Why doesn't Turkey speak up on Iran nuclear issue?

While so many are focused on the Iran nuclear talks, Turks have remained surprisingly quiet on a major issue unfolding just next door.

al-monitor Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R) is welcomed by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he arrives for a meeting at Erdogan's office in Ankara, June 9, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Umit Bektas.
Mustafa Akyol

Mustafa Akyol

@AkyolinEnglish

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us-iranian relations, turkish influence in the middle east, turkish foreign policy, turkey's middle east policy, turkey, recep tayyip erdogan, nuclear negotiations, iran nuclear talks, ahmet davutoglu

Feb 26, 2015

If the talks in Geneva between Iran and P5+1 end with an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, they are likely to open a new chapter for not only Iran’s relations with the West, but also for the entire Middle East. However, another key country in the same region, Turkey, is conspicuously silent on this matter.

Neither President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, nor Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, nor the Turkish Foreign Ministry has said anything recently about the Geneva talks.

Meanwhile, the Turkish press, including the staunchly pro-government media, is showing almost zero interest in the matter. Turkey, as a whole, seems quite uninterested. But why? 

There is no sensational answer to this question. The answer is rather a combination of Turkey’s increasing insularity, its failed dreams of fixing its own deal between Iran and the West, and its mixed feelings toward its Persian neighbor.

First, the insularity. As any political observer could testify, Turkey lately has become a polarized society, where mutually bitter political camps are engaged in a vicious political war. The government, for its part, believes that it has survived at least two “coup attempts” in the last two years — the Gezi Park protests and the corruption investigations in 2013 — and is focused on crushing its foes. In particular, the “parallel state” of the Gülen Movement has become an obsession for Erdogan and his media. (For example the daily Sabah, a large-circulation pro-Erdogan mouthpiece, has probably not printed a single issue in the past 300 days whose banner headline is not about the evils of the parallel state.)

This political polarization makes foreign policy issues irrelevant, unless they somehow serve the pro-government or anti-government propaganda. The talks between Iran and P5+1 has no such relevance to the domestic hype; so they are dismissed as unimportant. (Similarly, Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea has also passed almost unnoticed by Turkey’s foreign policy elite.)

Besides this insularity, there are already some burning foreign policy issues that consume whatever energy is unconsumed. The civil war in Syria and Iraq is enough of a problem with various layers of complications for Turkey — more than 1.5 million refugees, border security, the Islamic State, foreign jihadists who still try to use Turkey as a gateway, the rise of the Kurds, etc.

Add to this the stormy “peace process” between the Turkish government and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and Ankara already has enough on its plate.

A senior official whom I asked about Ankara’s take on the Iran-P5+1 negotiations confirmed the same reality. “Ask me about the Domestic Security Bill or the tomb evacuation operation,” he said, “but diplomacy has lately been dormant.”

There can also be a personal reason for Davutoglu to feel detached from the talks in Geneva: He tried to broker a nuclear swap deal between Iran and the West (also with the involvement of Brazil) back in 2010, when he was Turkey’s foreign minister. That effort then had failed to the disappointment of Ankara, because it was rejected by the United States, which was rather busy with imposing new economic sanctions on Iran. Now it's understandable if Ankara feels somewhat distant to an agreement itself tried to fix almost five years ago.

Since 2010, there have been changes in Turkey’s perception of Iran as well. In the first decade of this century, the AKP (Justice and Development Party) foreign policy elite opposed Iran’s nuclear program, but also felt some implicit sympathy for Tehran’s defiance of the West. The same AKP elite also dismissed the Sunni-Shiite split in the region, and used a narrative of brotherhood of all Muslims.

But then came the Syrian civil war, in which Ankara supported the opposition and Iran supported the Assad regime. The consequence in AKP circles was a rapid decline in sympathy for Iran.

As explained by Turkish academic Kemal Inat, in a December 2014 report prepared for SETA, an Ankara-based pro-AKP think tank:

“Today, it is clear that the Turkish-Iranian relations are way below the level they were at in 2010, and that the two countries are in serious tense competition on various issues, the first of them being Syria. It is just that both countries are trying to preserve their economic ties, regardless of the troubles in matters of politics and security.”

The same report also argues that despite these tensions, “positive developments” in the talks between Iran and the United States would be positive for Turkey’s relations with both Iran and the United States. But as the report acknowledges, there is a counter view, too: Some Turkish foreign policy analysts worry that a possible rapprochement between Iran and the United States will diminish the importance of Turkey (and of Saudi Arabia) in Washington's eyes.

The bottom line is that for all these diverse reasons, Ankara feels distant to, and uninterested in, the talks between Iran and the six major powers. This, of course, conflicts with Davutoglu’s longtime claim to be the “game setter” in the Middle East — and offers a reality check.

That claim was well-intended for sure, but events have proven it more wishful than factual. For the future, the right way for Turkey may be not to oscillate between full engagement and no engagement in world affairs, but rather seek for modest forms of engagement. 

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