News / Middle East

Iran, Turkey Vie to Be Palestinians' Champion

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In the Middle East Iran has always presented itself as the major champion of the Palestinian cause. However, analysts say that Turkey has stolen some of that mantle with the Gaza flotilla incident. As VOA senior news analyst Gary Thomas reports, Turkey is engaged in a competition with neighboring Iran for regional influence.

When a flotilla filled with international activists that had sailed from Turkey was attacked by an Israeli commando team, Turkish condemnation was swift. Iran's was slow in coming.

Analyst Reva Bhalla of the private intelligence firm STRATFOR says Iran is not happy at being upstaged by Turkey.

"They don't particularly like the idea of Turkey stealing the show," said Bhalla. "And by that I mean Iran has spent the past several years trying to claim this mantle of being the true defender of the Palestinians while exposing the hypocrisies of the major Arab powers."

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for the elimination of the Jewish state, and Iran has long portrayed itself as a key supporter of the Palestinians.

Former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns tells VOA that Iranian support for the Palestinians has been more talk than action.

"My sense is that Iran has been quite hypocritical, the Iranian government, in asserting interest in the Palestinians," said Burns. "Iran has never done anything to help the Palestinians. But it talks this game because it wants to increase its credibility in the Arab world."

Although both Muslim majority countries, theocratic Iran and secular Turkey have had markedly different approaches to the state of Israel. Turkey was the first Muslim state to recognize Israel, and Israel has been a major arms supplier to Turkey. But Turkish-Israeli relations started to sour after Turkey's sharp criticism of the 2009 Israeli military incursion into Gaza.

Reva Bhalla says the attempt to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza has greatly complicated things for both Israel and the United States.

"Israel's major priority right now is to ensure the blockade of Gaza. If it relents it redefines the power balance in the region at a time when Turkey's influence is surging through the Arab street," said Bhalla. "And on the other hand, the harder line it takes on the issue the more it risks alienating the U.S. And this comes at a time when Turkey's relationship with Israel is at a historical low point."

But analysts say there is suspicion in the region about the Iranian-Turkish competition for influence. Under Saddam Hussein, Arab Iraq was a strategic counterweight to Iran. But Iraq was decimated by the U.S. invasion of 2003 and is currently consumed by internal political power struggles. Nicholas Burns says that has left the Arab world particularly suspicious about Iran's ambitions in the region.

"I think the larger issue for most Arabs is they see Iran's growing military power as a threat and as unhelpful in an already volatile region, the Middle East," said Burns. "And here's very little trust between the Arab world and Iran. That's not going to change because the Iranian government holds press conferences about its support for the Palestinians."

Analysts say the Gaza incident could slow U.S. attempts to slap new U.N. sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program. The Gaza incident is taking the U.N. Security Council's attention away from the sanctions issue. And Turkey, which currently has a seat on the U.N. Security Council, has never been enthusiastic about the idea of sanctions. Former Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Richard Murphy says sentiment will be thin for any action that may be perceived as benefiting Israel.

"It is an angry mood in Turkey now, and that will only deepen or give more edge to their criticism of sanctions on Iran," said murphy. "It didn't believe that was the way to go before Gaza, and Gaza did nothing to change its mind, I'm sure of that."

Turkey and Brazil recently reached a deal with Iran for it to send some of its low-grade uranium to Turkey for enrichment. Analysts have seen that as part of Turkey's bid for influence. But the U.S. has dismissed the deal as insufficient and says it will continue to press for more sanctions on Iran.

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