In the wake of the recent Nuclear Security Summit in Washington DC, Turkish-Iranian relations once again came under scrutiny. As the US and the EU have intensified their efforts to impose sanctions on Iran through the UN Security Council, Turkey's role in this issue has come into question. Notwithstanding Turkish temporary membership in the Security Council, the Turkish position will be critical for any effective implementation of sanctions. Some in the US try to cast this “vote” as a litmus test to see whether Turkey, more specifically the AKP government, aims to steer Turkey away from a Western orientation to the East. Clearly it is very difficult today to predict how Turkey will act when the issue is brought to the Security Council. By that time, Turkey's decision will be based on the evolution of the issue and on how Turkish policy makers evaluate the developments with respect to their national interests. However, it is equally important to understand the basic premises of Turkish policy toward Iran, in general, and the Iranian nuclear issue, in particular.
Turkish-Iranian relations have been quite complex and marred with geopolitical and ideological competition. Particularly in the 1990s, relations deteriorated amid the crisis over Turkey’s accusations that Iran was supporting the PKK and Islamic radicalism in Turkey. The two countries also engaged in geopolitical competition over Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as in Iraq. In recent years, however, Turkish-Iranian relations have improved through enhanced security cooperation and economic ties. First, the two countries began to cooperate against the PKK and its Iranian counterpart, PJAK. To reflect the new level of cooperation, the Turkey-Iran High Security Committee, which was established in 1988, but largely remained ineffective in its early years, was revived. In the meantime, Turkey and Iran started to deepen their energy partnership. The natural gas pipeline from Tabriz to Ankara has made Iran Turkey’s second largest natural gas supplier after Russia, with a 20 percent share. Turkey also wants to expand energy cooperation with Iran as it sees its neighbor as an important source for the planned Nabucco project.
Two factors particularly affected improvement of Turkish-Iranian relations. First, the new strategic context that emerged in the wake of the 2003 Iraq War created common threat perceptions and contributed to a rapprochement on security issues. Second, the general evolution of Turkish foreign policy toward the Middle East under the AKP government led to the improvement of relations with Iran as well. The AKP government’s comprehensive policy on the Middle East included the desire to have “zero problems with neighbors” as well as an emphasis on diplomacy and economic interdependence. Thus, Turkey started to adopt a policy of engagement and dialogue with Iran. Efforts were also made to improve economic relations. As a result, Turkey's exports to Iran reached $2 billion by 2008.
In the meantime, Turkey has been concerned about Iran's growing influence in Middle East politics. Rather than isolating Iran or balancing its power through counter alliances, Turkey has opted to position itself above the dividing lines in the new “Middle East Cold War” and has worked to bridge the differences in regional politics. Turkey’s policy of engaging Syria, its mediation in the Israeli-Syrian conflict, its role in political reconciliation in Lebanon, its efforts to bring the leaders of Syria and Saudi Arabia together, and its attempts to mend fences between Iraq and Syria can all be considered within this context. More importantly, the transformation of Turkish policy toward Iraq, which led to an opening with all parties in Iraq, including the Shiites, aimed to introduce a balance to the new power configuration in the Middle East and more specifically in Iraq.
Turkey’s position on the Iranian nuclear crisis should be placed within this general framework. Turkey’s policy has the following elements:
- From the beginning Turkey has been stating that it supports Iran’s right to a civilian nuclear program under the NPT.
- Since the 1990s, Turkey has reiterated its position that the Middle East should be free of WMDs. It is clear that Turkey does not want a nuclear Iran as this would alter the traditional balance between the two countries.
- Turkey seems to be not entirely convinced of the military nature of the Iranian nuclear program. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s speeches and interviews in recent months have demonstrated this clearly. This perspective seems to be the most important divergence between Turkey and its Western allies.
- In order to resolve the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program, Turkey has been calling for the continuation of diplomacy before resorting to other means. Within this context, Turkey has been calling on Iran to enter into full and transparent cooperation with the IAEA. At the same time, Ankara has many times offered to mediate on this matter. Foreign Minister Davutoglu has once again visited Iran to discuss diplomatic solutions, such as a “fuel-swap,” with the Iranian authorities.
- Turkey is concerned about possible Security Council sanctions on Iran. First, it is argued that as a neighbor with extensive energy and trade relations with Iran, Turkey would also suffer immensely from sanctions. This situation would be déjà vu for Turkey as it went through a similar ordeal with the imposition of sanctions on Iraq in the years after the Gulf Crisis of 1990. Second, Turkey is skeptical about the utility of sanctions. Again, the Iraqi case is an example to demonstrate that sanctions rarely work. Although there is talk of “smart sanctions” that would mitigate the harm to ordinary people, these are very difficult to achieve. Finally, Foreign Minister Davutoglu complained after the Nuclear Security Summit that as a temporary member of the Security Council they were not informed about the proposed content of the sanctions regime. He also said that Turkey could not be expected to approve a sanctions package in advance unless the details of the package are revealed beforehand.
- Turkey is all the more concerned about any possible military action against Iran. It fears that this could spread the same chaos that was witnessed in Iraq to a number of countries in the region. This could also upset the already fragile political situation in Iraq with direct repercussions to Turkey.
It would have been very difficult for any government in Turkey to jump on the bandwagon of the pro-sanctions position at this point because of the concerns about the possible negative impact of such a policy on Turkey. Additionally for the AKP government and particularly Foreign Minister Davutoglu, the escalation of the crisis and Turkish support of tougher policies on Iran would clearly undo the policies that the government has been implementing in the Middle East.
It is safe to argue that the government would do all that is possible to ease the crisis by brokering a deal. If all else fails, then the Turkish government could turn to the Turkish public, as well as the regional actors, and say that it tried its utmost to defuse the crisis. It is clear that there has been a growing convergence between the US and the EU on this issue. The expansion of this consensus to include other members of the Security Council will also be the key to influence Turkey's ultimate position. In any case the failure to resolve the crisis would mean that Turkey has to pay a price whether it ultimately decides to support a tougher policy toward Iran or not.
Assertions and opinions in this Commentary are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.
Meliha Benli Altunisik is a Professor and Chair at the Department of International Relations, Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey. She has published extensively on Turkish Foreign Policy in the Middle East.