The P-5+1 talks with Iran will resume Jan. 21-22. For those not tuned
into the obscure jargon of the diplomatic world, these are the talks
between the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (the
United States, Britain, France, China and Russia), plus Germany — hence,
P-5+1. These six countries will be negotiating with one country, Iran.
The meetings will take place in Istanbul under the aegis of yet another
country, Turkey. Turkey has said it would only host this meeting, not
mediate it. It will be difficult for Turkey to stay in this role.

The Iranians have clearly learned from the North Koreans, who have turned their nuclear program into a framework for entangling five major powers
(the United States, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea) into treating
North Korea as their diplomatic equal. For North Korea, whose goal since
the collapse of the Soviet Union and the absorption of China with
international trade has come down to regime survival, being treated as a
serious power has been a major diplomatic coup. The mere threat of
nuclear weapons development has succeeded in doing that. When you step
back and consider that North Korea’s economy is among the most destitute
of Third World countries and its nuclear capability is far from proven,
getting to be the one being persuaded to talk with five major powers
(and frequently refusing and then being coaxed) has been quite an
achievement.

Iran Exploits an Opportunity

The Iranians have achieved a similar position. By far the weakest of
the negotiators, they have created a dynamic whereby they are not only
sitting across the table from the six most powerful countries in the
world but are also, like the North Koreans, frequently being coaxed
there. With the obvious blessings of the others, a seventh major power,
Turkey, has positioned itself to facilitate and perhaps mediate between
the two sides: the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and
Germany on one side, Iran on the other. This is such an extraordinary
line-up that I can’t help repeating it.

No one does anything about North Korea militarily because it is more
of a nuisance than a threat, even with its artillery in range of Seoul
(fixed artillery positions are perfect targets for U.S. air power).
Negotiations and occasional aid solve the problem. Iran’s position is
much more significant and goes far beyond potential nuclear weapons. If
the United States withdraws from the region, Iran becomes the most powerful conventional power in the Persian Gulf,
regardless of whether it has nuclear weapons. Given that the United
States is officially bound to leave Iraq by the end of this year, Iran
is becoming substantially more powerful.

North Korea’s goal is regime survival. It has no goals beyond that.
Iran’s ambitions include regime survival but go well beyond it. Indeed,
if there are any threats to the regime, they do not come from outside
Iran but from inside Iran, and none of them appears powerful enough to
cause regime change. Iran, therefore, is less about preserving its power
than it is about enhancing it. It faces a historic opportunity and
wants to exploit it without embroiling itself in a ground war.

The drawdown of American forces in Iraq is the first step. As U.S. power declines in Iraq, Iranian power increases. Last week, Muqtada al-Sadr returned to Iraq from Iran.
Al-Sadr was the leader of a powerful pro-Iranian, anti-American militia
in Iraq, and he left Iraq four years ago under heavy pressure from
American forces. His decision to return clearly was not his alone. It
was an Iranian decision as well, and the timing was perfect. With a
nominally independent government now in place in Iraq under the
premiership of Nouri al-Maliki, who is by all accounts pro-Iranian, the
reinsertion of al-Sadr while the U.S. withdrawal is under way puts
pressure on the government from the Iranians at the same time that
resistance from the United States, and the confidence of its allies in
Iraq, is decreasing.

U.S. Options

The United States now faces a critical choice. If it continues its
withdrawal of forces from Iraq, Iraq will be on its way to becoming an
Iranian satellite. Certainly, there are anti-Iranian elements even among
the Shiites, but the covert capability of Iran and its overt influence,
coupled with its military presence on the border, will undermine Iraq’s
ability to resist. If Iraq becomes an Iranian ally or satellite, the
Iraqi-Saudi and Iraqi-Kuwaiti frontier becomes, effectively, the
frontier with Iran. The psychological sense in the region will be that
the United States has no appetite for resisting Iran. Having asked the
Americans to deal with the Iranians — and having failed to get them to
do so, the Saudis will have to reach some accommodation with Iran. In
other words, with the most strategically located country in the Middle
East — Iraq — Iran now has the ability to become the dominant power in
the Middle East and simultaneously reshape the politics of the Arabian
Peninsula.

The United States, of course, has the option of not drawing down
forces in Iraq or stopping the withdrawal at some smaller number, but we
are talking here about war and not symbols. Twenty thousand U.S. troops
(as the drawdown continues) deployed in training and support roles and
resisting an assertive pro-Iranian militia is a small number. Indeed,
the various militias will have no compunction about attacking U.S.
troops, diplomats and aid workers dispersed at times in small groups
around the country. The United States couldn’t control Iraq with nearly
170,000 troops, and 50,000 troops or fewer is going to result in U.S.
casualties should the Iranians choose to follow that path. And these
causalities would not be accompanied by hope of a military or political
success. Assuming that the United States is not prepared to increase
forces in Iraq dramatically, the Iranians now face a historic
opportunity.

