Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Is Turkey Iran's friend?

by Katinka Barysch

Is Turkey really Iran’s “friend”, as Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed in a recent interview with the Guardian newspaper? Erdogan’s visit last week to Tehran suggests so. He met not only President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but also Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a rare honour. He announced plans for energy and commercial co-operation with Iran and defended the country’s right to civilian nuclear power, calling its energy programme “peaceful” and “humanitarian”. Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, thanked Erdogan for his critical stance on Israel.

Policymakers in the West are getting worried that Turkey’s growing ties with Iran – by lessening that country’s sense of isolation – may frustrate diplomatic efforts to prevent Tehran from building a nuclear bomb.

Turkey’s official line is that it fully supports international efforts to persuade Iran to stop its enrichment programme, backed by the threat of tougher sanctions. The Turkish government claims that it is using closer ties with Iran to pass on tough messages to the leadership there. However, Turkish political leaders and high officials have been very cautious in their public pronouncements about Iran. “Iran does not accept it is building a weapon”, Erdogan is quoted as saying by the Guardian. “They are working on nuclear power for the purposes of energy only."

Erdogan has often mentioned Iran in the same sentence as Israel, perhaps implying that if one country in the Middle East has nuclear weapons it might be unfair to prevent other ones from building them too. Following his Tehran trip, he referred to western pressure on Iran as ‘arrogant’ because it came from countries that themselves had nuclear weapons. It would be preferable, he said, to have a nuclear-free Middle East and a nuclear-free world.

Turkey’s rather friendly stance on Iran may be understandable and acceptable at a time when the West’s diplomatic efforts are making at least some progress. But what if current negotiations fail? Would Turkey support the tougher sanctions that the US and most EU countries are threatening?

When asked this question, a top Turkish diplomat (at a recent EDAM roundtable in Bodrum) was evasive: “We would have to first see the content of the resolution. And we would have to make sure that we bring Russia and China on board.” This answer implies that Turkey may support sanctions in the (unlikely) event that they are backed by the United Nations Security Council but not if they are unilaterally imposed by the Americans and the Europeans. Another Turkish diplomat (at the ‘Istanbul Forum’, a big conference focusing on Turkey and the Middle East in October) summed up Turkey’s stance on Iran’s nuclear programme as “diplomacy, more diplomacy and even more diplomacy”.

Many Turks fear the impact of tougher on their own economy. Turks say that the 1999 sanctions against Iraq resulted in the loss of what had then been their second most important trading relationship, and that European sanctions on Serbia in the 1990s cut off one of Turkey’s most important transport artery to the EU.

Trade between Turkey and Iran has been growing fast in recent years, to reach an estimated $ 6 billion in 2008. Politicians from both sides say they want to see that figure double or even triple over the next 5-10 years. Iran is also Turkey’s second biggest gas supplier after Russia. Many Turks think that Iranian gas will be essential if Turkey is to fulfil its ambition of becoming a regional energy hub. Further sanctions would therefore harm Turkey’s economic interests. Already, US pressure forced Turkey to put on ice a $3.5 billion investment deal in the Iranian gas sector signed in 2007 – although Erdogan confirmed that Turkey still wanted to go ahead with such energy deals during his recent Tehran visit.

More importantly, perhaps, Turkish support for tougher sanctions would end the recent rapprochement between Tehran and Ankara and could even lead to retaliation. “We have no choice but to have good relations with our big neighbours”, explained one Turkish parliamentarian at the Istanbul Forum. “This conviction stood behind our decision in 2003 not to allow the Americans to march into Iraq from our territory. We knew we would have to live with Iraq afterwards, no matter what the outcome of the war.”

The Erdogan government values its relationship with Iran as part of its ‘zero problem’ neighbourhood policy. Having been more or less isolated in the region only 20 years ago, Turkey now has flourishing political and trade links with most of its immediate neighbours, as well as many countries of the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia. There are even plans to open the border to Armenia, closed since 1993. Ankara is proud that it is one of the few countries that ‘talks to everyone’. This strategy has entailed links with Hamas and, more recently, visa-free travel and trade liberalisation with Syria.

