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Turkey and Iran: The risks of failure, CU Issue 69, April 30, 2010

Pressure on Iran over its nuclear program is rising. Momentum towards a new round of economic sanctions is growing within the UN Security Council, with even recalcitrant heavyweights Russia and China quietly moving towards support of a new sanctions package (even if they are determined to water it down). Arguably one of the biggest obstacles on the path to dealing with Iran is now Turkey - in theory a strategic US ally.

Ankara currently holds a non-permanent seat on the Security Council. Although, in the event of a vote, it could not derail a new sanctions regime, a vote against would be met with serious alarm in Washington. It could be “something that moves Turkey well outside of the Euro-Atlantic consensus” on the subject, according to analyst Yigal Schleifer, who writes regularly on the topic at the Istanbul Calling blog. However in light of Turkey’s current policy and public statements on the issue, a Turkish ‘no’ vote may not be surprising.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly made it clear that he believes Iran’s nuclear program is – as Tehran claims – solely for civilian use (Guardian, 26 October 2009). He has also repeatedly linked Iran’s purported nuclear ambitions with Israel’s well-established, if undeclared, atomic arsenal. In early April the prime minister declared that Israel was the “greatest threat” to regional peace, and insisted that Tehran and Tel Aviv should be treated equally with regard to their nuclear programme (The National, April 7).

These statements are hardly atypical, and some observers have attributed Mr Erdogan’s declarations to his mercurial, populist personality rather than a genuine Turkish strategy. However, the substance if not the style of his comments appears to be official government policy. Turkish officials have repeatedly made it clear that they oppose sanctions and additional punishments on Iran, and doubt the West’s insistence that Tehran wants the bomb. The only dissenting voice has been President Abdullah Gul, who in an unscripted series of comments to Forbes revealed that he (at least) believes that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons (Forbes, March 25).

To be sure, neither Mr Gul nor any other Turkish official has welcomed the prospect of an Iranian bomb. As Ian Lesser points out in a new briefing on the topic, the tension between Ankara and Washington “is not a matter of divergent preferences about outcomes” (German Marshall Fund, April 21).

It is a matter of different tactics. The West believes that Iran’s nuclear ambitions must be stopped through sanctions (with the threat of military force looming in the background); Turkey, like – most prominently – China, argues that diplomacy and engagement are the only ways to draw Tehran away. In theory this is grounded in a genuine belief that dialogue does work. But neither Ankara nor Beijing has been coy in admitting that their commercial stakes in Iran mean that sanctions are directly contrary to their national interests.

At a recent Council on Foreign Relations event in Washington Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was candid about the reasons for Turkey’s opposition to sanctions – economics, and particularly energy concerns (CFR, April 14).

Maintaining good commercial links with its neighbours is one of the central pillars of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbours” approach. Widely lauded when it was developed by Mr Davutoglu in the early 2000s, this policy is now coming under serious strain. Turkey is attempting to utilise its regional links, and Mr Erdogan seems to think that by publicly supporting Iran, he can benefit the West by maintaining a channel of communication which no other country has.

As Schleifer points out, “this is a risky approach”. Playing a double game cannot be sustained forever, and neither Iran nor the West will be pleased if Turkey appears to be misleading them. At some point Ankara will have to choose between harming its commercial interests in Iran and damaging its relationship with Brussels and Washington (not to mention Israel).

This point looks to be arriving soon, as the Security Council moves towards a vote on a new round of economic sanctions. Voting “no” would cause disappointment if not anger in the Obama Administration, and could also – as Lesser observes – be a further blow to Turkey’s EU membership ambitions. Voting “yes” would cause a rupture with Tehran, with all the related political and economic implications. Abstention, the most likely course, would be a diplomatic fudge.

It would raise the question of whether the ‘zero problems’ approach can survive in moments of crisis, when hard choices have to be made. It also tests the limitations of that policy. Does Ankara even have the leverage to persuade Iran to accept a deal?

Foreign Minister Davutoglu seems assured – in recent weeks he has confidently stated that concrete progress has been made on the topic, presumably regarding a proposal to enrich uranium outside of Iran (Today’s Zaman, April 21). However to date he has offered no concrete indicators of success.

In addition, Tehran has responded politely to Turkey’s offers of mediation, but it may simply be stalling for time. No other friendly states – including Russia and China – have been able to negotiate a deal. Ankara’s enthusiasm and confidence may be seriously misplaced, especially if Mr Gul’s comments are seen in Iran as proof that Turkey’s public and private positions are different.

The issue goes to the heart of Turkey’s foreign policy vision. If Ankara cannot persuade its neighbour, with whom it has “very special” relations, to change its behaviour, then its claims to regional influence will look decidedly weaker to the West, as well as neighbouring states. Its economic, political, and cultural links with Iran will come to be seen not as assets, but as liabilities. By proclaiming its support of Iran so loudly, and by insisting on its unique ability to mediate in the dispute, Turkey may be setting itself up for a fall.

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