Why Turkey Went to Iran and What it Means

The fallout of Erdogan’s Iran visit has caused considerable controversy. Erdogan’s planned visit to the US has been postponed until December.

Here is some background to what is at stake and why so many in the West are worried – I think mistakenly. (If you don’t need a backgrounder, skip the indented part)

Turkey is passing through an extraordinary moment in its history because the civilian government is taking a large group of military officers to court, accusing them of planning a coup. Read this article, ‘AK PARTY not listening to military’ which includes a copy of a leaked “secret action plan” devised by some colonels to take on the AK Party.

It gives an incredibly frank description of how some in the secular military in Turkey, led by officers brought up in the “Ataturkist” spirit, look at the government of the AK Party AKP [Justice and Development Party], which is led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül, who have been leading Turkey in the direction of moderate Islam, which horrifies the military.

In these secret memos, now made public, a number of military officers spell out a plan for a “coup” against the AK party.

The civilian government is taking the military officers to court. Should they win and be able to “tame” the military, democracy may be the winner. Some think that Islamization will be the winner, which they see as a danger and slippery slope, as do these officers.

In the past, the military has carried out a coup about every 10 years in Turkey, sweeping away civilian parties that have become either too left or two religious in the military’s opinion. The US has traditionally seen this as a good thing and called the military the “guardian” of democracy – especially during the Cold War years. Today, the West has changed its mind. Increasingly it sees the AKP as the best example of a soft Islam that is friendly to the West and which accepts secularism. It is the best antidote to radical Islamic parties, according to many Westerners. This is what the Turkish officers are worried about.

Erdogan’s visit to Iran this week has begun to make many of his fans in the West wonder if the Ataturkists in the Turkish military are right.

Turkey has signed an agreement with Russia, China and Iran to use each others currencies in their trade and not dollars. This is a big deal. China has just signed a deal with Russia to buy gas worth more than the total Russian export to Europe. This is to be in local currencies rather than dollars. Russia will not have to stockpile do many dollars. From the Turkish perspective, expanding the local currency deals is important because Ankara will not have to accumulate dollars or Euros as well. All of Turkey’s energy comes from Russia and Iran.

Nabucco Gas Pipeline

For the Nabucco gas pipeline Turkey’s changing foreign policy is also important. Turkish friendship with Armenia and the Kurds is opening up new prospects for energy transport. It ensures that transit through Turkey will be inexpensive and secure. By fixing its Kurdish problem, regularizing relations with Armenia, and having good relations with Iran, the proposed gas pipeline bringing Azerbaijan gas through Turkey to Europe will be seen as secure and reliable.

In the following excellent articles, copied below, Gülnur Aybet explains why Turkey needs Iranian gas to make its Nabucco gas line work. The Iran visit is not about identity or religion, he argues, but about Turkey becoming the hub of a successful gas transport network – a network, by the way, that Syria is counting on to boost its importance and the importance of its allies in the region.

Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett argue that the US should follow Turkey’s lead in realigning its relations with key Middle Eastern actors such as Iran, rather than trying to stop Turkey from doing it, which would be a losing battle. The problem for the US is that such a shift would bring it into conflict with its close ally, Israel, and possibly cause some friction with Saudi Arabia, although the Gulf countries are a lesser problem for Washington. Turkey and Syria take the view that the Iranian nuclear issue is largely bogus and has been manufactured by Israel in order to turn the world’s attention away from Gaza and settlements on Palestinian land. Another benefit for Israel is that it keeps the Arabs divided. See “Erdogan’s Visit to Tehran Raises Questions over Turkish Foreign Policy” by Emrullah Uslu at Jamestown to get a sense of Erdogan’s stand on this.

Responding to criticism over whether Turkey might be reorienting toward the Middle East, Erdogan said “Turkey is expanding its relations; it is not changing its direction. Our axis is obvious. I guess people cannot get rid of their Cold War mentality. Turkey may be extremely good friends with Syria, Iraq, Iran, Russia, Georgia and Armenia, with Greece or Bulgaria as well. This is neither against NATO, nor can it be considered as a stance against any other country or group of countries. We have to eliminate such restrictive paradigms,” he said (Today’s Zaman, October 29). On Turkey’s relations with Israel, Erdogan noted that Ankara would continue its ongoing bilateral ties with Tel Aviv based on the principle of “rightness,” and without accepting any pressure on its own political will (Today’s Zaman, October 29).

