By Dorian Jones
The last time that Turkey sought to mediate between Iran and the international community over Tehran’s nuclear energy program, it ended in a diplomatic fiasco. Now, two years later, Turkey is trying again. Will the results prove any different?
On April 14 Istanbul will host a meeting between Iran and the so-called P5+1 countries (China, Russia, the US, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany) in a bid to push back from the brink of conflict over the program.
Expectations for the talks do not run strong, but at risk is not only the outcome of the long-running dispute with Tehran, but, also, Turkey’s long-running attempt to serve as a regional peace broker.
That policy reached its zenith in 2010, when Ankara voted against United Nations sanctions on Iran and, along with Brazil, brokered a deal with Tehran to send low-enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for fuel for Iran’s nuclear research reactor.
The agreement, secured amidst what former senior Turkish diplomat Sinan Ulgen terms Turkey’s “transformation” into an “assertive, ambitious regional power,” was dismissed by both Europe and the US as nothing new, with some critics labeling Turkey, and its Islamic-rooted ruling Justice and Development Party, “the stooge of Tehran.”
Then, the swing-back toward Turkey’s traditional Western allies began. Last year, Ankara agreed to host a radar as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s anti-missile defense system against Iran. Turkey is also taking steps to comply with US and European Union sanctions on Iran.
“Ankara now is a reliable ally on Iran,” commented British parliamentarian Richard Howitt, a member of the European Union-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee. He argues that Turkey has the confidence of its Western allies to try and find a solution at the Istanbul meeting over Iran’s nuclear program.
Turkey’s closer alignment with its Western allies, though, has done little to build Iranian confidence in its historical rival’s credentials as an “honest broker.” Its push against the Syrian government, a close Iranian ally, plus its influence in majority-Shi’a Iraq appear to be sounding ever- louder alarm bells in Tehran.
“For Syria, Turkey’s position is 100 percent divergent from that of Iran and it’s not very pleasant for Iran,” commented Murat Bilhan, a former head of strategy at the Turkish foreign ministry.
Religious differences, arguably, also play a role. The Syrian opposition is made up of mainly Sunni Muslims, while Syrian President Bashar Assad and much of his regime are Alawites and Shia. Prime Minister Erdoğan is a pious Sunni Muslim, as is much of his party.
Increasingly, Ankara has pursued closer ties with such Sunni states as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Many in Iran take a look at that overall trend and see only trouble. In the run-up to the Istanbul meeting, Tehran demanded an alternative venue for the nuclear talks, citing its loss of faith in Ankara.
While Erdoğan strongly denies any Sunni-Shia divide with Iran –the same religious difference has no impact on Ankara’s robust friendship with majority-Shi’a Azerbaijan — such differences can backfire when tensions already are running strong, warned Soli Özel, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Haş University.
“In a region where the lines and swords are drawn along sectarian lines, I really don’t how Turkey can actually keep itself above the fray,” he said.
Increasingly, though, Turkey appears to be moving away from attempts to pursue “zero problems” with its contentious neighbors, no matter what the past differences.
The collapse of Turkey’s attempts to mend ties with neighbor Armenia after longtime Turkish ally Azerbaijan cried foul indicates that the ruling Justice and Development Party “is reverting back to traditional, pragmatic state polices,” argued Cengiz Aktar, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Bahçeşehir University.
How that pragmatism will affect the Istanbul talks, though, remains to be seen. “Whether Turkey can achieve any results, I don’t know,” commented British parliamentarian Howitt. “We are clutching at straws over Iran.”
But international relations expert Özel argues that, despite the tensions, Tehran realizes that Ankara still offers its best hope of finding a peaceful solution to the nuclear dispute.
“Iran still needs Turkey’s good offices because it is the only country that really, really tries very hard for a political solution,” he said.
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.