Turkey’s Iran Dilemma

In light of the hand-wringing Stateside about what the U.S. official reaction to events in Iran should be, it’s interesting to take note of the reaction of a country whose stance arguably has more of a direct impact in Iran — namely, Turkey. Yigal Schleifer flags this Der Speigel interview, in which Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu steps very gingerly around the issue of passing judgment on the Iranian election and political process. He also de-dramatizes the recognition of Ahmadinejad’s election “victory” as a mere diplomatic formality between “nations with friendly relations,” and explains why Western perceptions of Iran’s political process are two-dimensional. The whole interview is well worth a read.

Says Schleifer:

The interview gives me a clearer sense of what Turkey’s position isregarding what’s happening in Iran (very cautious, and I can see thelogic in that). What I’m still trying to figure out is what roleTurkey, as a regional actor, sees for itself regarding the unfoldingcrisis there.

I’d say that Turkey is determined to maintain its self-proclaimed mediator role, which obviously depends on both parties’ willingness to engage. For Washingotn, that will in turn depend on whether the Iranian government that emerges from the post-election turmoil in Tehran maintains international legitimacy. Davutoglu is essentially making the argument that pragmatic necessity determines legitimacy. It’s one that matches up well with President Barack Obama’s initial remarks on the Iran elections. I’m not so sure how it will track with the evolving situation on the ground, especially if things get more violent.

Very challenging times if you’re the architect, as Davutoglu is, of Turkey’s “zero problems” policy. The complex “two steps forward, one step back” approach Turkey has been forced to adopt in terms of normalizing relations with Armenia without jeopardizing its “one people, two nations” understanding with Azerbaijan offers another illustration (although in a context in which Turkey has adversarial relations with one of the parties involved).

Speaking more broadly to Der Speigel, Davutoglu formulated Turkish policy as follows:

It is true that Turkish foreign policy is based on our intent not topolarize, but to reconcile the various interests in our region. It isalways dangerous to play off groups or countries against one another.That’s why we have consistently rejected the expression “axis of evil.”

[. . .]

We see no radicals or moderates in our neighborhood. All we see areneighbors. Which is why Turkey cultivates relations equally with Israeland Palestine, Egypt and Iran, Fatah and Hamas, the Lebanese Hezbollahand the coalition that invokes murdered former Prime Minister RafikHariri.

It’s an essential role, if the goal is to find ways to resolve differences. In addition to the caveats mentioned above, it will depend for success on Turkey’s ability to continue resisting outside pressure to choose sides, but also on its ability to maintain internal political stability. So far, as Schleifer’s WPR briefing on Turkey’s latest controversy between the ruling AKP government and the military indicates, Ankara might be more likely to succeed at the former than the latter.