One of the main takeaways from the Munich Security Conference this month was the United States’ renewed focus on guarding against the threat from China, thereby marking a dramatic shift away from the U.S.’ previous positioning of Russia as public enemy number one. In an America that is more polarized than ever before, China was one issue where observers remarkably found “no light” between Republicans and Democrats at the conference.
Europe’s collective response to these solemn bi-partisan warnings about the Red Dragon, however, was to essentially shrug them off. On issues like Huawei and China’s disruption of the global order, the U.S. found itself as the lone wolf, walking away from Munich reportedly dissatisfied by the response from its E.U. allies. But maybe the U.S. also left the conference with something else – an opening to reset ties with one of its most geopolitically and militarily important relationships in the Middle East: Turkey.
The conventional thinking about the Turkey-U.S. relationship is that it is strained. A few months ago, analysts and commentators were asking why the Trump administration effectively let slide Turkey’s purchase of a Russian defense system, known as the S400, which is incompatible with the U.S.-made and NATO-approved F35 system. It seemed rather peculiar that a bigger fuss was not made of our NATO ally, Turkey, choosing to “Buy Russian” for its defense rather than buying American, as it had long done. Russia, after all, is the world’s greatest threat to America.
But then, as it turns out, Russia isn’t. China is.
So much of what is perceived to be fractured grew out of this debacle. But Turkey has been a NATO ally to the US for 68 years, and that’s worth something. Beyond that, it’s a relationship built largely on mutual interests – many of which are in the realm of security, military and geopolitics.
“Turkey’s relations with China cannot replace its alliance with the United States or relations with the European Union,” Altay Atli, a lecturer at Koc University in Istanbul who specializes in Turkish-Asian relations, said last year. “Turkey has very deep and mutually beneficial relations with the West,” he concluded.
Once a perceived cozying up to Russia arose, however, a wedge was driven right through all those interests.
Now, we have an America that sees more pressing, menacing, and direct threats elsewhere and a Turkey that is surprising everyone in the meantime by engaging in armed conflict against Russia on two fronts – both in Syria and Libya. With the realities of where things currently stand, it may just be time for those still carrying the S400 grudge to set it aside.
And there are ample reasons to do so, as the shared interests between Turkey and the US with respect to the China problem are many, particularly in the realms of human rights, security and economics. For starters, Turkey is incensed at China’s treatment of over one million Muslim Uyghurs that have been forcibly removed from their homes and locked in detention camps which they like to call “reeducation camps.” Many Turks trace their ethnic origins to the Uyghurs, Turkey hosts a sizeable Uyghur diaspora population and President Erdogan has been outspoken on the issue. All of this aligns with America’s strong condemnation of China’s abuses against the ethnic minority population.
With respect to security, China’s support for the Assad regime in Syria is a direct threat to the strategic interests of both Turkey and the United States. Cutting across the aisle in Washington, there is universal agreement about the scale and severity of Assad’s crimes, and that he has no place in Syria’s future, while Turkey is currently engaged in battle with Assad’s forces in an effort to spare Idlib; the Syrian opposition’s last stronghold in the country.
On the economic front, Turkey’s unfavorable trade imbalance with China has been a flashpoint in bilateral relations between the two countries. Just like the U.S., China’s flaunting of World Trade Organization rules impacts Turkey in a direct way.
Plenty can be said and dissected with respect to America’s China policy shift more broadly. But it’s worth examining what it means to the debate over the U.S.-Turkey alliance, and perhaps rethinking the criticism lodged against the Trump Administration for not hitting back hard enough in response to Turkey’s decision last year. Maybe the Trump team – so often accused of moving between global policies and actions on whims – should be given credit for having foresight regarding its foreign policy. The U.S. is now looking for allies willing to stand in line against its big foe, which all agree to be China, not Russia. And closing the door on Turkey could be considered the wrong move.
Not all Shi’a-Majority Nations are the Same
The recent alleged arson attack on the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai, a Jewish holy site in Iran, was indicative of the ever-rising rate of anti-Semitism and broader religious intolerance in the Islamic Republic. The recently released United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) annual report had highlighted Iran’s anti-Semitic targeting of its small Jewish population as well as other minorities including followers of the Baha’i faith; the most persecuted faith in Iran.
The USCIRF described that it documented “a particular uptick in the persecution of Baha’is and local government officials who supported them in 2019. Iran’s government blamed Baha’is —without evidence — for widespread popular protests, accusing the community of collaboration with Israel, where the Baha’i World Centre is located. Iran’s government also continued to promote hatred against Baha’is and other religious minorities on traditional and social media channels.”
