On the sunny spring afternoon of Monday, April 13, I got to the Istanbul Bilgi University’s central campus with a tram which took me from the Aksaray neighborhood in the Fatih District to the Kabatas quarter where the shuttles for the Santral Campus, available every 30 minutes, would pick up the students and drop them at the entry gate of the university. Istanbul Bilgi University, founded in 1996, is ranked among the top 10 institutions of higher education in Turkey.
Although I arrived at my appointment with some 45-minutes delay, Prof. Ilter Turan, one of Turkey’s leading political scientists and the former rector of the Istanbul Bilgi University, received me warmly, and after a few minutes of friendly exchange on how not to get lost in Istanbul, and the advantages of having a wife who speaks Turkish, we did an hour-long interview about the most pressing issues facing Turkey and its foreign policy decision-makers.
Prof. Turan believes that the notion of “zero problems with the neighbors” no longer represents Turkey’s foreign policy approach, and it’s rather the idea of “zero neighbors without problems” that ironically characterizes how Turkey interacts with its neighboring countries.
The 74-year-old academic, however, believes that although Turkey’s role in the civil war in Syria is not entirely defensible, it is not the Turkish government which should be blamed for the fomentation of unrest in Syria and the rise of the terrorist group ISIS.
On the relations between Iran and Turkey as two major economic and political powerhouses in the region, Prof. Turan opines that the two nations have never been on fighting terms, and despite intrinsic rivalries, they have tried to keep their competitions under control. According to Prof. Turan, Iran and Turkey have disagreements over Syria or Yemen, but this doesn’t mean that they can’t benefit from what cooperation might offer.
Ilter Turan served as the Rector of the Istanbul Bilgi University from 1998 to 2001. He was formerly the President of the Turkish Political Science Association and the Program Chair of the 21st World Congress of the International Political Science Association, Santiago, Chile in July 2009. His writings on Turkish politics frequently appear on national and international journals and magazines. Iran Review talked to Prof. Turan in his office at the Green Building of the Istanbul Bilgi University’s Santral Campus and asked him questions on Turkey’s quest for joining the European Union, the challenges and opportunities arising from its membership in NATO, the crisis in Syria and the relations with Iran. The following is the full text of the interview.
Q: Let’s start with the question of Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union. Do you think that it would be possible in the near future for Turkey to get accession to the European Union? Why do you think the EU has so far refused to let Turkey in? Do you think that the integrated Europe doesn’t consider Turkey to be sufficiently European to be acknowledged as the Union’s new member?
A: One has to remember that the European Union started in 1959, at a time when the Cold War was going on and Turkey was a member of the Western defense community. And in those days, Turkey was seen as part of the defense community and any development that aimed to promote further unification in Western Europe was seen as an opportunity to cement Turkey’s ties with it. This approach continued until the end of the Cold War. It must be recognized, however, that neither Turkey nor the European Union anticipated Turkey’s becoming a member in the short-run. And there was some reluctance on the part of both the European Union and Turkey to have the relationship move along rapidly toward becoming a member. After the Cold War ended, the whole atmosphere changed, particularly after it proved possible to incorporate countries of Eastern Europe into the European Union. Turkey’s role in Western defense appeared to have declined; and with the expansion of the European Union to cover lands from which earlier threats presumably came, Turkish membership lost some of its immediate importance. This is number one. But also when you examine the domestic changes in Turkey, there was really never a government in Turkey that was fully dedicated to Turkey’s becoming a member of the European community; otherwise, it might have been possible, for example in the late 70s, to apply for membership along with Greece; and either be accepted as a member along with Greece or Greece would have also been deprived of membership.
Since that time, the importance of cultural and religious differences appears to have ascended in the way we look at international politics. This means that Turkey’s accession has become somewhat more difficult now. But apart from that, one has to recognize that Turkey has not necessarily done its homework, particularly in the domain of further democratization and further consolidation of the respect for human rights. So, I think before finding fault with the European Union as such, it would have been preferable that Turkey had put its own house in order and then maybe complain about what Europe is or is not doing. Since membership decisions are essentially determined not only by attitudes about culture but also by questions of economic interest and security, developments in the international domain will clearly determine whether Turkey will become a member or not in the long run. At the moment, it seems not likely but then nobody, for example in 1987 or 1988, imagined that the Soviet Union would no longer exist after 1991. So similarly, things may change to such an extent that Turkish membership might be looked upon as highly desirable.