The nuclear issue is not all that important. The Israelis are now
saying that the Iranians are three to five years away from having a
nuclear weapon. Whether this is because of computer worms implanted in Iranian centrifuges by the U.S. National Security Agency or some other technical intelligence agency, or because, as we have said before, building a nuclear weapon is really very hard and takes a long time,
the Israelis have reduced the pressure publicly. The pressure is coming
from the Saudis. As STRATFOR has said and WikiLeaks has confirmed, it
is the Saudis who are currently pressing the United States to do
something about Iran, not because of nuclear weapons but because of the
conventional shift in the balance of power.

While Iran could easily withstand the destruction of weapons that it
does not have, its real fear is that the United States will launch a
conventional air war designed to cripple Iran’s conventional forces —
its naval and armored capability, particularly. The destruction of
Iranian naval power is critical, since Iran’s most powerful countermove in a war would be to block the Strait of Hormuz
with mines, anti-ship missiles and swarming suicide craft, cutting off
the substantial flow of oil that comes out of the strait. Such a cutoff
would shatter the global economic recovery. This is Iran’s true
“nuclear” option.

The Iranians are also aware that air warfare — unlike
counterinsurgency — is America’s strong suit. It does not underestimate
the ability of the United States, in an extended air war, to shatter
Iran’s conventional capability, and without that conventional
capability, Iran becomes quite insignificant. Therefore, Iran comes to
the table with two goals. The first is to retain the powerful
negotiating hand it has by playing the nuclear card. The second is to
avoid an air campaign by the United States against Iran’s conventional
capabilities.

At stake in this discussion is nothing less than the future of the
Arabian Peninsula. The Iranians would not have to invade militarily to
be able to reshape the region. It would be sufficient for there to be
the potential for Iran to invade. It would shift the regime survival
question away from Iran to Saudi Arabia. U.S. troops in Kuwait would
help but would not change the basic equation. The Saudis would
understand that having left Iraq, the United States would be quite
capable of leaving Kuwait. The pressure on the Saudis to accommodate the
Iranians would be terrific, since they would have to hedge their bets
on the United States. As for basing troops in Saudi Arabia itself, the
risks pyramid, since the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia during Desert
Shield and Desert Storm helped trigger the rise of al Qaeda.

Therefore, the choices appear to be accepting the shift in the
regional balance in favor of Iran, reversing the withdrawal of U.S.
forces from Iraq or attempting to destroy Iran’s conventional forces
while preventing the disruption of oil from the Persian Gulf. From the
American point of view, none of these choices is appetizing. Living with
Iranian power opens the door to future threats. Moving heavily into
Iraq may simply not be possible with current forces committed to
Afghanistan. In any case, reversing the flow out of Iraq would create a
blocking force at best, and one not large enough to impose its will on
Iraq or Iran.

There is, of course, the option of maintaining or intensifying sanctions. The problem is that even the Americans have created major loopholes in these sanctions,
and the Chinese and Russians — as well as the Europeans — are happy to
undermine it at will. The United States could blockade Iran, but much of
its imports come in through land routes in the north — including
gasoline from Russia — and for the U.S. Navy to impose an effective
naval blockade it would have to stop and board Chinese and Russian
merchant ships as well as those from other countries. The United States
could bomb Iranian refineries, but that would simply open the door for
foreign sales of gasoline. I do not have confidence in sanctions in
general, and while current sanctions may hurt, they will not force
regime change or cause the Iranians to forego the kind of opportunities
they currently have. They can solve many of the problems of sanctions by
entrenching themselves in Iraq. The Saudis will pay the price they need
for the peace they want.

The Europeans are hardly of one mind on any subject save one: They do
not want to see a disruption of oil from the Persian Gulf. If the
United States could guarantee a successful outcome for an air attack,
the Germans and French would privately support it while publicly
condemning American unilateralism. The Chinese would be appalled by the
risks U.S. actions would impose on them. They need Middle Eastern oil,
though China is happy to see the United States bogged down in the Middle
East so it doesn’t have to worry too much about U.S. competition
elsewhere. And, finally, the Russians would profit from surging energy
prices and having the U.S. bogged down in another war. For the Russians,
unlike the Europeans and Chinese, an attack would be acceptable.

