Journal: Chuck Spinney Sends…Turkey and Iran

08 Wild Cards
Chuck Spinney
Chuck Spinney

Turkey and the Iranian Question:

Implications for Regional Stability
Today’s Guardian contains at report with the provocative leader,

‘Iran is our friend,’ says Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan

• We have no difficulty with Ahmadinejad – Erdogan
• Warning to Europe not to ignore Turkey’s strengths

Perhaps it is time for America and the EU to pressure the uppity Turks into toeing the party line?  I think not.

The Guardian report, in my opinion, needs to be read in a broader context, because it is merely describing one more dimension in Turkey’s dramatically changing, multidimensional, regional foreign policy.  It does, however, highlight some of the internal contradictions and dissonance that naturally accompany all complex changes–particularly those pertaining to the question of whether Turkey should move its culture and economy to the west or to the east or follow some as yet undefined middle path.

Turkish foreign policy is an unavoidable state of flux, driven by an unpredictable interplay of chance and necessity.  Part of energy driving this flux, undoubtably, is due to the vacuum of power in the region that arose from the collapse of the Soviet Union.  In one sense, I think, Turkey, a dynamic, increasingly well-educated, hardworking nation of 80 million people, is being sucked willy-nilly into this vacuum.  But in another sense, Turkey is deliberately pursuing a proactive policy that some opponents have gone so far as to caricature as a neo-Ottomanization of Turkish foreign policy.*

What this means for the question of whether or not this fascinating country will ever join the EU and for the regional balance of power in what may be the most complex part of the world is a question no one, including the Turks, can answer.  Nevertheless, the evolution of events has a momentum of its own, with important albeit unpredictable implications for Turkey’s corner of the world.

The mind-boggling complexity of the contemporary Turkish world view was summarized almost two years ago by Ahmet Davutoglu, the intellectual architect of the new multidimensional foreign policy during a CNN-Turk interview on January 2, 2008, when he said, “In terms of its sphere of influence, Turkey is a Middle Eastern, Balkan, Caucasian, Central Asian, Caspian, Mediterranean, Gulf and Black Sea country all at the same time.” All true.

However, the extent to which this outlook is now being translated into action is not widely appreciated in the West.  It becomes apparent, however, when one considers the welter of foreign policy initiatives which began modestly at the end of the Cold War with the 1992 Istanbul Declaration to establish the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization among all the countries in the Black Sea region.  They now include, inter alia, Turkey’s  promotion of the Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform, her pursuit of a grand bargain with Russia, her opening to Armenia, her injection into the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the forging of closer relations in the historically Turkic regions of the old USSR and China, the evolution of Turkey as an energy transportation nexus in the great pipeline debate, her distancing from Israel, and her recent initiatives with Syria.

Increasingly friendly relations between Turkey and Iran could be easily interpreted too narrowly, as if they occurred in isolation and had a anti-western undertone.   No doubt, for example, a rapprochement will freak out the neo-cons who worked assiduously in 1990s to build a Turkish-Israeli strategic alliance, together with their cognitively dissonant scheme to use the American destruction of Saddam Husayn’s regime in Iraq as a means to set up an independent, oil-rich, Israeli-friendly Kurdish rump state in Northern Iraq (which, predictably, really angered the Turks**).  A Turkish-Iranian rapprochement might also be used by those Europeans who are hunting for reasons to keep Turkey out of the EU.

On the other hand, when viewed in a larger context, Turkey’s string of overtures to Iran (and its natural gas reserves), together with the overtures to Iran by Russia, do raise the question of whether enmeshing Iran more deeply into a regional web of peaceful economic, energy, and political relations might increase the prospects for regional stability, notwithstanding the bellicose howls from a nuclear-armed Israel, their neo-con henchmen in the United States, and those advocating that America maintain a political and military hegemony in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Interested readers will find an excellent introduction to the question of neo-Ottomanization in the 4 Feb 2009 edition of Asia Times by Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar, a former career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service.

** The Turkish initiatives with Iran and Syria, as well as the more tentative ones with the new Iraqi regime, are not unrelated to their mutual interest in diffusing the Kurdish question by isolating Kurdish insurrectionists throughout the region, and should be viewed, therefore, as being linked to Turkey recent domestic initiatives to diffuse tensions

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Robert Tait in Istanbul
Monday 26 October 2009