The possibility of U.S.-Iran rapprochement has always carried with it the prospects of a tectonic shift in the greater Middle East that would lead the region towards a more secure and stable future. Many recognize that promise, even if the process to get there will be a long and difficult one. In any case, the mere idea that this could indeed happen has bigger implications for regional balances. Turkey would be among the first to have to recalibrate its foreign policy agenda and one of the greatest beneficiaries, economically and politically, in case of such a development. However, this could only occur provided that any rapprochement would not be limited solely to a nuclear-focused deal between the U.S. and Iran but one that addresses the broader security concerns of Turkey and other key regional players.
Throughout the last decade, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has followed a foreign policy in the Middle East that aspired to mend bridges between the so-called ‘resistance front” — Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas — with the more pro-Western grouping of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia plus Israel. To that end, Ankara ambitiously undertook efforts to move the conflicting parties towards a diplomatic settlement. Unfortunately, mediation attempts to alleviate tensions in the region — including the Israel-Syria indirect talks and the Tehran Declaration — proved unable to yield concrete results. Nevertheless, they still underscored Turkey’s quest to shape regional order and balances.
Turkey also embarked upon a regional economic integration project that envisaged the free movement of goods and people from the eastern Turkish city of Kars to the Atlantic Ocean, and from Sinop on the Black Sea to the Gulf of Aden. With this in mind, Turkey first signed free trade agreements with Morocco and Tunisia in 2004 and then with Egypt in 2005. Subsequently, the AKP government chaired an initiative that led to the establishment of a “Close Neighbors Economic and Trade Association Council” with Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. This was accompanied by a dramatic liberalization of visa requirements for the nationals of most Arab countries. These ideas did indeed stimulate economic relations and travel between the Arab world and Turkey until the Arab Spring turned cold.
The Arab Spring, and particularly the crisis in Syria, has deeply challenged Turkish efforts for an alternative regional order that would emphasize conflict resolution and greater economic interdependence. Early worldwide euphoria about the popular awakenings in the Arab world very quickly gave way to burgeoning threats of instability and insecurity that undermined the Turkish vision for the Middle East. The Syrian Civil War has negated Turkey’s envisioned role as bridge-builder. Even worse, Turkey has been put on a collision course with “the resistance front.” In the particular case of Egypt, the Turkish preference to see a broader political role for the Muslim Brotherhood drove a wedge in their relationship with the Gulf monarchies and alienated Egypt’s new military rulers. Overall, the U.S. decision to stay detached and uncommitted deprived Turkey of its expected prominent role in support of democratic transitions in the Arab Spring countries.
In the light of Turkey’s inability to transform the region according to its vision, coupled with the growing threats of al-Qaeda and rising tide of sectarianism, the direct engagement of Washington and Tehran should be seen as welcome news for Turkey. Therefore, Ankara should provide not only verbal but political support to efforts aimed at bringing about a U.S.-Iran détente. Ideally, turning Iran into a constructive player would help not only to tone down the sectarian tension in the region but also placate Israel and ease the security concerns of Gulf monarchies. Surely, Iran is neither the cause of nor the solution to all the region’s ills. Yet, from Turkey’s perspective, concerted efforts towards de-securitization in the Middle East might help to reinvigorate its regional vision based on economic and political cooperation. This may, in turn, pave the way for addressing the little talked about but formidable economic and demographic challenges facing the region.
Such a turn would depend on the actual content and nature of a possible U.S.-Iran agreement. The key here is to make sure that Washington enlists the concerns of its regional allies when negotiating any nuclear deal with Iran. This would require encouraging Tehran to adopt a more constructive role in the region and to contribute to efforts at seeking greater room for consensual politics, especially in Iraq and Syria. This in turn could open the possibility to ease sectarian tensions in the region, help efforts to support national reconciliation in Syria as well as address the security concerns of Gulf states. Only then Turkey would be in a position to revive its efforts at regional economic and political cooperation.
However, there is always the risk that the U.S. administration might seek a shortcut out of the nuclear crisis and turn a blind eye to the concerns of its traditional allies in the region. An American attempt to ensure regional stability solely based on a nuclear focused bi-lateral deal with Iran risks being perceived as “appeasement” both by America’s regional partners and by Tehran. This in turn could well lead Iran to think that it is entering negotiations with the U.S. from a position of strength while continuing to exacerbate regional insecurities with dire consequences for the prospects of resolving the Syrian crisis and achieving stability in the broader region. In that event, Turkey, together with Israel and Saudi Arabia, would likely feel compelled to counter Iran on their own.
Against this backdrop, Turkey should prioritize getting the U.S. administration to take into consideration the regional dimensions of a deal with Iran. This would not only serve Turkey’s political interest with respect to containing and then hopefully resolving the crisis in Syria, but also benefit Turkey’s economic interests. Currently, trade with the Middle East, which ironically was to substitute for Turkey’s declining exports to Western partners, has turned into a casualty of persistent chaos and instability. Turkey’s southern provinces have suffered the loss of considerable border trade revenues while also having to bear the costs of hosting half a million refugees. Furthermore, the growing threat of al-Qaeda driven terror along the long Syrian border risks bringing additional economic not to mention political costs to Turkey. On the other hand, U.S. sanctions against Iran have hurt Turkey, both adding to the current account deficit and blocking possible expansion of Turkey’s trade with Iran while the latter is desperate for goods and services.
This in mind, Ankara must play an active role in the U.S.-Iran rapprochement. Turkish President Abdullah Gül and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s positive reception of the opening gestures between Washington and Tehran should now be followed by efforts to ensure that the rapprochement is not narrowly focused only on a nuclear deal. Turkey should highlight the significance of taking a more holistic approach to regional security and stability that could help Iran to gradually integrate into the regional order as a responsible player. It is only in that event that the risks of a potential tectonic shift in the region can be prevented from becoming an intractable political earthquake.