Erdogan won at the elections, the less interest he appeared in taking steps toward freedom of expression and human rights, which are sine qua non of functionaing democracy. Omer Taspinar, “Turkey: The New Model?” in The Islamists Are Coming? Who They Really Are, Robin Wright (Ed.) (Washington, DC: US Institute of Peace, 2012): 135.

[17] Aylin Ünver Noi, “A Clash of Islamic Models”.

[18] After military coup d’état in Egypt, Erdoğan continued to support Muslim Brotherhood. His remarks he made in Russia found by Egypt as “provocative and interfering in Egypt’s internal affairs”. Al Jazeera, ‘Egypt Expels Turkey’s Ambassador’, 23 November 2013, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/11/egypt-asks-turkey-ambassador-leave-2013112310229476406.html, (2 December 2013)

[19] CNN, ‘Iran Nuclear Deal: One Agreement, Wildly Different Reactions’, 24 November 2013, http://edition.cnn.com/2013/11/24/world/iran-deal-reaction/, (26 November 2013)

[20] Ibid.

[21] El-Sayed Selim, Mohammed, ‘Towards a new WMD agenda in the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership: An Arab Perspective’, in Alvaro Vaconcelos & George Joffé (eds.) The Barcelona Process: Building a Euro-Mediterranean Regional Community, (London & Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2000)

[22] Kenneth N. Waltz. Why Iran should  get the  bomb? Nuclear balancing would mean stability. Foreign Affairs, Vol. 91, No. 4, (July-August 2012): 2-5.

[23] Israel acquired the nuclear bomb in the 1960s, it was at war with many of its neighbors. Its nuclear arms were a much bigger threat to the Arab would than Iran’s program today. Waltz argued that if nuclear Israel did not trigger an arms race, there is no reason a nuclear Iran should now. Ibid. P. 5

[24] Alalam, ‘Saudis Concerned about Spread of Iran Influence’, 26 November 2013

http://en.alalam.ir/news/1538309, (4 December 2013)