New Power Brokers in the Middle East

America’s failure to talk peace is undercutting its influence in the Middle East. It has cleared the way for proactive nations like Turkey and Qatar, who want a quieter neighborhood to push their economic growth, to step in and broker deals such as the recent Iranian nuclear fuel swap and the Lebanese accord of 2008. Continued U.S. intransigence may lead them to try and sort out issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well.

The United States chooses to be unconvinced by the Iranian nuclear fuel swap deal, uncertain that Tehran would honor its side of the bargain. But its skepticism doesn’t stem only from the fact that the deal may hobble — or even foil — months-long efforts to inflict fresh sanctions on the Islamic republic. The May 17 agreement, mediated by Turkey, is also a grim reminder that Washington’s political clout is waning in the Middle East, to be replaced by some of the region’s own bold powerbrokers.

Turkey and Qatar have emerged as dependable mediators in the last few years in a region that is as rich in wars and violence as it has been poor in honest brokers of peace. Their rise has riled traditional arbiters such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, through whom the United States has negotiated regional deals for decades. In times to come, these new kids on the block could impose their growing weight on even that most intractable conundrum of all—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — which will further undermine Riyadh and Cairo and erode Washington’s wallop.

The Iranian Deal

Iran has agreed to ship out 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium to Turkey, in lieu of 120 kilos of medium-enriched uranium to be supplied within a year. The deal marks a breakthrough in an eight-year-old impasse over Iran’s nuclear program that has at times threatened to spark yet another Middle Eastern war. It is roughly similar to a deal offered by U.S.-led negotiators in Tehran late last year, but Washington chooses not to lend much credence to the idea anymore.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had then rejected the deal over the issue of “trust,” wanting the fuel swap to happen on his territory, which President Barack Obama refused. But even as the United States and Europe shifted to a more aggressive posture, and lobbied with China and Russia to back more crippling sanctions against Iran, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan began back-channel talks with Iran to resolve the trust deficit. Not much is known about these negotiations. But with some help from Brazil’s President Lula da Silva, they finally bore fruit.

This isn’t the first time that Erdogan has mediated in a knotty regional issue. In 2008, Turkey sponsored indirect talks between Syria and Israel, acting as the go-between because the two sides were unwilling to directly engage each other. Israel’s withdrawal from the Golan Heights, captured in the 1967 war, was on the table. But the talks hit a dead end when Israel launched its Gaza onslaught in December that year.

The Proactive Emir

Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani has similarly involved himself with many of Middle East’s domestic conflicts — spanning from Sudan to Lebanon. Doha has hosted talks between the Sudanese government and rebel leaders from Darfur, where conflict broke out in 2003 and has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. In 2007, it mediated a peace deal between Shia al Houthi rebels of northern Yemen and the government in Sana’a, although the truce broke down some months later.

Around the same time, Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al Thani tried to help warring Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas resolve their differences, which had erupted after the latter’s victory in 2006 elections. Sheikh Hamad’s mediation was aimed at the formation of a unity government, but he couldn’t succeed and Palestinians were soon engulfed in a virtual civil war.

However, the Emir Sheikh Hamad tasted success in 2008, when he personally brokered a lasting peace deal between Lebanon’s pro-Iran/Syria militia Hezbollah and the pro-Saudi/U.S. March 14 Alliance. Lebanon was in a virtual state of siege when the talks began in Doha, but created the basis for a unity government just a week later.

The Doha Accord ushered in peace and stability, with Hezbollah and March 14 contesting in elections a year later and again coming together to form a unity government. It also led to Syria recognizing Lebanese independence for the first time, and paved the way for Syria’s own return to the international community after being shunned for years over ties with Iran and Hezbollah.

Although both Turkey and Qatar have been traditional U.S. allies, their diplomatic activism has curiously coincided with their gradual distancing from the United States. Turkey, in particular, has been drifting away since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002 and moved to deepen ties with the Middle East, where the nation was at best a fringe player until then.

Unfriendly Friends

The Turkish parliament refused to allow U.S. forces permission to launch the 2003 invasion of Iraq from Turkish territory. Two years later, when the United States tried to isolate Syria internationally for allegedly helping Iraqi insurgents, Ankara refused to toe the line and bolstered economic and diplomatic ties with Damascus instead. In 2006, after Hamas won the Palestinian elections (much to the consternation of the United States) AKP hosted Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal at its headquarters in Ankara.

Meanwhile, Erdogan continued to refer to Israeli operations in the West Bank and Gaza — which had the backing of the United States — as “state terrorism.” In January 2009, he walked out of a televised debate with President Shimon Peres after a spat over Israel’s Gaza onslaught. Relations between Ankara and Jerusalem hit a new low in January 2010, when Israel’s deputy foreign minister humiliated the Turkish ambassador by making him sit on a conspicuously low chair and did not place Turkey’s flag on the table.

