Iran and Turkish-American Relations

February 1, 2010

Washington is increasingly frustrated with Tehran and appears ready for a policy shift from engagement to coercive diplomacy. In practice, such coercive diplomacy would mean implementing so-called “smart sanctions” that are supposed to hurt the leaders of the country more than the innocent people. All this debate about sanctions does not bode well for Turkish-American relations.

Iran is already an irritant and potential source of crisis in Turkish-American relations. Ankara has significant economic ties and energy contracts with Tehran. The total trade volume between the two countries is $10 billion and expected to double in the next three years — given Turkey’s growing need for natural gas and willingness to lessen its dependence on Russia. As a result, Turkey will resist Western efforts to tighten economic sanctions against Tehran.

Ankara’s position will matter, not least because of its presence on the United Nations Security Council as a nonpermanent member until the end of next year. What is Turkey’s perception of the Iranian threat? Turkey, a historic rival of Shiite Persia, is clearly against a nuclear Iran. Yet, Ankara is less alarmed by such a prospect because it does not fully share the threat perception of Tel Aviv or Washington. Turkey is against destabilization and military conflict in the region. It clearly considers a US or Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities as potentially more destabilizing for the region than a nuclear Iran. To the dismay of American officials, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan often argues that Tehran’s nuclear program appears to be for civilian purposes and makes calls for a nuclear-free Middle East — a tacit criticism of Israel’s nuclear arms.

It remains unclear to what degree Turkey shares the Arab-Sunni apprehension about the rise of a so-called “Shiite Crescent” in the Middle East. As is often the case, Turkey’s secularist versus pro-Islamic domestic divide is relevant here. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) is more at peace with Turkey’s Ottoman legacy and willing to promote stronger relations with Arab countries and a more activist diplomacy in the Middle East. The Kemalist establishment — mainly the secularist intelligentsia and the military — on the other hand, considers such AKP policies part of a pro-Islamic agenda that comes at the expense of Turkey’s Kemalist legacy and Western orientation. Beyond such ambiguities and complexity in the Turkish position, what appears more certain is that Ankara (both the AKP and the Kemalists) and Tehran are genuinely concerned about Kurdish separatism in their territories.

Those are all factors that cloud the horizon in Turkish-American relations in terms of cooperation on Iran. One thing that could potentially improve the strategic communication between the two countries is more clarity in mutual priorities. Ankara is often confused about the American strategic objective in Iran. Is Washington more interested in regime change or policy change in Tehran?

Here is what Robert Kagan had to say about this in his recent column in The Washington Post: “Regime change in Tehran is the best nonproliferation policy. … A new government might shelve the program for a while, or abandon it altogether. Other nations have done so. In any event, an Iran not run by radicals with millennial visions would be a much less frightening prospect, even with a nuclear weapon. The clinching argument is pragmatic. What is more likely: that Iran’s present leadership will agree to give up its nuclear program or that these leaders will be toppled? A year ago, the answer seemed obvious. There was little sign the Iranian people would ever rise up and demand change, no matter what the United States and other democratic nations did to help them. If the prospects for a deal on Tehran’s nuclear program seemed remote, the prospects for regime change were even more remote. These probabilities have shifted since June 12. Now the odds of regime change are higher than the odds the present regime will ever agree to give up its nuclear program. With tougher sanctions, public support from Obama and other Western leaders, and programs to provide information and better communications to reformers, the possibility for change in Iran may never be better.”

Needless to say, if the Obama administration goes in the direction that Kagan suggests, Turkey’s reactions would be even harder to predict. After all, Turkey has often been the ultimate “status quo” player in the region.