Turkey and Tehran: Caught between a rock and a hard place
Turkey and Tehran: Caught between a rock and a hard placeTurkish ReviewBY JAMES DORSEY, S. RAJARATNAM SCHOOL OF INTERNATIONAL STUDIES, NANYANGTECHNOLOGICAL UNIVERSITY, SINGAPORETurkey’s besting Iran in the contest for the hearts and minds of advocates of changein Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa is proving to be both ablessing and a curse. With tension mounting over Iran’s nuclear ambitions and theperceived window of opportunity for a military strike closing, Turkey faces increasedchallenges and the threat of a proxy war with Syria and the Islamic republic. This iscompounded by the fact that the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia need Turkey in theireffort to further corner the regime in Syria and to isolate Iran, but want to prevent ashift in regional power away from the kingdom and the Israeli state to Ankara --increasingly held up as the model of an economically successful, Islamist-led democracy.A concerted effort by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia to further isolate Iran has laidbare the challenges facing Turkey against the backdrop of an ever more severesanctions regime, increased debate regarding a military strike to prevent the Islamicrepublic from developing a nuclear weapon and popular revolts sweeping the MiddleEast and North Africa.The challenges are evident in the anti-Iranian campaign’s little noticed subtext,with the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel seeking to prevent a shift of power in theregion from Israel and the Gulf to Turkey and Iran. All three see benefit in Turkey’srising star as a result of its emotional support for Palestine, its deteriorating relationswith its erstwhile ally Israel, its perceived support for the Arab revolt, an impressiveeconomic performance and the fact that it is ruled by an elected Islamist government.
(The Justice and Development Party (AK Party), despite its Islamist origins and appealas well as a continued widespread perception of the party as Islamist, rejects this label,arguing that it has put its Islamist past behind it.) However, the trio does not wantTurkey’s ascendance to be at the expense of either the kingdom or the Jewish state.Turkey has so far largely been shielded from criticism that it, like the US, is seekingto maintain the status quo in the Gulf and has failed to match words with deeds in itscondemnation of the Syrian regime’s brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters,one which has already cost more than 5,000 lives. The veil shrouding contradictions inTurkish -- as well as US, Israeli and Saudi -- policy could well soon be lifted, with Syriaemerging as a crucial flashpoint in the mushrooming power struggle in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Increasingly it is looking like a matter of when ratherthan if the wave of protests truly spreads to the energy-rich Gulf countries, SaudiArabia first and foremost among them.The gradual morphing of the 11-month old Syrian protests into a civil war, much aswas the case in Libya, leaves Turkey stuck between a rock and a hard place. Withlittle appetite for military intervention despite its support of the revolt and warningsthat there would be consequences if Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad failed toengage with his detractors and initiate political and economic reform, Turkey risksbeing perceived as a paper tiger. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu insistedTurkey was “ready for all possible scenarios” but had as yet not considered militaryintervention and didn’t want to. Similarly, he suggested that Turkey could create amilitary buffer zone within Syria, should tens of thousands of Syrians seek refuge inTurkey, all the while insisting that such a zone was “not on the agenda.” Thisreluctance to put its money where its mouth is from Turkey is not a stance it is likelyto be able to maintain for much longer, with the failure of Arab League monitors in
Syria, tightening economic sanctions and an Arab League-backed move to get UNSecurity Council endorsement of its call for al-Assad to step down.Turkey could end up in the same boat as the US, which has seen its influence andcredibility in MENA wane because of its inability to match its words with deeds. Despiteits denunciations of al-Assad, Turkey has -- like the US -- remained silent on the needfor change in the Gulf.Like the US it has a vested interest in ensuring that the revoltdoes not hit the region, Saudi Arabia in particular, with full force.Consequently, the struggle of US President Barack Obama is one Turkey may well face.The US administration is finding it difficult to wield its influence in a region with a moreassertive Arab public opinion, one demanding that Washington make good on itspromises in terms of both the revolution and declared support for an independentPalestinian