Iran is one of Turkey’s most important neighbours and therefore crucial for the perceived success of the ‘zero problem’ strategy. Turkish politicians like to point out that the current Turkish-Iranian border dates back to 1639 and that the two countries have not been at war since. Since the implosion of Iraq, the two countries have worked together more closely on security issues, in particular to prevent Kurdish separatism and terrorism, which threatens both countries.

As ties with Iran thicken, Turks see the country’s nuclear programme as less of a threat. A third of Turks now think that a nuclear armed Iran would be acceptable, according to the latest Transatlantic Trends survey from the German Marshall Fund. Two years ago, the share was half that, at 17 per cent. In the US, only 5 per cent say they could live with a nuclear armed Iran. Turkish leaders hardly ever say explicitly whether they consider a possible Iranian bomb as a threat. When asked whether he was worried about such a prospect, one official at the EDAM roundtable responded: “We are under Nato’s nuclear umbrella.”

This apparent confidence, however, hides some deep-seated anxiety and mistrust. Turkey and Iran may not have been to war with each other for centuries, but they are natural rivals in a volatile region. Arguably, much of Turkey’s recent regional diplomacy has been designed to contain Iran’s growing influence, from Turkish efforts to help stabilise Iraq to building closer links with Syria. Neither the Americans nor the Iranians took up Ankara’s offer to mediate between the two, preferring to deal with each other directly. At the Istanbul Forum – which devoted a lot of time to discussing Iran – not a single Iranian official showed up.

Many Turks fear that a nuclear armed Iran would change the regional balance of power and trigger an arms race in this unstable part of the world. One Turkish politician, when asked what Turkey would do if efforts to stop the Iranian weapons programme failed, said: “We will have to build our own bomb.” It is statements like this that make some people suspect that the reason why Turkey is now starting its own nuclear programme is not only to improve energy security but also to be prepared in case of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

Turkish officials deny this categorically. They insist that their country needs nuclear power to satisfy fast-growing energy demand, reduce reliance on imported gas and cut CO2 emissions. Moreover, it could take Turkey a decade to build up a nuclear capacity. Already, the first tender to build a nuclear plant is being reviewed after only one company (from Russia) submitted a bid.

Meanwhile, Turkey is in talks with Washington about buying a missile defence system against short and medium-range missiles. The claim of Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, that this system would have “nothing to do with Iran or any other country” just begs the question.

Turkey’s ambiguous stance towards Iran is symptomatic of the difficulties that Turkey faces in trying to combine its growing regional ties with its traditional orientation towards the West. As a long-standing NATO member and a country negotiating for EU membership, Turkey is expected to align itself with the US and Europe – or at least not do anything that undermines the West’s political objectives in the Middle East. As a regional power, Turkey will want to act independently and avoid antagonising its neighbours. It is not clear how long Ankara will be able to avoid tough choices.

Katinka Barysch is deputy director of the Centre for European Reform.



The answer is absolutely NO.

seyed javad miri said...

I enjoyed the piece as it addressed political realities in a redressed fashion. However it seems the author failed to see the deep cultural interdependence which exists between two countries. More than 60 percent of Iranians are Turks and more than 40 percent of Turkish nationals are Iranians (i.e. by being Kurds) and 15% of Iranians are ethnic Kurds. Besides, 25% of Turkish nationals are Alevites and Shias while 35% of Iranians are Sunnis ... . In other words, there are great many historical and cultural issues which make these two seemingly divided nations into one people provided the politics of nationality is deconstructed along more realistic lines and this may-be what current politicians are attempting to envision.
best wishes
Dr. Seyed Javad Miri
Visiting Professor of Sociology
Institute of Humanities and Cultural Studies

Yeappppp said...

I think countries can not be friend . Countries act accordingly their benefits . Thats why Turkiye co-operate with Iran .