Facing the frenemy

Linocut illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Ankara’s recent rapprochement with Tehran is probably the most emblematic sign of Turkey’s newfound assertiveness in the Middle East, but experts agree that the true motivations behind this tectonic foreign policy shift are not easy to fathom.

“Turkey’s love affair with Iran cannot be explained with single-parameter equations. It’s a mixture of several factors at work with different weights that cannot be measured,” Burak Bekdil, an Ankara-based analyst, told Athens Plus. Bekdil singles out a number of factors, including natural gas, ideology, domestic politics, regional foreign policy ambitions and bilateral trade – “some selective deals that must be benefiting companies friendly to Erdogan and the AKP,” he said in a reference to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s mildly Islamic Justice and Development Party.

It’s certainly a tough equation. But Stephen Kinzer, a former Middle East correspondent for the New York Times, prefers to stick with the more obvious constants. “They are the two major non-Arab states in the Muslim Middle East,” he told Athens Plus in an interview. “Both are big and powerful, their history has been intertwined, and each needs much of what the other has,” said Kinzer, who has just authored a book called “Reset: Iran, Turkey and America’s Future.”

Turkey, along with Brazil, in May signed a nuclear fuel swap deal with Iran meant to help end Tehran’s standoff with the West over its atomic program. Compounding Washington’s dismay, Ankara went on to vote against UN sanctions on Iran the month after. Turkey, which gets a third of its natural gas from Iran, recently also defied a US ban on gasoline sales to Tehran and is expected to remove Iran from a watch list of nations it considers a specific threat to national security.

Turkey’s engagement with Iran reflects a broader Turkish repositioning on the Mideast chessboard allegedly masterminded by its foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. Ankara has sought to re-brand itself as a soft power broker in formerly Ottoman territories by using its economic, diplomatic and cultural power. But although its policy of “zero problems with neighbors” saw a drastic improvement in ties with Iraq and Syria, Turkey’s relations with Israel, Washington’s other principal ally in the region, have deteriorated rapidly since Israel’s Gaza offensive in early 2009, hitting a low following the raid on a flotilla of humanitarian aid in late May that left nine Turkish citizens dead.

Confusion

The approval this week in a public referendum of a controversial package of constitutional reforms to reshape the judiciary and curb military power – traditionally under the influence of the secular establishment – will no doubt strengthen Erdogan’s hand also in foreign policy. But more confidence has not always come with more clarity. Turkey’s eastward realignment is perplexing friends and foes alike. Some analysts say that the increasing diplomatic activism of his administration is welcome in Washington and Brussels provided it does not run against the core interests of the Western alliance.

“Anything that promotes the Turkish example of capitalist democracy also promotes stability and weakens radicalism,” Kinzer said, warning however that too much dancing to the Western tune does not go down well with the man on the Arab street. “If Turkey is seen as not always following Washington’s policies reflexively, that could even help Turkey project its influence.”

That unique role could weaken if Turkey were to lose America’s trust. Americans want to believe, Kinzer says, that after all the daily bickering is over, the Turks remain fundamentally pro-NATO and sympathetic to US security goals. Should that fade, the relationship will inevitably weaken.

Israel is the obvious litmus test. Ties to the Jewish state have traditionally been seen as a counterweight to Islamic extremism, allowing Turkey to focus on NATO and its EU ambitions. The AKP obviously deems it can get away with some Israel-bashing now and then, much of it for domestic consumption, but some analysts warn Israel and Iran will put this notion to the test.

“Pushing Israel into a corner and isolating and punishing it may redeem understandable emotions, but it does not serve the cause of peace. After making your point, it is often good to extend the hand of reconciliation,” Kinzer said. Recent reports said the US warned Ankara it will shun joint air drills next month if Israel is not invited.