state.Obama’s inability to do so, particularly in an election year, means that the US is findingit increasingly hard to perform its past balancing of diametrically opposed demands andexpectations from its allies in the Middle East and North Africa. US support for thetoppling of leaders like Egypt’s Gen. Hosni Mubarak has damaged its ties to key autocraticallies like Saudi Arabia, while the need to be seen to be make real steps in furtheringPalestinian independence threatens to put it on a collision course with Israel.Turkey’s potential policy dilemma is complicated by continued fallout from the 2010killing by Israeli Special Forces of nine Turkish nationals aboard the Mavi Marmara,a Turkish aid ship seeking to run Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.Israel imposed its naval blockade on Gaza after Hamas seized control of the territory inJune 2007, with Tel Aviv saying it was necessary to prevent weapons being supplied to
militants in the strip. Critics of the sea and land blockade describe it as collectivepunishment of Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants.Turkey has painted itself into a corner with its refusal to reverse the downgrading ofdiplomatic relations with Israel to the level of second secretary and the suspension ofall military cooperation. Ankara is adamant that these measures will continue as longas Israel fails to apologize or offer compensation for the death of the Turkish activists,and maintains its blockade of Gaza. Short term, Turkey’s attitude has garnered itpopular support across the Arab and Muslim world, but longer term it has complicatedTurkey’s efforts to shield itself from being drawn into the region’s multiple conflicts.Turkey’s stance on Israel means it has little (if any) ability to bring Israel and Iran backfrom the brink of a military confrontation at a time that escalating tension between thetwo countries threatens to impair Turkey’s efforts to project itself as a regional Islamic,democratic, economic and military power.While Turkish defense and military officials have little doubt that Israel would prevailin a military confrontation with Iran, even if it is unlikely to fully destroy Iran’sdecentralized and heavily fortified nuclear facilities, they worry that likely Iranianretaliatory attacks against Israel, as well as against US targets in the Gulf andAfghanistan, would escalate confrontation with Iran. As a result, members of PrimeMinister RecepTayyipErdoğan’s ruling AK Party have criticized him for respondingemotionally to Israeli policies. While they remain critical of Tel Aviv, they have urgedErdoğan to repair relations with Israel in a bid to ensure that Turkey can truly act as abridge across the West-East divide as well as MENA’s fault lines. The key to Turkey’srole may indeed lie partially in Israel, but Turkey has only a limited window of opportunityto keep the door open as Western nations and Israel increasingly rattle their sabers.
In the event of a pre-emptive attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, any effort byAnkara to remain on the sidelines risks Turkey’s being portrayed in Tel Aviv andWashington as having not only turned on Israel -- often a yardstick in the Westfor assessing Turkish foreign policy -- but also sided with the enemy. AlreadyTehran eyes Ankara’s condemnation of al-Assad, as well as its mounting popularityin a swath of land stretching from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Gulf, with suspicion.Tehran views these developments as a US-Saudi conspiracy designed to prevent theIslamic Revolution of over 30 years ago getting the credit it deserves as an inspirationfor the Arab revolt and to stymie the appeal of the Islamic republic for states in theturbulent region.In a series of messages, Iranian leaders warned Turkey that Turkish support for aninternational campaign against Syria, the Islamic republic’s foremost Arab ally, andSyrian opposition groups would constitute a red line -- warnings Turkey has so farignored. Without Syria, Iran would be left only with Iraq as its foremost interlocutor inthe Arab world. Iraq lacks Syria’s relationship with groups like Hezbollah in Lebanonand Hamas in Palestine and is unlikely to be as compliant and strategic a friend asSyria is. Turkey compounded Iran’s narrowing options by not only setting its warningsaside but going a step further with its agreement to install on Turkish soil a NATOradar system believed to constitute a shield against Iranian ballistic missiles. In recentweeks, it has also started looking at reducing its dependence on imports of Iranian oilas Western powers crack down on Iran’s oil sales and the Islamic republic threatens toretaliate by closing the Strait of Hormuz. Turkey sought to soften the blow bysuggesting that majority state-owned Halkbank would continue to handle Iranian oilpayments as long as that does not run afoul of the sanctions regime.
