The Middle East Channel

Turkey’s two-step on the Iranian question

When a prime minister refers to the Iranian leader as his "brother," his country’s approach to nonproliferation and the Iranian nuclear crisis starts to generate interest and concern in the West. This is especially true if that country shares a border with Iran. This is the situation Turkey and its leaders are now faced with. ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

When a prime minister refers to the Iranian leader as his "brother," his country’s approach to nonproliferation and the Iranian nuclear crisis starts to generate interest and concern in the West. This is especially true if that country shares a border with Iran. This is the situation Turkey and its leaders are now faced with.

Turkey’s approach to Iran is shaped by a number of contradictory elements. On the positive side, relations between the two countries have been peaceful for almost four centuries. The Turkey-Iran border set out by the "Qasr-i Shireen" Treaty of 1639 has remained unchanged, no small accomplishment in a turbulent region like the Middle East. In more recent times, with the end of Iranian zeal to export the Islamic Revolution, relations have improved significantly. Today, they are characterized by the principles of noninterference in domestic affairs, good neighborliness, and economic and security cooperation. As a result, Iran is not viewed as a direct threat by the Turkish establishment or in Turkish public opinion.

Yet Ankara views Iran’s nuclear ambitions with concern. According to Turkish policymakers, a nuclear armed Iran would present a direct challenge to regional stability while undermining the global nonproliferation regime. Although the possibility of a regional nuclear arms race cannot be totally discounted, a nuclear-armed Iran would in any event become a more aggressive state in the pursuit of its national interest. A showdown between Israel and Iran, for instance, could have very destabilizing consequences for the region. Finally, a nuclear-armed Iran would also pose a challenge to the increasingly influential role that Turkey wants to develop in its southern neighborhood.

In short, Turkey shares much of the same concerns about a nuclear Iran as its partners in the West. The difference stems from the envisaged strategy for addressing the Iranian issue. Turkish policymakers want and continue to believe that a diplomatic solution is possible.  Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has been in direct talks with his Iranian counterpart to seal a deal allowing the transfer of nuclear fuel to Iran. As such, Ankara is against the imposition of new sanctions on Iran. These differences are likely to lead Turkey to abstain from voting for such a U.N. Security Council resolution, now slated for early June. U.S. policymakers are known to have made clear to their Turkish counterparts that abstention will be viewed by Washington as Turkey’s failure to support the new sanctions. After all, unlike other recalcitrant states like China and Brazil, Turkey is a NATO ally and benefits from the U.S nuclear umbrella; it is therefore expected to support the emerging consensus among NATO members regarding sanctions on Iran.

The growing pressure on Ankara to align itself with members of the transatlantic community is closely linked to the ineptitude of Turkish leaders, and in particular of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to explain the rationale for Turkey’s opposition to a new set of sanctions against Iran.

In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, the Turkish prime minister dismissed accusations that Tehran wants to develop nuclear weapons as simple rumors. Indeed, every time the nuclear issue is raised, Erdogan is quick to point his finger to Israel and its nuclear weapons so as to denounce the apparent double standard of the international community. As a result, Turkey’s preference for a different strategy for dealing with Iran, involving more diplomacy and less sanctions, comes across as a provocative ideological choice, fueling fears in some quarters that Turkey is moving away from the West.

It would have been a different matter if the Turkish leadership had been able to express some of the very legitimate arguments that Ankara can actually make regarding the prevailing Iranian strategy. These arguments can be summarized as follows:

  • Iran seeks nuclear weapons capability as a matter of national pride and prestige, and as such, aggravated sanctions are unlikely to lead to a change in the regime’s objectives. Indeed, the Iranian opposition’s view on the nuclear program is not different than Iran’s current leaders’;
  • The second reason for Iran’s nuclear quest is Iran’s own security threat perception. That is also why a diplomatic engagement is indispensable for giving assurances to Iran. New sanctions can only accentuate Iran’s negative perceptions;
  • Trade and investment sanctions, as experienced in relation to Iraq, have the potential to hurt Turkey and the Turkish economy. The impact will be felt all the more in Turkish provinces near Iran, which are among the poorest in Turkey. As a neighbor of Iran, Turkey is in a different position compared with the other members of the U.N. Security Council with a bilateral trade volume in excess of $10 billion;
  • The Iranian crisis should not lead to a change in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime that could hinder individual countries’ transition to civilian nuclear energy;
  • A stronger nonproliferation regime requires a more legitimate nonproliferation regime which in turn implies the elimination of prevailing double standards. In this respect, the United States did disservice to the NPT regime by concluding its nuclear deal with India;
  • In the same vein, the case of Israel merits more attention. It is clear that Israel will continue to hold on to its nuclear arsenal as long as there is no peace in the Middle East. But the West should not turn a blind eye to the Israeli exception and should defend the prospect of a total denuclearization of the Middle East.

The coming weeks will be critical in determining Turkey’s final stance on Iran. Turkish support for sanctions is crucial for showing a unified front against Iran. Above all, however, Turkey’s alignment with its transatlantic partners will be important for the post-sanctions phase when the debate is very likely to shift to the deterrence or containment of Tehran.

Sinan Ülgen is Bosch public policy fellow at the Transatlantic Academy of the German Marshall Fund and chairman of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Sudies (EDAM) in Istanbul.


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Sinan Ulgen is the chairman of the Istanbul-based EDAM think tank and a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. Twitter: @sinanulgen1

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