Arab Spring a mixed blessing for Iran and Turkey

Which regional power benefits the most from the revolutionary democratic change taking »»

Which regional power benefits the most from the revolutionary democratic change taking place in the Arab world: Iran or Turkey? This question is sometimes posed in reference to the two countries’ very different political systems providing two very different models for the Arab Spring in the region.

If you ask the West -- America and Europe -- Turkey, no doubt, presents the preferred alternative to Iran. With its democratic and secular political system under the leadership of a moderately Islamic and pro-reform Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Turkish model is much more appealing for the West. Despite Ankara’s new independence and serious disagreements with the United States and Israel, Turkey is still a NATO partner, and a fellow democracy aspiring to become an EU member in the eyes of most Westerners. Iran, on the other hand, is the anti-thesis of the Turkish model with its theocratic, autocratic and radically anti-Western political system.

Yet, the real question is not the preference of the West but what the Arab world itself wants. When you look at the urban Arab youth behind the democratic uprisings, it seems logical that Turkey for them, too, presents the better alternative. After all, why would the Egyptian youth want to replace Mubarak’s autocratic rule with another type of Islamic-style autocracy, as is the case in Iran? Seen from this perspective, Turkey is the clear victor of the Arab spring in terms of its ability to win the hearts and minds of the Arab street. It is no coincidence that both the democratic secular segments and the more conservative Muslim Brotherhood find something positive to say about what Turkey has to offer as a model.

But the Arab spring is likely to prove a mixed blessing for Turkey itself. The reason is simple: Turkey used to fill a vacuum of leadership in the Arab world. It was the dismal failure of the region that was at the heart of the Arab predicament and the deep admiration of Turkey. Thanks to democratic revolutions and the Arab Spring sweeping the region, this leadership vacuum will no longer be there in the near future. As it finds its footing as a more democratic regime, Egypt itself, rather than non-Arab Turkey, will emerge as the real model for the Middle East. In a world where the Arab world is much more united thanks to Al Jazeera, the success of a fellow Arab country will resonate much more widely in the Arab street than the success of a relatively distant, foreign and enigmatic Turkey. This is why the Arab Spring is a mixed blessing for Turkish soft power in the region. Turkey had the field wide open so far. Now it will face competition and this will be a good thing for the Arab world.

What about Iran? Is Tehran likely to benefit from the Arab Spring? The short answer is that the current situation offers a mixed blessing for them too. Instability in the Middle East helps the Iranian economy thanks to soaring oil prices. This extra cash was desperately needed at a time when international sanctions had just begun hurting the economy. The difference between $90 versus $120 for oil prices goes a long way in creating a cushion for the economy in terms of more money gushing into Tehran’s coffers. This extra cash helps neutralize the effects of international sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to stop its nuclear program.

Another major factor helping Iran is that the world is distracted with the unfolding uprisings. The fighting in Libya and the role of NATO was particularly a godsend because it allows Tehran to redouble activities in its banned nuclear program. Although the Stuxnet computer virus caused serious problems for Iran, a new nuclear reactor is slated to start up next month and Tehran appears to be back on track to develop all the elements needed for “breakout” capability -- the power to quickly build a nuclear weapon the moment it decides to do it.

However, all is not well on the Iranian front. The democratic uprising in the Arab world galvanized Iran’s own dissident Green movement. Iranian hypocrisy in its support of the Arab Spring became obvious when it cracked down on its own opposition movement. And finally, Iran is facing the risk of losing Syria, in case things unravel further in Damascus. In short, Iran and Turkey face a mixed picture in the Arab world.