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Turkey's Cautious Line Between Iran and West

Ankara has plenty of reasons for maintaining solid ties with Tehran.
By Ayla Albayrak
  • Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Tehran, November 2009. (Photo: Ebrahim Seyyedi/Iran presidential website)
    Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Tehran, November 2009. (Photo: Ebrahim Seyyedi/Iran presidential website)

These days, Turkey finds itself literally squeezed between the east and the west, as it tries to please both next-door neighbour Iran and the United States. It is no easy task.

Although broadly aligned with the West, Turkey has sought to carve out a distinctive and independent niche for itself in dealing with Iran. It demonstrated this in early June, when together with Brazil – like Turkey a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council – it voted against the latest round of UN sanctions against Iran.

On July 30, Ali-Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation announced that Tehran wanted the next round of nuclear talks with the P5+1 group to take place in Turkey this September.

The P5+1 group consists of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany, and has held a series of negotiating rounds to try to resolve the dispute over Iran’s uranium enrichment programme.

Salehi said Iran wanted Turkey and Brazil, too, to be part of the talks. But Sergei Lavrov, foreign minister of Russia, one of the permanent Security Council members, has made it clear this is not going to happen.

Turkey’s no vote on the UN sanctions has caused some tensions in its relationship with Washington.

Afterwards, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu insisted, “The vote we cast does not mean that we prefer Iran over the US.”

But according to a US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used a recent phone conversation to ask Davutoğlu to stay out of the Iranian nuclear dispute.

“Iran is our neighbor in the region. We are involved in matters concerning our region, irrespective of who says what to us,” Davutoğlu said on July 15 when asked about the reported conversation.

At the same time, Ankara’s view of the Iranian nuclear programme has shifted, and is no longer as uncritical as it was until recently.

Having previously described Iran’s nuclear ambitions as “peaceful”, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on July 27, “We definitely do not want nuclear weapons in our region, and we have repeatedly said so to Iran.”

Despite the more nuanced approach now adopted by the government, the dust has yet to settle from the no vote at the UN.

While some in Turkey have hailed it as a diplomatic success, critics say it was ill-judged and could undermine Ankara’s international position. At the same time, even the most critical commentators are not arguing that Turkey should have voted for sanctions, just that like Lebanon, it could have abstained.

In a recent newspaper interview, Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, said the ruling AK party had done irreparable damage.

“These policies have caused Turkey to become isolated, and have raised serious questions of trust,” he wrote, adding that the decision to vote against sanctions had left “no one in the 5+1 group satisfied, Russia included”.

Given Turkey’s decades as a NATO member and its attempts to negotiate entry to the European Union, some question whether it was worth jeopardising so much on behalf of Iran – especially when that country has not been particularly supportive of Turkish concerns.

Murat Bilhan, vice chairman of the Turkish-Asian Centre for Strategic Studies, argues that Tehran could have backed Ankara over Cyprus – still a key obstacle to EU accession – and might also have helped mend its relationship with Armenia.

“Turkey took a risk for Iran, but I haven’t seen Iran doing the same,” he said.

Few commentators in Turkey believe, however, that Ankara can afford to stand aside on matters as important as the nuclear dispute. Instead, it is obliged to have a good working relationship with a player as powerful as Iran, especially given the periodic turmoil of the Middle East.

“Turkey would be enormously affected by any action against Iran, so it wants to ensure it’s in a position to influence the course of events,” said Soli Özel, professor of international relations and political science at Istanbul Bilgi University.

Sinan Oğan, who heads the Turkish Centre for International Relations and Strategic Analysis, agrees.

“If we look at the past, we see clearly how Turkey has always been affected by any crisis in the region,” he said. “This was the case with the Iraqi attack on Kuwait and in the current war in Iraq.”

Such conflicts have had a range of undesirable effects including refugee influxes, economic damage, and the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.

Despite sanctions imposed by the UN, US and EU, there are also significant economic benefits to be gained from dealing with Iran and that is why Özel predicts that Turkey may not follow the sanctions very carefully.

In late July, the National Iranian Gas Company (NIGC) and Turkey's Som Petrol company signed a 1.3 billion US dollar deal for the construction of a pipeline that will take Iranian natural gas through Turkey to Europe.

Iranian gas could help Turkey realise its long-held dream of becoming a major energy corridor for Europe, an idea the EU has also embraced.

Energy is not the only interest shared by Iran and Turkey. The Kurdish question is another area of common concern. The PKK guerrilla movement which carries out attacks in Turkey has an Iranian Kurdish counterpart called PJAK, with which it shares a similar ideology and is believed to cooperate. Both groups have bases in mountainous border areas of the Iraqi Kurdish region, and both the Iranian and Turkish militaries carry out occasional attacks on them.

In Turkish domestic politics, the question of how to address the Kurdish problem is a major headache for the governing AK, which is keen to make progress ahead of next year’s election.

“It is impossible to solve this problem without cooperation among Turkey, Iran and Syria,” said Arzu Celalifer from the International Strategic Research Organisation, USAK, based in Ankara. “In recent years, cooperation has increased in this area.”

Many external observers in the West are concerned that Turkey’s sympathetic view of Iran stems from the AK party’s Islamist leanings. This is not true, according to Özel, who argues that the basic policy directions of seeking close good-neighbourly relations with Iran coupled with a drive for greater Turkish influence in the Middle East were set before the party came to power.

“When AK came to power in 2002, Turkey had already improved its relationship with Iran, as well as with Syria and Greece,” he said. “But AK has taken the process further.”

Oğan also stresses that Islam is not the basis of the relationship.

“The West often makes the mistake of interpreting our relationship from the starting point of the common religion. Iran and Turkey are of different branches [Shia and Sunni, respectively] and that makes a considerable difference.”

The Turkish government also comes under fire for cosying up to the controversial regime of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

According to Oğan, that is unfair, as Turkey has to deal with plenty of other neighbouring states with less than democratic systems; “Turkey does not look at its other neighbors through a democracy lens. That is a Western rhetoric.”

In any case, the two countries – historically the superpowers of the Middle East – still have plenty of diverging interests in the region, for example over which groups should dominate in Iraqi politics, analysts say. Were Iran to become a democracy one day, the latent competition would come out into the open.

For the foreseeable future, though, successive Turkish governments of any stripe are likely to maintain cordial relations with Tehran, according to Özel.

“I believe that if there was a change of government in Turkey, the policy on Iran would not change in essence. Just a little bit in terms of rhetoric and practice,” he said.

Ayla Albayrak is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.