The faultlines between the United States and Qatar haven’t been so clearly marked, yet they are there if you care to take a look. Like Turkey, Qatar’s diplomatic efforts have put paid to U.S. interests in the region. The Doha Accord, for instance, bolstered Iran and Syria by allowing Hezbollah to maintain its arsenal. It diluted the control of pro-Saudi forces over Lebanese politics. Today, even March 14 leader Saad Hariri publicly backs Hezbollah’s right to keep its arms. Qatar was also instrumental in engineering Syria’s rapprochement with its Arab neighbours as well as Europe. Even the United States, under Obama, agreed to send an envoy to Damascus, although the move is now in limbo over alleged Syrian transfer of missiles to Hezbollah.

Like Turkey, Qatar has also curtailed its links with Israel, particularly since the December 2008 Gaza onslaught. Although the two countries have no formal relations, Qatar was the only Gulf nation to host an Israeli trade office, headed by an ambassador. The envoy was sent packing in January 2009 as Qatar led regional efforts to press Israel to end the carnage, snubbing Riyadh and Cairo in the process.

The Tehran Thorn

Washington’s biggest concern has been Doha’s ties with Tehran. Qatar, which has virtually no Shia population to be radicalized, has enjoyed the most comfortable relations with the Islamic Republic among all the U.S.-friendly Sunni oil monarchies of the Gulf. In recent years, as the United States has upped the ante against Iran’s nuclear programme, the Emir has deepened Qatar’s bonds with the Islamic Republic.

Qatar invited Iranian President Ahmadinejad to the opening ceremony of the December 2006 Doha Asian Games (along with Syrian President Bashar al Assad and Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh). In December 2007, Ahmadinejad addressed the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Doha — the first time an Iranian president was invited to the annual meeting of the multilateral body created in 1981 as an anti-Iranian bulwark. In February this year, as the anti-Iranian pitch in the West was reaching a crescendo, Doha signed a defense cooperation pact with Tehran.

The United States downgraded its ties with Qatar, pulling out its ambassador and maintaining only charge d’affaires-level relations for a year until late 2008. During this period, then President George W. Bush omitted Doha from a farewell tour of the Gulf capitals in a public rebuff of its Iranian connection.

Of course, neither Turkey nor Qatar aims to antagonize the United States, which remains one of their strongest global partners. Indeed, both have made efforts to mitigate the damage their regional activism causes to their relationship with Washington. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu, for instance, credited the United States two days after the agreement for providing the formula that he eventually pushed through in Tehran.

But this irony makes the fact that the United States is losing ground in the Middle East starker still. It is one thing to be pushed back by an enemy, such as North Korea. It is quite another to see your allies — who depend on you for sustenance, sometimes even for survival — pull the rug out from beneath your feet.

It’s the Economy, Stupid

Economics drives both Turkey and Qatar’s pursuit of peace around their borders, even at the cost of relations with the United States. Both countries have enjoyed substantial economic growth in recent years, but believe that regional tensions in general prevent them from realizing their full potential. In addition, they have specific economic interests in some of the countries where they’ve mediated conflicts.

Turkey’s economy grew an average of 6 percent annually from 2002 to 2007 — one of the highest sustained rates of growth in the world — although the economic downturn of 2008 and 2009 has pulled it back since then. A sizeable part of this growth is thanks to the 10 billion cubic meters of gas Turkey imports from Iran every year, next only to Russian supplies. The AKP has committed to spend billions of dollars in developing the South Pars gas field in Iran, and Turkey hopes to serve as the conduit of Iranian gas to the rest of Europe. Syria, the other country Turkey has tried to help out diplomatically, borders its underdeveloped southeast. Increased bilateral trade will boost development in this region.

Qatar’s economy has recently grown at an astounding 15 percent annually, bolstered by the world’s largest production of natural gas. Counted among the poorest nations just 40 years ago, it now boasts one of the highest per-capita incomes on the planet. This prosperity is premised on the uninterrupted shipping of oil and natural gas through the Strait of Hormuz, which any more wars in the region will imperil — and one involving Iran will effectively terminate. Additionally, Qatar shares with Iran the largest single non-associated gas field in the world, the North Field, and the two countries have plans to develop it together.

While economics has given Ankara and Doha the motive for peacemongering, the need to do so has arisen from Washington’s intransigence and inability to resolve regional conflicts, which have festered for decades. Yet instead of tackling them neutrally, successive U.S. administrations have played a hand in fomenting fresh troubles and creating new divides. The war in Iraq, the tense impasse over Iran, and the excommunication of Syria are only the latest examples. Not only do they inhibit economic growth, but they also create the risk of radicalizing local Muslim populations, especially the youth.

The United States left the peace front unmanned for too long, and that is where it’s now facing defeat. The rise of Qatar and Turkey as diplomatic warriors will further drive back its influence in the Middle East. Bereft of credibility, and increasingly lacking in authority, Washington could be left with little more than an observer status in the regional power game. Obama’s election, followed by his Cairo address to the Muslim world, offered the United States a chance to reverse this loss of influence. It was a small window of opportuntity, but his failure to walk the talk has closed it now.

Or perhaps not. There are still conflicts to be resolved, wars to be prevented. The United States can still regain some lost ground by evenhandedly addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Every time Obama has seemed to engage with this thorny issue, he has raised the hopes of the region, and with it his personal popularity. But he should remember that in today’s Middle East, which has more independent actors than at any point in the last century, he will have to move fast — or someone else will.

Saif Shahin is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus and a doctoral candidate in West Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.