Bekdil too fears Turkey may be overplaying its hand. “The AKP thinks they can play both camps. Pro-eastern on the public front but pro-Western when the AKP messengers meet with US and EU officials,” he said, pointing out that so far the policy has worked without any major damage to the AKP. “No punishment from the West. No cost. So why not follow a popular route that is also economically beneficial?”

Some beg to differ. Hugh Pope, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, thinks that fears of “losing Turkey” are overrated and does not hesitate to hail Turkey’s overtures eastward. Speaking to Athens Plus, Pope welcomes Ankara’s efforts to head off sanctions and other potential disruption in the region, which would be very costly to Turkey, and to solve the problem by diplomatic means, if possible. “Turkey has different tactics and priorities to its Western allies, and firmly believes in engaging Iran, but it shares with the West the goal of ensuring that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons,” he said.

Pope, one of the authors of the just-published ICG report “Turkey’s Crises over Israel and Iran,” is keen to note that tension with the West is not necessarily of Turkey’s making alone. “The EU and the US also share the blame for alienating Turkey over the past years, notably because of Germany and France’s public hostility to Turkey’s EU ambitions and the US invasion of Iraq,” he said.

Same ends, different means

But there is another element to the geopolitical game. Some observers hold that the shift of Sunni Turkey, worried about Shiite Iran’s influence over Iraq following the American pullout, is actually driven by an attempt to contain Iran, it’s most serious rival in the race to lead the Islamic world. Skeptical about the effectiveness of UN sanctions, the theory goes, Ankara is trying to appease its “friend” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president, out of his nuclear ambitions.

It’s a stance the West should encourage, suggests Iranian-born analyst Meir Javedanfar, as a rapprochement between the two states could be the safest way to ensure a nuclear-free Iran. Renewed tension, on the other hand, will only fuel Iran’s temptation to become a nuclear power.

“When it comes to economic power, when it comes to military power, when it comes to diplomatic position, Iran is inferior to Turkey,” Javedanfar recently told Radio Free Europe. “So they are going to look at areas where they are superior and the only other one where they can gain an edge over the Turks, one of the very few areas, is the nuclear program.”

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1 Response to “Facing the frenemy”


  1. 1 William deB. Mills September 16, 2010 at 19:19

    It’s great to read a thoughtful post about a topic like this in world affairs – a slow-building but potentially important strategic shift that seems to make Americans’ eyes glaze over.

    Yes, as you point out with some good quotes, it is complicated, and yet…several supposedly complicated aspects are very clear, even if most Americans seem unable to digest them.

    1. Turkey is not “bashing” Israel. Israel’s collective punishment of Gaza’s 1.5 million is simply beyond the pale of civilized behavior. The amazing thing is how incredibly pro-Israel Ankara remains, voting to let it into the OECD and maintaining a pro-Israeli defense stance on several dimensions.

    2. Turkey’s move toward the Mideast political center could not have been more logical: the vacuum at the center in the Mideast, torn between Washington empire-builders and all the regional extremists, is painfully obvious. It is unfortunate that whenever anyone approaches the Mideast with the idea of occupying the center, talking to all sides, and finding compromise solutions rather than relying on force, such a person is roundly condemned for backstabbing or “joining the enemy.”

    The “enemy” in the Mideast is those who use force (military, secret police, private terrorist attacks) to achieve unilateral victories that leave the loser angry, scared, and lusting for payback. One could have a fascinating discussion about the real intent of Erdogan or his tactical skills, but at least he appears to be trying to stand apart from the sorry history of modern Mideast “diplomacy,” which as focused on such events as Saddam’s gassing of the Kurds, Fallujah, Israeli oppression of Palestinians, al Qua’ida terrorism, and an endless host of dictators subverting civil liberties.

    I’ll stop with a question about a sensitive issue that I see as a real contradiction: can Erdogan succeed in becoming the leader of a regional moderate group looking for regional compromise without simultaneously bringing Turkish Kurds fully into the Turkish political system as equals with the right to defend their own culture?


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