Turkish officials and analysts fear that mounting tension with Iran could produce acovert proxy war, with Iran and Syria supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK),which has stepped up attacks on Turkish military targets in the southeast of the country.Syria and Iran have already halted their security cooperation with Turkey with regard tothe Kurds. Conservative Iranian columnists have denounced Erdoğan’s government inrecent months as a Sunni Muslim dictatorship that does not represent half the country’spopulation -- a reference to Turkey’ large Kurdish and Alevi communities. They warnedthat Turkey’s minorities constituted its Achilles’ heel and a potentially destabilizing factor.In a strange twist, Iranian soccer, pockmarked by nationalist and environmental protestsin Iran’s East Azerbaijan Province, offers a perspective of how Turkey could respond ina proxy war with Syria and Iran -- one using ethnic minorities as pawns. The soccerprotests in the BaghShomal and Yadegar-e-Emam stadiums in Tabriz, the capital of theprovince, signal a rise in Azeri nationalism. This trend would enable Turkey to exploitsecessionist sentiments among its Turkic brethren in the predominantly Azeri EastAzerbaijan Province, which borders the Turkic former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, aclose Turkish ally.In the latest soccer incident in Tabriz, fans of Tabriz soccer club Tractor Sazi Tabriz F.C.-- a focus of Iranian Azerbaijan’s identity politics owned by the state-run Iran TractorManufacturing Co. (ITMCO) -- wore shirts bearing Turkey and Azerbaijan’s flags andraised the latter emblem during a match against Fajr-e Sepasi F.C. of Shiraz. “*The+Iranian regime will *…+ charge them with separatism and even arrest them. The main[Iranian concern] is that the idea of Turkism is strengthening in South Azerbaijan,”Azeri news website news.az quoted SaftarRahimli, a member of the board of the WorldAzerbaijanis Congress, as saying. Rahimli was referring to the East Azerbaijan Provinceby its nationalist Azeri name.
A conservative, pro-Iranian website, Raja News, confirmed the incident in November,charging that the soccer fans had employed “separatist symbols” and shouted separatistslogans during the match. Raja News accused the fans of promoting “pan-Turkish” and“deviant” objectives. It urged authorities to ban nationalist fans from entering soccerstadiums.The protests during the match against the Shiraz-based club followed similar protests inSeptember and October sparked by the Iranian parliament’s refusal to fund efforts to savethe threatened Lake Orumiyeh and by anti-government protests in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium.The latter occurred both during last month’s 2014 World Cup qualifier against Bahrain andat a ceremony in May following the death of Nasser Hejazi, an internationally acclaimedIranian defender and outspoken critic of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.A decision by security forces in early October to bar fans’ entry into the stadium during amatch against Tehran’s Esteghlal sent thousands into the streets of Tabriz shouting“Azerbaijan is united!” and “Long live united Azerbaijan with its capital in Tabriz!” Scoreswere injured as security forces tried to break up the protest. Cars honking their hornschoked traffic.“Wherever Tractor goes, fans of the opposing club chant insulting slogans. They imitate thesound of donkeys, because Azerbaijanis are historically derided as stupid and stubborn.I remember incidents going back to the time that I was a teenager,” said a long-standingobserver of Iranian soccer.Mounting Iran-focused tension serves, at least in the case of Israel and Saudi Arabia,multiple purposes that go beyond the nuclear threat. It puts Turkey on the spot and shifts
attention away from the wave of revolts sweeping MENA.James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at NanyangTechnological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of MiddleEast Soccer. This story first appeared in Turkish Review