And also this may be a function of what happens in Turkey because I think if the current religiously-oriented government loses elections, the incoming governments might develop a certain stake in democratizing society and in integrating Turkey more tightly into the European Union.
Q: Do you think that the Muslim majority population of Turkey is a playing factor in preventing Turkey from being admitted into the European Union? Some analysts opine that the Europeans have some kind of reluctance to get close to the Muslim world, and perhaps admitting Turkey as a member of the European Union might be seen as bringing the Muslims to the doorstep of the European continent!
A: That’s probably not the case. In other words, I think the European societies have cooperated with Turkey rather comfortably in earlier times; and as long as Turkey maintains the secular nature of its government, this should not prove to be an impediment. But one has to recognize that we are at the moment going through a period in human history – that comes and goes periodically – during which questions of religion and culture appear to have ascended in importance. But, in terms of human experience, this is probably not a permanent situation.
Q: So, do you think that it would be possible for the European Union to admit a new member with some 90 or 95 percent of Muslim population?
A: Sure. Under different set of circumstances, yes.
Q: My next question is regarding the Turkish alliance with the NATO. Turkey is a member state of the NATO and it may entail opportunities and challenges for the nation. Given the fact that NATO is mostly a military alliance, do you think that Turkey’s membership in this organization would endanger its relations with the Muslim countries, its Arab neighbors, and its partners in the Islamic world?
A: No. One has to remember first that NATO is a defensive alliance and Turkey’s security concerns are not confined to those emanating from the region but from other neighbors as well.
Q: Which neighbors are you referring to?
A: Well, for example an expansionist Russia. I think it’s important to remember that Turkey is also a part of the Western defense system. So, NATO should not be conceived in the Middle East as an alliance that is particularly designed against the Middle East. And also, as one might remember, the alliance does not oblige each member to join everything others within the alliance do. And so far, if one examines what Turkey has done, one can notice that Turkey has carefully pursued policies that would not alienate its neighbors. So, I think if Turkey’s neighbors in the Middle East do not like Turkey’s NATO connection, they should understand that it is not necessarily intended against them, but it’s a defense alliance where Turkey is protecting itself against incursions. In fact at the moment, one might recall that, there are three NATO patriot divisions along the Syrian border in Turkey which are designed to fight against Russian-built weapons that Syria might use against Turkey. And I think it’s important that Turkey has that sort of assurance for protection.
Q: You referred to the issue of Syria which I was going to touch upon it in the next question but I may bring it up right now. Well, as you know, Turkish foreign policy is predicated on the principle of zero problems with the neighbors. Why do you think Turkey has got embroiled in such a challenging relationship with Syria in the recent years? And why did it make it clear at the first moment since the outbreak of civil war and tensions in Syria that President Assad must go and leave power? Why do you think Turkey supported, financed and armed the Al-Nusra Front, and to some extent the ISIS, as it’s on the reports? Why do you think Turkey has taken up such a controversial relationship with Syria?
