Monday, 15 February 2010

Turkey's Position Between Iran and the West is Proving Increasingly Difficult to Sustain

Published in Articles

By M. K. Kaya and Halil M. Karaveli (vol. 3, no. 3 of the Turkey Analyst)

As Iran’s nuclear ambitions cause growing concern among Western powers, Turkey remains committed to its ambition of staking out a mediating position in the Iranian-Western stand-off. However, the Turkish policy rests on the unrealistic assumption that Ankara can somehow avoid hard choices. Indeed, Turkey’s position is set to become increasingly untenable as the tensions rise. Although it would seem that Ankara faces a choice between retaining the trust of the United States and remaining true to the eastern vocation of its foreign policy, appearing to be an advocate of Iran is ultimately undermining Turkey’s credibility in the Middle East as well.

BACKGROUND: Last November, Turkey abstained as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued a reprimand to Iran. When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Washington in December, he reiterated during his meeting with President Barack Obama the Turkish position that the nuclear issue with Iran should be dealt with through diplomacy. The Turkish Prime minister then went on to accuse the Western powers of applying “double standards”, at an event organized by the Washington branch office of SETA (the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research), a Turkey-centered think-tank. Erdoğan held it to be hypocritical to sanction Iran because of its nuclear program while simultaneously turning a blind eye to Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons.

Turkey’s position on the Iranian nuclear issue is putting the country’s foreign policy doctrine to a crucial test. Indeed, the Iranian question is what will ultimately reveal whether or not the fundamental assumptions that guide the AKP government’s foreign policy are realistic. However, it is already looking increasingly improbable that Turkey will be able to sustain its much vaunted ambition of having “zero problems” with its neighbors, without having to sacrifice other foreign policy objectives, chief among them the retention of the trust of the U.S. Yet, it would nevertheless be simplistic to view Turkey’s Iranian policy in the light of a superficial Western-Eastern dichotomy. Although the Turkish position on Iran does reflect an ideological, eastward inclination, and a certain estrangement from the West – even raising the specter of a potential parting of ways with erstwhile allies – it is in fact also jeopardizing Turkey’s ability to wield “soft power” in the Middle East.

The stalling of the adhesion negotiations with EU has contributed to bolstering Turkey’s eastern vocation. The AKP government’s foreign policy has tilted considerably towards the Muslim east and south since 2005. The trade volume with the countries of the region has increased more than the ratio with the EU countries. Commercial relations with Iran have expanded as well. Businessmen who share the AKP’s ideological outlook have concluded numerous important contracts in the region during this period. The fact that an AKP member of parliament is one of the shareholders of an Iranian fertilizer plant is only one example that serves as a telling reminder of a growing interconnection in the realm of the economy. Meanwhile, Turkey’s natural gas demand has increased in parallel with the country’s significant economic growth, providing yet another opportunity for the expansion of commercial ties with neighboring Iran. Iran provides nearly 25 percent of Turkey’s natural gas, and is of obvious importance as a complement – and counter-balance – to the main supplier, Russia.

IMPLICATIONS: The Islamic cadres that founded the AKP a decade ago made a conceptual leap when they abandoned the hostility to the West that had been one of the defining traits of the Islamic movement up until then. However, although the embrace of the EU, in particular, served to underwrite the process of democratization of the Islamic conservative mindset, it was not accompanied by any break with the Islamist east. On the contrary, the AKP has nurtured its relations with Hamas, with Islamist-ruled Sudan, and with the Islamic republic of Iran. To a certain extent, the pragmatism that has characterized the AKP from its inception accounts for Ankara’s Iranian policy: commercial ties as well as the ambition to avoid confrontation with neighbors and securing Turkish influence in its neighborhood, naturally preclude antagonism with Iran. Yet, Turkey’s relation with Iran has not been confined to what realpolitik may prescribe; it has also been informed by ideology. While the embrace of the goal of EU membership makes the AKP’s claim to be a force bent on democratization credible, the embrace of Iran conveys the opposite message.

Notably, the Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan was one of the first world leaders to congratulate the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad after the highly contested presidential elections last year, while the mass demonstrations of the opposition were being violently put down. And Turkey has since remained mute on the question of human rights abuses in Iran. Although that abstention would seem to have a certain realpolitik rationale, the AKP government’s Iranian policy nevertheless betrays that the former Islamists are yet to fully internalize the ideological implications of the adherence to democratization.

Turkey’s Iranian policy not only widens the gap between the country and the West, but could potentially also harm Turkish aspirations in the Middle East if Turkey becomes too closely associated with a dictatorship. The impression that Turkey seeks to shield Iran from pressure, indeed that it poses as a defender of Iranian ambitions, and turns a blind eye to the human right abuses of the Iranian regime, is detrimental not only to the image of the ruling AKP in Western quarters, but in fact in the Middle East as well.

Historically, Turkey and Iran are geopolitical rivals, and they have both pretended to offer a seductive, “democratic” political model for their neighborhood. Iran has long sought to promote the idea that the Islamic republic represents a Muslim version of democracy, a pretention that is fast becoming impossible to sustain. Meanwhile, Turkey retains the advantage of representing a functioning – albeit imperfect – democracy in the region; however, sticking too close to an Iran that cracks down on opposition and that has abandoned any “democratic” pretenses is sure to deprive the Turks of any such ideological advantage.

Yet, to distance itself from Iran, and to accept that sanctions are imposed on Iran, would create considerable troubles as well. Turkey’s dependence on Iran in terms of natural gas imports means that the country may face severe electricity production shortages in case it goes along with sanctions. Likewise, any decrease of the commerce with Iran due to prohibitions imposed by the international community will affect the Turkish economy negatively, while it is still reeling from the effects of the global financial crisis. Conversely, continued opposition to sanctions will hamper relations with the West.

Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu seeks to avoid facing the issue; he recently proclaimed that the nuclear problem with Iran is not a problem related to NATO and that it would not be right to start a “new cold war” by introducing the issue on NATO’s agenda. Yet, there is nothing that suggests that Turkey will be able to indefinitely put up the difficult choice between its alliance requirements and its ambitions of having “zero problems” with its neighbors.

CONCLUSIONS:  As there are no signs that the matter of Iran and its nuclear ambitions is about to be resolved without some escalation, Turkey is facing stark choices. It is increasingly becoming apparent that the Turkish position is ultimately untenable; Ankara’s effort to interpose itself as a mediator between Iran and the United States has not met with any success whatsoever. Indeed, the Iranian question is beginning to reveal the foreign policy doctrine of the AKP – “zero problems with neighbors” – as one based on an illusion.

The implication of sticking to “zero problems with neighbors” in relation to Iran is that Turkey would have to jeopardize not only its relation with the United States, but equally its standing in a region where that policy doctrine was supposed to bolster its soft power.

M.K. Kaya is a contributing editor to the Turkey AnalystHalil M. Karaveli is Managing Editor of the Turkey Analyst and a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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