Serious Turkish diplomacy
By: Flynt Leverett & Hillary Mann Leverett
October 29, 2009 05:25 AM EST

Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was expected to come to the White House on Thursday for a meeting with President Barack Obama. Erdogan’s visit has now been postponed, and the decision to postpone comes on the heels of the Turkish leader’s high-profile visit to Iran this week.

When Erdogan does come to Washington, Obama would do well to listen to his Turkish visitor about the current state of play in the strategically vital Middle East. Erdogan will come to Washington not only at a time of strong domestic support for his government and the ruling Justice and Development Party, a moderate Islamist party that has dominated Turkish electoral politics in this decade, but also at a time of increasing influence for Turkey in the broader Middle East — while America’s influence in the region continues to decline.

We spent several days in Turkey last week, where we heard Erdogan describe his country’s “zero problems” policy vis-à-vis its neighbors. Regarding the Middle East more specifically, Erdogan’s chief foreign policy adviser explained to us that Turkey’s approach to the region is based on four principles: Engage all actors; respect the results of all democratic elections (including those in the Palestinian territories in 2006 and Iran in 2009); increase cultural and economic relations among countries in the region; and work with regional and international organizations to maximize possibilities for engagement.

Turkey is, of course, a member of NATO and has long had a positive economic and strategic relationship with Israel. But, working from these four principles, the Erdogan government has in recent years effected major improvements in Turkey’s relations with a much wider range of Middle Eastern states, including Iran, Iraq and Syria.

This opening to the broader Middle East has been very strongly in Turkey’s interest. Expanding trade and investment links to Iran, Iraq, Syria and other regional states has boosted the growth of Turkey’s economy and reinforced its status as an “emerging market” of international significance. Moreover, closer ties to Middle Eastern countries, along with links to Hamas and Hezbollah, have made Ankara an increasingly important player across a wide spectrum of regional issues.

Erdogan wants to position Turkey to act as a mediator between its Muslim neighbors and the West — including the United States, which needs to move beyond nice speeches by Obama and undertake concrete diplomatic initiatives to repair its standing in the Middle East. But if Washington is too shortsighted to see the necessity of realigning its relations with key Middle Eastern actors such as Iran, the Erdogan government’s opening to the broader Middle East gives Ankara a wider array of strategic options for pursuing Turkish interests — the essence of successful diplomacy.

During his visit to Tehran this week, Erdogan met with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — a rare honor for a foreign leader. (In 2007, Russia’s then-President Vladimir Putin was also accorded a meeting with Khamenei.) Turkey’s expanding ties to the Islamic republic — including gas supply contracts and preliminary agreements for major upstream and pipeline investment projects — are essential to consolidating Turkey’s role as the leading transit “hub” for oil and gas supplies to Europe. While in Iran, Erdogan said that he hopes Turkish-Iranian trade — currently valued at roughly $10 billion — will double by 2011 and strongly supported Iranian participation in the Nabucco gas pipeline. Meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Erdogan criticized international pressure on Tehran over its nuclear activities as “unjust and unfair” while other states maintain nuclear weapons.

These statements signal that Turkey may well move ahead and conclude significant upstream and pipeline contracts in Iran despite U.S. opposition. The U.S. position on this issue is detached from economic reality. However much the Obama administration resists admitting it, the Nabucco pipeline will almost certainly not be commercially viable in the long run without Iranian gas volumes. In the end, Turkey’s approach to Iran does more for Western interests than does the U.S. approach. Under the Erdogan government, Ankara is increasingly confident that it can pursue its interests in the Middle East without either succumbing to U.S. pressure or fundamentally sacrificing its relationship with Washington. Erdogan’s planned visit to the White House strongly suggests that this confidence is eminently justified.

Israelis and some of Israel’s friends in the United States decry what they see as the expansion of Turkey’s ties to other important Middle Eastern states at the expense of Turkey’s ties to Israel. Ankara has indeed been sharply critical of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza and its role in the continuing humanitarian crisis there — a posture manifested in Erdogan’s highly publicized walkout from a joint event with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum and the postponement of NATO military exercises in Turkey that would have included Israeli forces. But criticism of Turkey from pro-Israel circles misses an important reality: At this point, Israel arguably needs a relationship with Turkey more than Turkey needs a relationship with Israel.

There is an important lesson here for the Obama administration. America no longer has the economic and political wherewithal to dictate strategic outcomes in the Middle East. Increasingly, if Washington wants to promote and protect U.S. interests in this critical region, it will have to do so through serious diplomacy — by respecting evolving balances of power and accommodating the legitimate interests of others so that U.S. interests will be respected. Turkey’s Middle East policy provides a valuable model of what that kind of diplomacy looks like.