A: Well, first of all, let us establish the fact that “zero problems with neighbors” no longer actually defines Turkey’s foreign policy; “zero neighbors without problems!” is a better way of expressing the current situation. I think there are many of us who are very critical of the particular policies that the Turkish government is following at this moment. I think if one may go back to the developments in Syria, when the Arab Spring began to hit Syria, the Turkish government tried to help the Assad government to make adjustments to stem the tide against the government. And in many instances Bashar al-Assad said, yes, he would do this and he would do that, and the moment the Turkish Foreign Minister or the Prime Minister left, he would go ahead and do everything he promised not to do. So, the element of trust between the leaders was clearly violated by Syrian behavior, not Turkish behavior. But I think Turkey also made a number of misjudgments. I think the Turkish government failed to judge that the support, both national and international, for the Assad regime was much higher than the Turkish government had ever anticipated, and the Turkish government’s expectation that Assad regime would fall very quickly, has proven to be totally inaccurate. I think, maybe, what the Turkish policy makers dreamt was an Egypt and a Syria ruled by Muslim Brotherhood-type governments, which they thought to be close to their understandings of government as well. This did not prove possible and rather than making adjustments in its policy at that time, the government chose to insist on the course it had chosen and that has necessitated working with groups that Turkey should not be sympathetic to. Of course, Turkey was also concerned that other foreign actors in Syria were quite active and actually sending soldiers there; and Turkey found that to be problematical and since it did not want to get involved in the war, it tried to develop indirect means of supporting sides that would reduce the power of other groups in Syria that Turkey front undesired. But, no one really knows if and to what extent Turkey supports an-Nusra, but Turkey is open in its support for the Free Syrian Army, a more moderate organization.
Q: And so, can we connect Turkish support for the Syrian opposition, and maybe its tacit financing and arming the Al-Nusra front…
A: We don’t know that for sure!
Q: But this is the assumption that is widely believed in Iran at least, and some say that maybe Turkey’s emerging relations with Israel has been a determining factor. Do you agree?
A: Actually, Turkey’s relations with Israel is very bad. There are almost no diplomatic ties at the moment except at the very low level. And the two countries do not work together on any international level.
Q: But, you know, Turkey has been one of the few Muslim-majority countries that have recognized Israel and has been maintaining diplomatic ties with Israel at least prior to the Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and 2009 when the tensions between Israel and Turkey soared. And at some junctures, Turkey tried to preserve its ties with Israel. During the 2009 flotilla raid in which nine Turkish activities were killed by Israeli soldiers, Turkey demanded an apology from the Israeli government.
A: And it got it.
Q: Yeah. So, how to you see Israel’s relations with Turkey? Why Turkey is insisting upon maintaining its ties with Israel?
A: Actually let us make it clear that there are Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East that have closer relations with Israel including Egypt and Jordan. So, Turkey is not alone. External politics of countries is not determined by religious differences but by questions of national interest. And I think in the past, there was complementarity of interests between Turkey and Israel and those have not totally disappeared. I think in evaluating Turkey’s relations with Israel, one has to put it in the broader context of global relations. Turkey has close relations with the United States and those relations with the United States are better served if Turkey has manageable relations – not necessarily particularly close – with Israel. There are other points of common interest; when, for example, the United States put an arms embargo on Turkey in 1974, Israelis helped Turkey to meet its security needs and Israel continues to be an important source of world defense and other technologies in the region. In the past, the lobbies in the United States supported Turkish causes particularly against the sort of pressures of Armenian and Greek lobbies. So, I think Turkish national interests make it imperative that we have some kind of relationship with Israel; if possible good, but if not possible at least some.
Q: In your viewpoint, how do the neighboring countries perceive Turkey’s relations with Israel? Doesn’t it make Turkey an unpopular player among the Middle Eastern and Arab public?
A: Well, I think this probably is an analysis based on what people on the street yell rather than what policy-makers think. I think in the case of countries that put problems with Israel to the top of the agenda, most of them have used this as an instrument through which they can legitimize their own authoritarian regimes at home rather than do anything serious about Israel. So, I think one might take this a little lightly and say that Israel is not the major source of all problems in the Middle East and that we should not use relations with Israel as a measuring stick of how a country should relate to the others in the region.
Q: So let’s get to Turkey’s relations with Iran on which I would like to put a special emphasis. You know that the volume of bilateral trade is very high, the officials of the two countries pay numerous visits to each other and there are constant political exchanges. A few weeks ago, the Turkish President was in Tehran. Well, there are many close cultural and historical similarities and affinities between the two countries, but there have been some junctures in the recent years at which the two nations have had some tensions and differences especially on the issue of Syria and recently in the case of Yemen. How do you see Turkey’s relations with Iran? And do you think that it would grow like the past especially when it developed a great deal under President Ahmadinejad? Do you think that it’s going to expand and improve or it’s going to undergo a decline because of the differences over Syria, Yemen and other issues in the Middle East?
