The visits to Iran of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula de Silva for meetings with Iran’s leaders on May 16, followed by the May 17 announcement that Iran is willing send its nuclear material to Turkey is clearly a sign that we are firmly in a multi-polar world.
While the deal signed with cheer by the leaders of Brazil, Iran and Turkey, has seemingly been rejected by the United States as insufficient, the proposal — to ship much of Iran’s stockpile or enriched uranium to Turkey for further processing and have it return as fuel rods —clearly signals that rising powers like Brazil and Turkey, like it or not, are in the process of joining the club of global powers. And that in the not-so-distant future, the Nobel Committee will be considering the likes of Erdoğan and Lula for the Nobel Prize.
While Iran’s opaque political system makes it hard to know exactly what went into the calculations preceding the country’s announcement that it was willing to transfer its enriched nuclear materials to Turkey for storage, one clear factor was the hard-line leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran sense of self-respect. Unwilling to be seen as yielding to pressure by its opponents — be they Iran’s very traditional villains America and the UK, or its domestic political opponents that took to the streets almost a year ago to protest the election results — Iran’s leaders were looking for some very untraditional partners to help get themselves out of an increasingly precarious situation.
In the Middle East, ever since the Bush administration abdicated America’s role as the first-choice broker for emerging problems to focus the preponderance of its political and military energies on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11, the region’s leaders have risen to fill the void. Whether it was Turkey stepping up to try to host talks between Israel and Syria in 2008, or Qatar successfully hosting talks to bring Lebanon’s rival factions back from the brink of civil war in 2008 to sign the Doha Agreement it was clear that the era of American leadership in this region was over. Emerging economic powers like Turkey and creative powers like Qatar which hosts the Arab world’s leading satellite TV channel Al Jazeera alongside campuses for six leading American universities like Georgetown and Cornell have risen to fill the void.
Taken together, this is a clear signpost, once and for all, that we are now firmly living in a multi-polar world where the traditional powers of the last half century embodied by the United Nations Security Council — China, Russia, the United States, Great Britain and France — now share the global stage with emerging powers like Brazil, India, Turkey and even tiny countries like Qatar where Lula visited in connection with his trip to Iran.
While the past decade was filled with debates about whether to expand the UN Security Council, the current decade has been about building new structures that reflect the new reality like the G20 summit hosted by the United States in Pittsburgh in September, 2009 or the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit hosted by President Obama in April which brought together almost 50 countries — including just under 40 heads of state — to not only discuss progress but actually take practical steps forward.
Whether or not the terms of the Brazil-Turkey deal diffuse the global nuclear tensions with Iran, just like Obama’s G20 and nuclear summits, the visits of Lula and Erdoğan to meet with Iran’s leaders on the nuclear issue, represent a new trend towards multi-polarity.
So as the Nobel Committee considers its Peace Prize recipients over the coming years, it’s clear that candidates like U.S. presidents Carter and Obama who were awarded the prize for helping build peace, and local adversaries like de Klerk and Mandela or Arafat and Peres / Rabin who shook hands for peace, will be joined by the leaders of emerging powers in the new multi-polar world we are already living in like Brazilian President Lula and Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan.
Power abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of strong U.S. leadership on Syria, Russia and Iran have been more than happy to move in. It's a measure of just how much they've come to dominate the conflict that they'll be the only major foreign powers at the summit. The White House has largely washed its hands of Syria. But with Iran entrenched in Damascus, and the Islamic State biding its time in the far countryside, it's likely only a matter of time before our hands are dirtied again. When that happens we'll likely look at these negotiations as a lost opportunity.