Therefore, at the table next week will be the Americans, painfully
aware that its campaigns look promising at the beginning but frequently
fail; the Europeans and Chinese, wanting a low-risk solution to a
long-term problem; and the Russians, wanting to appear helpful while
hoping the United States steps in it again and ready to live with
soaring energy prices. And there are the Iranians, wanting to avoid a
conventional war but not wanting to forego the opportunity that it has
looked for since before the Islamic Republic — domination of the Persian
Gulf.

The Turkish Stake

Then there are the Turks. The Turks opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq
because they expected it to fail to establish a viable government in
Baghdad and thereby to destroy the balance of power between Iraq and
Iran. The Turks have also tried to avoid being drawn into the south
beyond dealing with threats from Turkish Kurds operating out of Iraq. At
the same time, Turkey has been repositioning itself as both a leading power in the Muslim world and the bridge between the Muslim world and the West, particularly the United States.

Given this, the Turks have assumed the role of managing the
negotiations between the P-5+1 and Iran. The United States in particular
was upset at Turkey’s last effort, which coincided with the imposition
of sanctions by the P-5+1. The Turks, along with Brazil, negotiated a
transfer of nuclear materials from Iran that was seen as insufficient by
the West. The real fact was that the United States was unprepared for
the unilateral role Turkey and Brazil played at the time they played it.
Since then, the nuclear fears have subsided, the sanctions have had
limited success at best, and the United States is a year away from
leaving Iraq and already has withdrawn from a combat role. The United
States now welcomes the Turkish role. So do the Iranians. The rest don’t
matter right now.

Now the Turks must face their dilemma. It is all very good to want to
negotiate as a neutral party, but the most important party isn’t at the
table: Saudi Arabia. Turkey wants to play a dominant role in the Muslim
world without risking too much in terms of military force. The problem
for Turkey, therefore, is not so much bringing the United States and
Iran closer but bringing the Saudis and Iranians closer, and that is a
tremendous challenge not only because of religious issues but also
because Iran wants to be what Saudi Arabia opposes most: the dominant
power in the region. The Turkish problem is to reconcile the fundamental
issue in the region, which is the relationship between Persians and
Arabs.

The nuclear issue is easy simply because it is not time-sensitive right now. The future of Iraq is time-sensitive and uncertain.
The United States wants to leave, and that creates an Iranian ally. A
pro-Iranian Iraq, by merely existing, changes the reality of Saudi
Arabia. If Turkey wants to play a constructive role, it must find a
formula that satisfies three needs. The first is to facilitate the
American withdrawal, since simply staying and taking casualties is not
an option and will result in the conventional air war that few want. The
second is to limit the degree of control Iran has in Iraq, guaranteeing
Iranian interests in Iraq without allowing absolute control. The third
is to persuade Saudi Arabia that the degree of control ceded to Iranians
will not threaten Saudi interests.

If the United States leaves the region, the only way to provide these
guarantees to all parties is for Turkish forces, covert and overt, to
play an active role in Iraq counterbalancing Iranian influence. Turkey
has been a rising power in the region, and it is now about to encounter
the price of power. The Turks could choose simply to side with the
Iranians or the Saudis, but neither strategy would enhance Turkish
security in the long run.

The Turks do not want an air war in Iran. They do not want chaos in
Iraq. They do not want to choose between Persians and Arabs. They do not
want an Iranian regional hegemon. There are many things the Turks do
not want. The question is: What they do want? And what risks are they
prepared to take to get it? The prime risk they must take is in Iraq —
to limit, not block, Iranian power and to provide a threat to Iran if it
goes too far in the Arabian Peninsula. This can be done, but it is not
how the Turks have behaved in the last century or so. Things have
changed.

Having regional power is not a concept. It is a complex and
unpleasant process of balancing contradictory interests in order to
prevent greater threats to a country’s interests emerging in the long
run. Having positioned itself as a host for negotiations between the
United States, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany on one hand
and Iran on the other hand, Turkey has a basic decision to make: It can
merely provide a table for the discussion, or it can shape and guarantee
the outcome.

As the Americans have learned, no one will thank them for it,
and no one will think better of them for doing it. The only reason for a
deeper involvement as mediator in the P-5+1 talks is that stabilizing
the region and maintaining the Persian-Arab balance of power is in
Turkey’s national interest. But it will be a wrenching shift to Turkey’s
internal political culture. It is also an inevitable shift. If not now,
then later.

The Turkish Role in Negotiations with Iran is republished with permission of STRATFOR.”

George Friedman is chief executive officer of Stratfor, the world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence. He is a widely recognized international affairs expert and author of numerous...