Identity vs. Power in the Middle East

Prof. Dr. Tarık OĞUZLU
17 February 2016
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The growing tension between Iran and the Saudi Arabia on the basis of sectarian schisms on one hand and the increasing allegations that Turkey’s ruling JDP government has been following an identity driven sectarian foreign policy in Iraq, Syria and Egypt on the other seem to have led many analysts to argue that identity based accounts appear to have more explanatory power than power-based explanations in terms of accounting for foreign policies of major Middle Eastern actors. 


This short essay does not deny the significance of identity related considerations in understanding foreign policy choices of regional actors in the Middle East, yet contends that ideational explanations become credible within the framework of existing power relations at a given time and mostly regional actors tend to cloak their power-based calculations under ideational discourses. Restoring to ideational rhetoric or appearing to act in the name of some sacred motivations are noticed provided that such actions would add up to existing power capabilities of actors. Regional actors first ask how and whether the existing or emerging external environment will impact their ability to achieve their national interests as well as contribute to their power capabilities. Identities, role conceptualizations, national self-images and domestic values would certainly have an impact on how regional actors determine their national preferences yet their ability to help achieve them would mainly depend on the nature of the material environment in which they find themselves. Internal characteristics of actors would certainly affect how they respond to external environment and which power instruments they employ in their foreign policies yet what  counts in the final analysis would be how much powerful they would be vis-a-vis each other. The anarchical nature of the regional environment in the Middle East, the instrumentalization of the region by powerful external actors in their geopolitical competitions with each other, the lack of EU-like institutionalised interstate practices based on common norms, interests and   values and the well-established dynamics of security dilemma leave states in the region with no option but to prioritise survival politics and zero-sum rivalries.


The rise of Iran in the region following the end of the Sunni influence in Iraq seems to have bolstered identity based explanations because Iran is assumed to have been acting as a revolutionary state in its foreign policy putting its Shiite identity at the centre of its regional-international engagements. Exporting its revolutionary state ideology and forging strategic relations with diverse Shiite groups across the Middle East, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, many analysts think Iran constitutes the text-book example of how identity drives foreign policy. Since the current religious regime has been instituted in 1979 Iran has defined the protection and promotion of Islamic values in the region its number one foreign policy goal. This would not only provide legitimacy to new rulers in Tehran but also help strengthen Iran’s bargaining power in its neighbourhood. The Arab spring has further bolstered the argument that Iran has been more an idea than a state, for in the emerging regional environment Iran would easily take on the mantle of Islam’s true leader by offering a successful model of how Islam could be incorporated into people’s democratic demands and later on determine the contours of legitimate state-society relationship.


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