Is Turkey Trying to Sink or Save Iran?

Ankara's emboldened stance on Iran is spooking some in the West. But is the country's newfound independence just for show?


An otherwise predictable Arab League Summit held last weekend in Sirte, Libya, was enlivened by the presence of a special guest. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took to the podium on the summit’s opening day to denounce the "madness" of Israeli designs over Jerusalem, referring to the holy city as "the apple of the eye of each and every Muslim."

Such rhetoric has earned Turkey, currently ruled by the mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party, widespread praise in Arab circles. But Ankara’s newfound assertiveness in the Middle East has not been limited to fiery speeches. In the past two years, the country has launched mediation efforts between Syria and Israel, encouraged Iraq’s Sunni leaders to participate in the political process, and attempted to bridge sectarian divisions in Lebanon.

There is little doubt that Turkey’s leaders, and particularly its visionary foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, have a new vision for their country’s international role. What is less clear is if Turkey can fulfill its more grandiose ambitions. At the moment, skeptics argue that Turkey’s regional influence is little more than talk. And a nearing collision on Iran sanctions could prove a crucial test of whether Turkey is ready to back up words with action.

Certainly, Turkish officials are enjoying their moment in the limelight. "People never used to ask us our opinion" at the United Nations, assuming they would toe the Western line, noted Selim Yenel, a deputy undersecretary in Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "Now, they ask us."

But Turkey’s new independence has provoked more than a little apprehension in the United States and Europe, where some officials look back nostalgically to the country’s Cold War-era loyalty to the Western bloc. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent visit to the country was marred by widening disagreements on a number of fronts, from the issue of Turkey’s accession to the European Union — which Merkel is trying to scuttle — to Turkey’s objection to another round of sanctions on Iran. "We must first try to find a diplomatic solution," Erdogan argued in a recent interview with Der Spiegel. With U.S. President Barack Obama now saying that he wants a vote on sanctions within "weeks," Turkey might find itself forced to choose sides sooner rather than later.

And Turkey might indeed have the ability to broker a diplomatic solution to the problem of Iran and its rogue nuclear program. Turkey has a unique combination of economic and diplomatic tools at its disposal: It has a strong economic partnership with the Islamic Republic, with which it conducts approximately $10 billion in trade annually; Erdogan has also cultivated close ties to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom he refers to as a "friend." At the same time, Turkey holds a seat on the U.N. Security Council, where it is a potential swing vote on any upcoming sanctions resolutions.

I recently traveled to Turkey, along with a number of American and Armenian journalists, on a trip sponsored by the economics-oriented think tank TEPAV, which is funded by the Union of Chambers of Turkey, the Turkish equivalent of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. TEPAV organized meetings for us with Turkish officials and businessmen — and in our discussions, it became clear that the Turks are scrambling to defuse a situation that could undermine the country’s growing international clout, and reverse its recent economic progress.

On our second day in Ankara, we headed to Turkey’s presidential palace, known as Cankaya Kosku. From this sprawling 100-acre campus, rising above Ankara from the south, Ataturk engineered the transformation of the Ottoman Empire into the Turkish Republic. We were there to meet with its current inhabitant, President Abdullah Gul. Gul is a mild-mannered politician who has nonetheless earned the ire of the Turkish military, which attempted to thwart his ascension to the presidency in 2007 due to his previous sympathy for Islamist-inspired political movements.

Gul was quick to frame Turkey’s opening to Iran as a form of realpolitik, necessitated by the country’s geographic proximity. Iran is a "real state in the region, different from the other states in the Middle East" whose borders were forged after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. What’s more, its influence in the region is growing — a fact that Turkey has to appreciate. "All of Iran’s influence in Iraq is due to the actions of our friends," he said with a smile, reminding his U.S. guests of their country’s role in shaping regional realities.

Gul described the primary obstacle in reaching a deal with Iran as the intrinsic lack of fairness in international efforts to pressure the country. "There is a major confidence crisis on the part of the Iranians that prevents progress," he noted. Iran thinks that it is being targeted not because it has violated universally applied principles, but as part of a plot to weaken the Islamic Republic. This belief causes Iranian leaders to retreat to instinctive anti-Americanism in their public statements. "In private meetings, Ahmadinejad has a different rhetoric," Gul asserted. "He understands this is heading in a dangerous direction."

However, there is another way forward, announced Gul: "the elimination of all nuclear weapons from the Middle East." Yes, of course, he opposes Iran’s nuclear program — but he also opposes Israel’s possession of a nuclear arsenal. The call for a nuclear-free Middle East has emerged as the centerpiece of Turkey’s Iran policy and the best case study available of Turkey’s independent course in the region. Gul assured us this is more than a rhetorical ploy designed to balance criticism of all sides equally. On the contrary, "the goal here would be to ensure the security of Israel."

A few short miles northwest of the presidential palace sits the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — off of Ismet Inonu Boulevard, named after Turkey’s second president and protector of Ataturk’s legacy — where Turkey’s energetic diplomats attempt to add substance to this concept. Feridun Sinirlioglu, the under secretary for foreign affairs, argues that Turkey is bolstering international support for containment efforts by condemning both Iran and Israel equally. "There is a problem of legitimacy on efforts to contain Iran," Sinirlioglu said. "If we tell Iran that the aim is to have a nuclear-free region, it will be easier to mobilize international support."

Although Turkey’s rhetoric might discourage those hoping to enlist its aid in isolating Iran, the government might not be as uncompromising as it appears to be. Most importantly, officials show a quiet appreciation of the risks posed by Iran’s nuclear program. "I do believe that their final intention is to have a nuclear weapon, because it is related to their national pride," Gul stated. If this comes to pass, Turkey’s already precarious neighborhood could explode — undermining a decade’s worth of economic and diplomatic progress. Iranian leaders "would not use [nuclear weapons], but would start behaving in an irrational manner and would create problems for themselves" argued Gul, citing the dangers of a confrontation with the Gulf regimes in particular.

When it comes to sanctions, there is also likely more latitude to Turkey’s position than it lets on. By taking a firm line now, Ankara may hope to prevent a resolution on sanctions from coming to the floor of the U.N. Security Council. However, if the United States can avoid vetoes from Russia and China, few expect Turkey to stand in the way. "All options for Turkey are undesirable" on Iran, noted Soli Ozel, a professor at Istanbul’s Bilgi University and a frequent commentator. "But if push comes to shove, Turkey will side with its allies."

This has less to do with principle than Turkey’s post-Republic orientation toward the West. Breaking with the United States and Europe over such a crucial issue would represent a fundamental split with the Western alliance, a step few think Turkey is willing to take. In this sense, Turkey appears less as an assertive, independent actor in the Middle East and more as a developing power caught between two stronger poles. "We’re telling both sides that we’re not doing a favor to you," Sinirlioglu said. "We’re doing this for our benefit, because we’re in the middle of this."

That is an eminently logical position — but a far cry from the more grandiose statements made by Turkey’s boosters. Turkey’s diplomatic efforts have achieved their short-term goal of staying on good terms with all sides, but have failed to resolve their long-term goal of lowering tensions between Iran and the West. It is no secret what it will take to defuse this looming confrontation: an international effort that both coaxes and pressures Iran to agree to international verification of the peaceful use of its nuclear program. If only there were a newly assertive regional power to lead the way.

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