Flynt Leverett directs the New America Foundation’s Iran Project and teaches international affairs at Penn State. Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Stratega, a political risk consultancy.

Behind the rhetoric: Why Turkey wants to keep Iran engaged
by  GÜLNUR AYBET* in Zaman

LONDON — Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Iran on Oct. 26 and 27 was highlighted with the usual colorful rhetoric the prime minister is now famed for, this time going beyond public criticism of Israel to accusations of “hypocrisy” against the five-plus-one countries who are engaged in talks with Iran over its nuclear ambitions.

While dismissing Western concerns over Iran’s intentions to build a nuclear weapon as mere “gossip” may seem at odds coming from a NATO member aspiring to become an EU member, much lies behind the theatricals of populism.

The prime minister’s visit to Iran raises two questions. First, it highlights Western concerns that Turkey, a traditional ally of the West, may be shifting its foreign policy orientation towards the Islamic world and the Middle East. Second, the timing of the visit, close on the heels of Turkey’s refusal to participate in a military exercise with Israel and the recent mending of relations with Syria, also coincides with the arrival of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to Iran’s recently disclosed nuclear facility in Qom. There is no doubt that Erdoğan’s populist rhetoric coupled with the Israeli rift is a powerful softener as Iran prepares to engage once again with the West over its nuclear program. No matter how “non Western” the prime minister’s public stance may seem, Turkey’s interests in engaging Iran, in fact run parallel with those of the West.

Turkey’s primary purpose in this visit is not to act as a mediator between Iran and the West but to deliver an independent Turkish message to the Iranian authorities that Iran is not being convincing about the civilian intentions of its nuclear program to the international community. However, Turkey insists it will engage Iran on this issue as a country which empathizes with Iranian sensitivities.

Here, Turkey’s most valuable asset in keeping Iran engaged is its independence from the West, and Prime Minister Erdoğan’s populist rhetoric against Israel and criticism of Western handling of the Iranian issue no doubt helps in this respect. But Turkish interests in this matter are also strongly driven by its objection to further new sanctions on Iran. As a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, Turkey’s stance on future sanctions could have a considerable impact. Also in a speech at the UN last month, Erdoğan voiced his particular opposition to further sanctions on Iran’s gas industry.

This is linked to the second purpose of this visit — Turkey’s interest to diversify its energy supply options in the region. Turkey would like to keep the door open for Iran’s possible involvement as a supplier to the Nabucco gas pipeline, which will run through Turkey to Europe.

Turkey also has a vested interest to develop three phases of the world’s largest gas field — the South Pars field in the Gulf, in a joint venture with Iran. Although the energy deals are in the shape of a memorandum of understanding between the two governments and have not yet materialized as contracts, the US envoy for Eurasian Energy, Richard Morningstar, sent a clear warning in July, stating that the US opposed Iranian involvement in Nabucco. Despite the US’s consternation in the matter, Turkey’s Energy and Natural Resources Minister Taner Yıldız recently said he hopes to finalize a deal over the development of South Pars with Iran.

It is interesting that Turkey is ready to pursue these energy deals with Iran at the risk of deteriorating relations with the US just as the healing process has started after the damaging Bush era in Turkish-American relations. Under a 1996 deal, Turkey already receives some of its gas supply from Iran. But in recent years, the quantity and quality of supply has been disappointing for Turkey, in contrast to Russia, which Turkey does view as a reliable energy supplier. However, filling the Nabucco pipeline with an adequate supply is crucial for long-term Turkish interests to become a major energy hub linking Europe to Asia. As it is doubtful that Azeri gas, the main supplier to Nabucco, will be sufficient to fill the pipeline, other alternative suppliers such as Turkmen gas, which is presently dependent on Russia as the only outlet to Europe, and Iraqi gas, which depends on the security situation improving in that country, look uncertain at best.

Turkey is right to court all options for future suppliers for the pipeline. Turkey’s interest in an energy deal with Iran should therefore not be seen in the context of an “Islamist” empathy, whatever the prime minister’s rhetoric, but a pure realpolitik matter in diversifying its energy options.

This visit is not about deepening relations with a neighboring state on the basis of identity politics. It is about maintaining the status quo by keeping Iran engaged with Turkey and the West without closing the door on Iran’s gas supply to Nabucco as one option out of many. While the West, and in particular the US, may object to Turkey’s energy overtures with Iran, Turkey’s Iranian engagement as an independent player in the region is no doubt an important asset.