U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Elan Carr has said that “anti-Semitism isn’t ancillary to the ideology of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is a central foundational component of the ideology of that regime, and we have to be clear about it, and we have to confront it and call it out for what it is.” After the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai was set ablaze last weekend, Carr reiterated these statements and called Iran the “world’s chief state sponsor of anti-Semitism.”
In 2016 I wrote, “According to Articles 12 and 13 of the Iranian Constitution, all branches of Islam and Christianity have the right to worship, as do Jews and Zoroastrians, within the limits of the law there. However, converting away from Islam to any other religion is considered haram, or forbidden, and in many cases, could result in execution.”
Anti-Semitism is a historical reality in Iran’s strict brand of Shi’a Islam, which emphasizes the separation between believers and non-believers, expressed in terms of purity versus impurity. The Jewish People Policy Planning Institute explains that in Iran, “under the influence of Zoroastrian traditions, the Jews were considered physically impure and untouchable (najasa). Jews were also prohibited from inheriting from Shiites, whereas the opposite was allowed. A Jew who converted to Islam was entitled to the entire inheritance. Shiites were not allowed to marry Jewish women, except for in temporary marriage (mut’a), which is an inferior and exploitative type of concubinage.”
It is also a little-known fact that the country name of Iran is derived from the ancient Persian word Arya, a linguistic predecessor of the modern European term Aryan. Further, Armenian Nazi collaborator Garegin Nzhdeh (1886-1955) is the founder of the racist Tseghakronism movement, whose ideology is reminiscent of the Aryan supremacy espoused by Nzhdeh’s Nazi comrades. Today, Nzhdeh’s brand of Aryan and anti-Semitic ideology is palpable in both Armenia and Iran, neighboring countries where the Anti-Defamation League has documented that more than half of the populations hold a series of anti-Semitic views — at even higher rate in Armenia (58 percent) than in Iran (56 percent).
At the same time, it is important to note that the majority of Iranians are secular and the regime does not necessarily represent them, or their values. In fact, the Iranian government persecutes its Azerbaijani, Arab, and other citizens from minority populations.
Yet a stark contrast with Iran is found in its Shi’a-majority neighbor, Azerbaijan, which has strong relations with Israel and protects its Jewish citizens as well as other religious and ethnic minorities.
Southern California-based evangelical pastor Johnnie Moore has elaborated on the telling differences in the realm of religious tolerance between Azerbaijan and Iran, noting that Azerbaijan is “a country where Sunni and Shi’a clerics pray together, where Evangelical and Russian Orthodox Christians serve together, and where thriving Jewish communities enjoy freedom and total security in their almost entirely Islamic country.” He has also called Azerbaijan “a model for peaceful coexistence between religions.”
During my own visit to Azerbaijan, I observed and documented this first-hand. I believe that Azerbaijan is a nation that bears the torch, and burden, of bringing religious freedom to its less tolerant neighbors in the region, like Iran.
Perhaps the most dramatic indicator of Azerbaijani tolerance is the post-Soviet state’s special relationship with its Jewish community and with Israel. Last November, Azerbaijan unveiled a statue in honor of the nation’s Jewish war hero Albert Agarunov (1969-1992). Although Agarunov was killed in battle, his legacy remains a powerful symbol of Jewish integration and pride for his Muslim-majority country.
Israel and Azerbaijan have closely cooperated for more than a decade in the realms of security, energy, and tourism. Most recently, Azerbaijan sent its Finance Minister Samir Sharifov to this year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, where Sharifov said that the country’s “cooperation with Israel is not limited to oil supply; we are interested in widening cooperation in defense and the transfer of technology.”
Sharifov also read remarks from a letter to AIPAC by Mehriban Aliyeva, the first vice president of Azerbaijan, who wrote, “It is gratifying that our former compatriots of Jewish origin, living nowadays in the United States and Israel, have maintained close ties with Azerbaijan and contribute to the strengthening of our relations with these countries. We are grateful to them.”
How can Azerbaijan govern and act so differently from its Shi’a neighbor? Iran is a theocracy that mixes religion and state more thoroughly than any other country in the world. In contrast, Azerbaijan’s constitution affirms the country as a secular state and ensures religious freedom for its citizens. Azerbaijan is also facing its own human rights issues and working on progressing as a nation. However, the fact of the matter remains, though Iran and Azerbaijan share a border, the similarities between their governments largely end there. Not all Shi’a-majority nations are the same.
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