Mar 11, 2010 | 11:25 GMT

5 mins read

Iranian Influence in Afghanistan and Turkish Secularism

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
TWO DEVELOPMENTS CAUGHT OUR ATTENTION on Wednesday, one in South Asia and the other in the Middle East. The first was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's previously unplanned visit to Afghanistan. Though the two did not meet, there was some verbal sparring via separate press conferences between Ahmadinejad and the visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates (who flew from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia later that day). But theatrics aside, the overlap is oddly representative of a fundamental shift that is taking place on Iran's borders. To the west in Iraq, Tehran has every intention of ensuring a significant sphere of influence via a Shia-dominated, Iranian-leaning government in Baghdad for two reasons. First, so that Iraq never again threatens Iran militarily, and second because Mesopotamia is the crossroads of the region and is essential for the projection of Persian influence and power in the wider Middle East. Now that the United States is on the verge of drawing down its last combat brigades in the wake of the March 7 parliamentary elections, the immense influence that Washington has enjoyed in Baghdad by virtue of its military presence in the country is on the wane. Theatrics aside, the overlap of Ahmadinejad and Gates is oddly representative of a fundamental shift that is taking place on Iran's borders. This is obviously good news for Iran, but Tehran also has a strong interest in ensuring that the U.S. military is bogged down, preferably in a place where it has great influence. Afghanistan, where the United States is refocusing its military efforts, is one such place. Iran enjoys more influence and more levers in Iraq than perhaps any other country. In Afghanistan it has much less sway and fewer tools. But the two countries also share a border, and so Iran is not without options to ensure that the United States remains there — engaged but vulnerable — in the years to come. This leverage is found primarily in forces opposed to the Taliban, namely Afghanistan's ethnic minorities. The Tajiks (a Persian people), the Hazara (mostly Shia), and the Uzbeks together formed the Northern Alliance against the Taliban back in the 1990s. Furthermore, Iran has strong linguistic and cultural ties with its eastern neighbor because of Dari, a variant of Persian that is the lingua franca in Afghanistan. While the majority of the Iranian population sides with these groups, the Islamic republic has close ties with elements of the Taliban, which Tehran views as an enemy of its enemy, and hence a friend. Thus, after assisting the United States (via its main proxies) in its move to topple the Taliban regime in late 2001, the Iranians gradually cultivated relations with segments of the Taliban movement by providing it material support. It is these levers that Iran will increasingly rely on to keep the United States bogged down in Iran's eastern flank. The second noteworthy development on Wednesday took place in the Middle East in Saudi Arabia, where Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was awarded the King Faisal International Prize for Service to Islam. While this gesture underscores the extent of the close relations shared by Turkey and Saudi Arabia — especially Turkey's growing influence in the Arab world — it could very well backfire on the Turkish leader back home. This award from the Saudis is exactly the kind of thing that the secularist opponents in the military-led establishment can use to further their case that Erdogan's Islamist-rooted Justice & Development Party (AKP) is undermining the secular nature of the Turkish republic. The award also throws a monkey wrench of sorts into the AKP's efforts to counter its opponents' claims and present itself as being a political force aligned with the country's secular tradition. The extent to which the Saudi award will influence the struggle within the AKP remains to be seen. But it does point to a dilemma that Turkey's ruling party faces in terms of the religious factor. On the domestic front, it needs to counter the perception that it is a religious political force in order to contain threats to its hold on power. In contrast to the foreign policy front, especially in terms of spearheading Turkey's resurgence on the international scene, Turkey needs to use the religious ties to emerge as a leader of the Muslim world. Ankara under the AKP has been positioning itself as a bridge between the Western and Islamic worlds. Though it is pushing to create spheres of influence in the multiple regions it straddles, the Muslim world is the one place where it is having the most luck, which it can use to enhance its overall global profile in the long term. In the here and now, however, the Turkish ruling party needs to be able to find the right balance with its domestic and foreign policy prerogatives so that religion does not undermine Turkey's political geopolitical fortunes.

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