Turkey is right now in a spot it had hoped to avoid. It has to make a decision, a decision between its new best friend Iran with all its despotic client states and organizations and its traditional allies in the West. The much vaunted ‘Zero Problem’ initiative of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has now generated Turkey’s biggest headache since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002.
Turkey has been a member of NATO for more than 50 years and has the second largest army in the organization. Now NATO wants to install a missile shield against potential threats from certain countries, namely nuclear wanna-be Iran. One leg of this shield is scheduled to be placed in Turkey. Ouch!
Davutoglu and his boss, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, are frantically trying to reconcile the irreconcilable. Placing the missile shield in Turkey could jeopardize their burgeoning trade and energy relations with Iran. Refusing to place the shield in Turkey would just about kiss good-bye to whatever pretensions they had about joining the European Union as well as calling into question their very presence in NATO. Who needs a partner that bails out when the going gets tough?
One factor in the equation is economic; fast growing energy-starved Turkey needs Iran’s natural gas and Turkish companies need a place to expand their exports. But an equally important factor is that the balance of public sentiment has shifted dramatically away from the West. Turkey was founded in1923 by a military caste that equated modernization with Europe. Everything associated with the collapsed Ottoman Empire; its religion, its imperial status, and its ties to the Arabs, were regarded as anchors that held the country back and consequently suppressed.
Several developments in the last decade have shifted this orientation, and encouraged Turkey to seek a more independent role. If this means closer relations with pariah states like Iran, so be it. This policy plays very well with the Turkish masses who resent the condescension from Europe, the ambivalence over Turkey’s EU membership bid, and the blundering American policy in the Middle East.
AKP has its roots deep in Turkey’s long-neglected Islamic and socially conservative traditions. It has openly championed a resurgence of religious observance in a country whose founding principle is secularism. This move has created a deep fracture with the ruling secular elite that had run the country for 80 years. Suddenly, slavishly following European fashions and culture has been replaced by more conservative social and religious trends. Turkey is re-discovering its deep religious and historical ties to the Arab world. Damascus, Cairo and Dubai are now challenging Paris, London and Rome. Not all the Arabs are thrilled about Turkey’s renewed interest in the Islamic world. To them it comes too close to the Ottoman Empire that ruled much of the Arab world for more than 400 years.
Nonetheless, this shift in Turkey’s domestic priorities has opened the door to a more assertive, independent foreign policy. Turkish leaders no longer feel compelled to check with Washington and Europe before starting a new venture. They have trumpeted the new policy of ‘strategic depth’ and avoiding problems with one’s neighbours. This plays very well with the Turkish masses whose pride has been dented by constant barrage of criticism and unsolicited advice from EU bureaucrats. With the economy growing much faster than Europe’s the Turks don’t think they have to take advice or orders from anyone.
This is all well and good. But this new policy is much better on paper than in reality. It is a worthy goal to have zero problems with one’s neighbours, but what happens when your neighbours are problem areas like Syria, Iraq, Iran or Armenia? What do you do when they have problems with each other? How do you reconcile your policy objectives to Iranian support for Armenian genocide claims?
You can generate favourable headlines and demonstrations by asserting your distance from the West. But are better relations with places like Iran and Sudan going to replace NATO or the EU? More than 50% of Turkey’s exports go to the European Union. There is simply no way that the Middle East can replace the purchasing power of Europe that is so important to Turkish exports.
Turkey wants to be more independent. Fine. How to accomplish this without becoming isolated? If the West tires of Turkish equivocation where is Turkey going to turn? Turkey is big, but not big enough to forge a completely independent foreign policy like India, Brazil or China. Do the Turkish leaders believe that alliances with Iran, Syria, Hamas and Sudan will help them play a larger role in world affairs?
Turkey constantly says it opposes a nuclear-armed Iran. Yet it has done very little to hinder this development. It says sanctions won’t work and negotiations are the only way. What negotiations? With whom? The Iranians have consistently rejected any Turkish overtures to negotiate with the United States. Turkey’s stance on sanctions is just a bit disingenuous. Several of its companies are doing a booming business with Iran, and the government is loathe to see that stopped. The still-born effort with Brazil to shift some of Iran’s uranium to a third country came to nothing when the United Nations Security Council ignored it and passed the sanctions resolution despite a Turkish veto. Brazil later regretted its role and said it was dropping out of any future talks with Iran.
The Turkish foreign policy team is clever, and it is going to take every ounce of its skill and cunning to satisfy the seemingly mutually exclusive objectives of pleasing its NATO allies and Iran.