Iran deal: is Ankara a loser?

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Much attention has been focused on how Saudi Arabia and Israel will react to the interim agreement reached in November between Iran and the P5+1 powers (US, Russia, China, UK, France, German), both of whom see their relations with Iran in zero-sum terms. This agreement also has significant implications for Turkey, a regional power in its own right, one that maintains relatively close relations with Iran. In particular, Turkey faces some tough decisions over the future direction of its foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) following the Arab uprisings. Last month’s agreement will only add to Turkey’s foreign policy woes.

Establishing closer ties with Iran has been a key pillar of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbours” policy and its pursuit of “strategic depth”. The latter aims to re-establish Turkey as a powerful regional actor – a far cry from the years of self-imposed isolation under Kemalism – by strengthening economic and diplomatic relations with its neighbours, promoting greater regional integration and co-operation, and ultimately by repositioning Turkey as an important mediator of regional conflict, as well as an indispensible interlocutor between MENA and the West.

Over the last decade, energy and trade co-operation has driven Turkish-Iranian relations closer. Iran is now the second largest supplier of natural gas to Turkey (behind Russia) and also an important source of crude oil. Trade between the two countries has also grown and is on target to reach $30 billion by 2015, having reached $21.3 billion in 2012. On the diplomatic front, Turkey has been a vocal supporter of Iran’s right to develop a peaceful nuclear programme and a consistent advocate of negotiations rather than sanctions to address concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Turkey can thus take away several positives out of the agreement between Iran and the P5+1 powers, with any easing of sanctions against Iran promising to pay significant dividends for Turkey and any agreement that can ease regional tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme a step in the right direction amid efforts to avert the possibility of a regional nuclear arms race.

There are also a number of negatives however. While unlikely to have ever been the lynchpin of an agreement between Iran and the P5+1 powers, the fact that Turkey played no part in helping to broker last month’s breakthrough can only spell trouble for its self-styled role as an important regional mediator. Indeed, back in 2010, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) joined forces with Brazil in an effort to broker just such an agreement between the P5+1 powers and Tehran.

It was an audacious display of ambition and confidence and, while rejected by France, Russia, and the United States, led to the signing of the Tehran Declaration by presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Lula da Silva, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That same confidence has been replaced by a lot of anguish and handwringing in Ankara today. Costly miscalculations in both Syria and Egypt have brought home the limits of Turkey’s foreign policy and its ability to manipulate regional dynamics. In Syria, the AKP’s support for the Syrian National Council and the Free Syria Army against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has largely come undone amid increasing divisions within the Syrian opposition, as well as America’s refusal to intervene in Syria (strengthening Turkish-Syrian relations was another key pillar of Turkey’s zero policy with neighbours policy). In Egypt, Ankara’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood government and criticism of Egypt’s current military government have seen relations between the two countries reach rock bottom.

In both cases, Ankara finds itself increasingly marginalised and its oft-repeated claim that it possesses unique insight into the region given its rich cultural and historical ties ringing increasingly hollow. More than backing the losing side, Ankara’s decision to take sides per se has caused the most damage. Its decidedly partisan (sectarian?) approach to the Arab uprisings has shattered Turkey’s pretence of being a neutral mediator of regional tensions or an influential regional player enjoying zero problems with its neighbours (the obvious exception being Israel), both of which have laid the foundations of its foreign policy architecture in MENA and have been central to its foreign policy arsenal.

Almost any way you look at it, a resurgent Iran is likely to compound its policy woes. More than an important trading partner, Iran is a formidable regional rival. Both countries are at odds over Syria and Iraq, while other potential flashpoints including Palestine, Syria’s Kurds, and to a lesser extent, Central Asia and the Caucasus. Any strengthening of Iran’s hand in the region is thus likely to temper Turkey’s regional ambitions.

Direct contact between Iran and the P5+1 powers will also weaken Turkey’s role as a regional mediator. Why talk to Turkey if you can talk directly to Iran, on the one hand, and directly to Saudi Arabia, on the other? And any role assumed by Iran in mediating regional tensions, particularly in Syria and Iraq, will only further alienate Turkey, diminishing its regional influence and bringing its policy failures in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere into ever-sharper relief. 

Faced with such formidable challenges, it is hard to see any way forward for Turkey that does not involve some sort of policy overhaul. Turning its gaze inward and pushing forward with the Kurdish peace process is likely one option. The AKP is also likely to use last month’s agreement between Iran and the P5+1 powers to reorient its foreign policy towards a more conciliatory position on Syria and Iraq, and perhaps even Egypt. Rather than mediate differences between Iran and the West, Ankara may well spend much of its time trying to mediate policy differences between itself and Tehran, preferring to assert commonalities between the two countries while downplaying their regional rivalry and trying not to look like a junior partner. Ultimately, it may just be Iran who helps bring Turkey in from the cold, and not the other way around. Stranger things have happened in the MENA.

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