When it comes to Turkish-Iranian relations, the West should let Turkey do what it does best — be an independent player in the region with interests parallel to the West.

*Gülnur Aybet is a Southeast Europe policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a lecturer at the University of Kent.

Comments (2)

qunfuz said:

more good news. Turkey continues along the path of realism, national and regional self-interest.

November 1st, 2009, 9:37 am


norman said:

This is something interesting about how Israel sees the relation between Iran and Turkey ,

Analysis: The new northern tier?

Nov. 1, 2009
In the early ’50s, when Israel was still young, the West was feeling the brunt of the Communist threat to the Middle East.

The end of World War II had left festering wounds of Stalin’s intrusions into Greece and Iran and his attempted appropriation of northeastern Turkey.

There was also the unraveling Soviet fraternization with Egypt, Iraq and Syria. The West was concerned with the growing Soviet presence in eastern Mediterranean and the approaches to the Mideastern oil fields.

The United States and Britain were working hard to develop a defense organization against the USSR. They turned to Egypt, but Nasser turned them down.

President Truman had declared, in 1947, his doctrine to defend Turkey, Greece and the other states of the area. Adnan Menderes, the ambitious and crafty prime minister of Turkey, became the leading local force in developing the defense organization. Nuri Sayid, the then-prime minister of the Royal Iraqi government, joined him. The Shah hesitated, but was drawn into the net.

With the inclusion of Pakistan the alliance became known as the Northern Tier. Iraq broke off after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1953.

Turkey was the first Muslim state to recognize Israel after its independence in 1948. But with the active role assigned to Turkey in the development of the Northern Tier with its Muslim partners, the first flush of cordiality vis-a-vis Israel rapidly faded.

Erol Guney, the Turkish-Jewish correspondent working for The Jerusalem Post, asked Menderes for the reason.

“You can’t make an omelet without breaking the eggs,” the Turkish prime minister replied.

The long years of Turkey’s cooperation with the West notwithstanding, the prospects for its admittance into the European Union are dimming.

Turkey continues to maintain strong political, economic and defense connections with the United States and Europe (and Israel), but has decided to go off on its own. The present government is forceful and self-confident; its ascendancy over the army in the latter’s attempts to maintain secular traditions has now apparently passed the point of no return.

We are now witnessing the resurgence of Turkish involvement with the Middle East. To gain greater international legitimacy, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently signed an agreement with Armenia, somewhat soothing a sore point in Turkey’s past.

Iran welcomes a new and dedicated associate to the Islamic notion, even should Turkey turn out to be an obstacle to its plans. Nonetheless, there is the remembered pain of historical confrontations and the persistence of mutual suspicions: Iran is devoutly Shi’ite, Turkey – worldly Sunni. Beyond smiles and platitudes the two are too enterprising to share the vast expanses of the region.

Iraq is slowly regaining its body politic, even if its final shape is open to question. Thirsty Syria looks forward to Turkish mediation over the Golan Heights – and maybe some help by releasing more of the waters impounded by the great Ataturk Dam.

In the ’50s the Northern Tier countries were sponsored by the West and their internal rivalries were controlled. It is a different West today, trying to safeguard its economic and political interests, endeavoring to impede the rising tide of Islam. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can hardly allow further overextension.

Turkey is a strong, vibrant, politically stable and internationally enterprising nation. It is rich in natural and human resources and is at the headwaters of the region’s main rivers, the Euphrates and Tigris.

The future oil and gas lines that are to cross Turkish territory to Europe will provide an impressionable political vocabulary otherwise denied to Turkey in the EU. No wonder then that the Erdogan government is actively engaged in carving out a geo-political presence for his country in the Middle East.

Erdogan is repeating Menderes’s concept of relations with Israel. Israel, in his view, must accommodate Turkish ambitions. In his quest for Turkish influence, Erdogan voices his condemnations of Israel and demonstrates his support of the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas as well. He preaches atomic disarmament to support Iran and to point a finger at Israel.

Thus, Turkey and Iran are emerging as the two rising powers in the Middle East, promoting their own interests rather than safeguarding the concerns of outsiders.

There is no Soviet threat on the horizon and the West has no interest in supporting a new concert of Muslim nations, but geostrategic considerations dictate listening and to humoring these countries, insofar as possible and until further notice.

The writer is former head of political research at the Foreign Ministry.

This article can also be read at http://www.jpost.com /servlet/Satellite?cid=1256799063451&pagename=JPArticle%2FShowFull
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November 2nd, 2009, 12:09 am


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