Changes to fundamental dynamics in the Middle East region are forcing Turkey to adopt a more active foreign policy, in line with renewed national enthusiasm for solving decades-long problems, ranging from an outdated Cold War-era military coup network to expanding rights for minorities, the pious and the oppressed Kurdish minority.
Turkish criticism of the Gaza blockade, recent anger over the Israeli raid on a flotilla carrying aid to Gaza’s 1.5 million suffering Palestinians and a “no” vote against a new set of sanctions in the UN Security Council can all be interpreted as part of this trend. This is a more beneficial and a more natural position for Turkey to be in, and, more importantly, it is the only one that is sustainable in the long term.
Take relations with Iran as an example. Following the Iranian revolution of 1979, Turkey pursued a policy of disengagement with its neighbor and shied away from engaging with Iran in any way, fearing that the revolution would spill over into Turkey. Iran was our enemy for all intents and purposes, despite the fact that the Sufi interpretation of Sunni Islam, which has existed for centuries in Turkey, is a natural barrier to any attempts to export Iranian Shiite ideology across the border.
Not surprisingly, as a result we have lost many trade opportunities with the 74 million consumers next door and quarreled with Iran over a number of issues regarding our neighbors in the Middle East. Now relations are becoming more regular, business and trade are flourishing and Turkey has more direct access to the Iranian leadership than any other country. This gives us ample opportunity to talk some sense into the Iranians when it comes to their controversial nuclear program, interference in Iraqi domestic affairs and their involvement with Hamas and Lebanon.
In the process, Turkey has been very careful not to upset its Western allies. While resuscitating last year’s uranium swap proposal, in order to calm fears of Iranian intentions, Ankara succeeded in partnering with Latin American heavyweight Brazil and fully informed the US and EU of the progress of talks every step of the way. However, the only problem was that Western powers did not anticipate any breakthroughs, judging from past Iranian behavior, and they did not have a backup plan, other than sanctions. Iran, of course, did not help by overestimating its power and delaying accepting the deal until the last minute.
Under the circumstances, Turkey had no choice but to vote against the UN resolution. Turkey’s stance is not surprising considering that Turkey suffered heavily when the UN imposed sanctions on Saddam-ruled Iraq and may risk losing $10 billion in trade with Tehran, a market that continues to show potential for growth. The principle is crystal clear, though: No to nuclear arms in the region but yes to the right to pursue peaceful nuclear energy. Turkey paid heed to the concerns and suspicions of the international community while insisting on diplomacy to push the Iranians to cooperate with the nuclear watchdog agency in Vienna.
By preserving business relations with Iran, its second most important natural gas supplier, Turkey has earned credit with Iran, credit that it can cash in at a later time, when Tehran may decide to be a troublemaker, in order to ensure cooperation. This strategy should be considered in the West, especially by the US, which has a great interest in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East.
It seems for the time being that the watered-down sanctions will not harm Turkish interests in Iran. Measures adopted by the UN Security Council mostly fall outside the areas affected by sanctions and may even boost bilateral trade relations. Ankara has conveniently positioned itself to benefit from the drawn-out conflict between the West and Iran. For so long, Russian, Chinese, European and even offshoots of US companies have benefited immensely from doing business in Iran, while Turkey sat idly on the sidelines, losing billions in trade.
On the Israeli side, however, relations have revolved around security and the military, and are not complemented by trade. Israeli aggression in Gaza and the long occupation of Palestinian territories continues to fuel public rage in Turkey, putting the government under increasing pressure to condemn Israel and act. As Turkish democracy matures, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) will have no choice but to limit relations with the right-wing coalition government in Israel.
The Gaza offensive in December 2008-January 2009, on the eve of a possible breakthrough in Turkish-mediated talks between Israel and Syria, the public humiliation of the Turkish ambassador in Tel Aviv earlier that year and the killing of nine Turks in the civilian aid flotilla in international waters two weeks ago have all further complicated relations. Thus, in light of its current policies, Israel is turning out to be, for Turkey, more of a liability than an asset in the region. This reality is also being discussed in the EU as well as in the US.
It is time for Israel to realize that the Gaza blockade is hurting its interests more than ever. Good relations with NATO-member Turkey, Israel’s only Muslim ally, are crucial for Israel in such a tough neighborhood. Both Turkey and Israel have a vested interest in keeping relations at a sustainable level. Complete disengagement will serve neither Turkey nor Israel.
While Turkey is walking a thin line with Iran, whose asset to liability ratio is in favor of Turkey for the time being, it would be wise to carefully monitor Israeli ties so as not to let them fall into complete disarray. It is time for Turkish officials to tone down the rhetoric and let the international community take the lead in investigating the flotilla deaths. I just hope Israel will be responsive to international calls to lift the blockade and to recommit itself to the stalled peace process with renewed energy.