Iran And Turkey In Post-Arab Spring Middle East: Peripheralism And Westernalism – OpEd


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By Behzad Khoshandam

Political developments in the Middle East have been approached from various viewpoints. The latest decision by Turkey for the deployment of the Patriot missile system along its borders with Syria in late 2012 and Iran’s opposition to that decision as well as differences between the two countries’ attitudes toward political developments in Syria in 2011 and 2012, were among the most important of those developments. What is the true reason behind different approaches taken by Turkey and Iran to Syria, which is the last link in a chain of political upheavals that have swept through the Middle East in the past two years?

It seems that the reason, more than anything else, is different goals that these two players have been pursuing through their interaction with the West during the past three decades which has its own historical roots and motivations. Therefore, understanding different viewpoints and motivations of these players in the fields of peripheralism and westernalism is the key to correct understanding of their reactions to such developments in the Middle East, especially with respect to recent developments in Syria, which have been used by Turkey as an excuse to request deployment of NATO missile system.

Iran - Turkey Relations

Iran – Turkey Relations

In general, Turkey has been trying following the end of the Cold War to put up the least resistance to dictated management of regional developments in the Middle East by the Western countries. Iran, on the opposite, has been trying to prevent a military option for Syria. Tehran also opposes any form of foreign intervention in the Arab country while underlining the need for local management of the Syria crisis and emphasizing on the right of all regional nations to self-determination. These viewpoints are based on Iran’s position as a non-aligned country which wants to interact with the West with regard to what is going on in peripheral countries, instead of surrendering to the West’s demands. In fact, Iran’s position on the developments in the Middle East following the beginning of the Arab Spring and its opposition to any intervention in regional equations by the Western states is based on the ideas of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and does not need much elaboration. On the opposite, historical and practical positions taken by Turkish officials need more explanation.

As for Turkey’s approach to Syria, there is need for more serious and profound historical study and analysis of two major approaches which currently govern Ankara’s foreign policy. The main goal of both approaches is to pave the way for maximum acceptance of Turkey in Euro-Atlantic institutions through forming “unity and coalition” with the West based on Kemalist principles that dominate Turkey’s foreign policy.

Throughout the Cold War and affected by Kemalist views, Turkey’s foreign policy was characterized with an effort which aimed at maximum alignment with the West. The first Persian Gulf war in the early 1990s and Turkey’s cooperation with the United States was a point of departure for Turkey to move from its Westernized Kemalist tradition toward intervention in and engagement with political equations in peripheral countries in line with Ankara’s westernized goals.

Neo-Ottomanism and profound attention to historical and strategic depth of Turkey, which started during the presidency of Turgut Özal (1989-1993), reached its acme and maturity under the rule of the Islamist members of the Justice and Development Party in 2002. Since that time up to early 2012, Turkey has relied on its historical and cultural capabilities and has taken long strides to intervene in regional equations and peripheral developments in order to take advantage of them in line with its own goals and strategic Western-oriented national interests.

Therefore, the main strategic goal of Turkey within the existing international system is to promote its membership in the European Union and consolidate its relation with NATO. The country is trying to bank on its social, regional and international capital and achieve the above goals by engagement at three domestic, regional and international levels.

At domestic level, they say that Turkey is actually trying to increase its economic, political and cultural power. From an economic viewpoint, the country is now among the top 20 economies in the world and ranks the 8th among European states. Turkey attracts about 18 billion dollars in annual foreign investment and is among countries with total annual exports in excess of 100 billion dollars. From economic viewpoint, the country is trying to offer a model of the Islamic democracy which recognizes the rules of democratic game both inside and outside its borders. From a cultural angle, the country is moving toward institutionalization of a uniform or convergent secular state with a multiethnic nation.

At regional level, Turkey’s foreign policy is apparently trying to remove obstacles on the way of regional convergence with such peripheral countries as Cyprus, Greece, Iraq, Armenia and others. In line with this goal, Turkey is doing its utmost in the Middle East region to introduce its model of governance and emerge as a source of inspiration and state management in the gravitational center of the ongoing power game among important regional players such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. As for peripheral regions, Turkey is planning to revive the Ottoman Empire, or at least, its general framework which is a goal pursued by Turkish statesmen. The new Ottoman Empire purported by Turkey will not be realized within geographical borders of the historical Ottoman Empire, but will focus on political interactions over that geographical expanse with the main concentration on the priorities of the Islamic world and peripheral regions of Turkey in accordance with Ankara’s publicly proclaimed “zero problem foreign policy.” For this reason, Turks intend to be present in the Middle East peace process, take part in restoring security to Afghanistan by emphasizing on solving that country’s problems through regional mechanisms, promote relations with Hamas and Hezbollah, and temporarily downgrading relations with Israel by providing indirect support for the Lebanese Hezbollah in its 33-day war with Israel (2006) and condemning Israel’s 22-day war on Gaza (in the winter of 2008-09).

In addition, Turkish politicians are also trying to achieve their Westernized foreign policy goals at international level through interaction with such important international organizations as the United Nations and NATO; taking a multifaceted approach to relations with Russia, China, India, and Africa; and making efforts to bolster the process of assimilation in the European Union.

As a result of this atmosphere, it seems that in line with its effort to achieve the goals of its westernized foreign policy under present international circumstances, Turkey seems to be bent on making the most of the atmosphere and the capacities of peripheral regions which provide the country’s politicians with very good potentials for international bargaining in line with strategic national interests of Turkey.

In line with this all-out effort by Turkish officials to become a member to trans-Atlantic institutions, the country’s foreign policy elites have been trying during recent years to follow a medium-term policy which will replace increased tension and creation of problems between Turkey and its neighboring countries with another policy which seeks to reduce problems to zero, normalize ties with neighboring countries, build confidence with them, and establish stability in the peripheral regions of Turkey. However, measures taken by Turkey as a Muslim country in order to be on top of regional developments following the Arab Spring, have declined the level of the country’s policymaking elites in the eyes of the regional nations to mere subordinates of the Western and transregional structures and command centers.

On the whole, it seems that conflicting approaches taken by the Iranian and Turkish foreign policy apparatuses to political developments in the Middle East during the past two decades emanate from these different historical and policymaking attitudes and motivations of the two countries. The difference between strategic goals of Iran and Turkey with regard to regional developments can be seen in various viewpoints and policies followed by Tehran and Turkey vis-à-vis Syria developments and the deployment of the NATO Patriot missiles in Turkey in the early 2013. While Iran supports a Syria – Syria solution to the ongoing crisis in the Arab country, which would be local and based on the regional capacities, Turkey on the opposite is resorting to transregional solutions or such international institutions as NATO and the United Nations Security Council. At any rate, due to the same historical differences as well as conflicting motivations and actions, discrepancies between the viewpoints and practical policies of Iran and Turkey with regard to peripheral countries, as well as their attitudes toward the Western structures and developments in the Middle East following the Arab Spring will linger in the future outlook of the region.

Behzad Khoshandam
PhD Candidate in International Relations & Expert on International Issues


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