A: Well, you see, both Iran and Turkey are major countries in the Middle East. These are big countries; so, their interests cannot be fully identical. Basically, they have both competitive and complementary relationships. The critical thing is that historically, Turkey and Iran have never been on fighting terms and they have generally managed to find ways of keeping their competition under control and they’ve also tried to benefit from whatever cooperation might offer. I don’t expect this to change; I mean, certainly, we think very differently on Syria or at least the current Turkish and Iranian governments think very differently on Syria. There are differences in Yemen; there will be differences in other areas as well. There were differences in the past and there will be economic competition; but there will be economic cooperation, as well. I think on the whole, when I look at the future, we will have more comprehensive and more complex relationships, but it will never be characterized by being fully, a hundred percent harmonious. It cannot be! These are both large and complex societies. They both have some pretence of being a leading force in the same region. And so there will be differences, but I think so far, and I trust also in the future, the two societies will find ways to manage their differences peacefully and also engage in highly beneficial relationships.
Q: I would like to point out that Turkey has been one of the few countries in the mid 2000s that supported Iran’s nuclear program, especially at the time when it was going to be discussed at the Security Council, and Turkey voted against the Resolution 1929. So I think the two countries need each other in times of difficulty and they can expand their cooperation in the future. I think you agree with this premise.
A: Yes. I think, as I said, there will be many areas in which cooperation will be possible. There will be other areas in which we shall compete. But generally, we will try to maintain a friendly relationship.
Q: So, do you think it’s possible for Iran and Turkey to solve their differences over the rise of ISIS and over the crises in Syria and recently Yemen? Do you think that they can negotiate to put aside the recent – I don’t want to use the word “hostilities” – tensions that have emerged between the two countries? Do you think that it is possible to establish a contact group or something like that, because I think Iran has an interest in the elimination of ISIS and Turkey has also an interest in the elimination of ISIS. But the Turkish government hasn’t authorized military intervention against ISIS. What do you think is the reason for that?
A: At the moment when you examine the positions of the two countries, they are divergent. And sometimes efforts to establish contact groups and other mechanisms that you know will not work until these countries change their positions and this will prove to be more problematical than useful. So, I think at the moment, it will probably not be possible to come to a common agreement on Syria and others. As regards ISIS, both societies have an interest in making sure that ISIS doesn’t characterize the regimes in this part of the world, but it seems that the position of the Turkish government, not necessarily my own judgment, is that ISIS is a result, an effect, rather than a cause. So, other things need to change. The reluctance of Turkey to go fully against ISIS, I think, derives in part from two considerations: number one, there is a concern that there are extensions of ISIS in Turkey; and they need to be kept under control; and secondly, at the moment, the instruments that are developed to fight ISIS are another problem. You look at what happened in Tikrit with the Shiite militia committing crimes against its own citizens. You don’t want to fight one group in order to replace it with another similar group of a different persuasion. So, I think the Turkish hesitance here maybe understood in that light.
Q: So, why do you think Turkey has supported Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen? Do you think that it’s part of Turkey’s ambitions for creating a regional dominance and hegemony? I’m not for this idea but this is something that many analysts have come to concur with.
A: Actually, when look at it from Turkey, it appears that these actions are attempts by Iran to expand its own area of influence; and the Turkish responses are essentially moves to arrest that kind of aspiration on the part of Iran rather than Turkey’s own. But I think in the Middle East, religious and ethnic and political identities are very closely intertwined; and the colors of government and opposition in the Yemen and also in Syria have some religious and sectarian flavor. Inevitably all countries that get involved in this affair are in part driven by their own sectarian identities and preferences.
Q: What’s your assessment of the status quo of the bilateral relations between Turkey and Iraq? There have been some conflicts between the two nations and the Shiite government in Iraq under Nuri Al-Maliki had some differences with Turkey over a number of issues. Maybe it was in the interest of Turkey to go ahead with defying Iraq, but I think it was one of the critical challenges ahead of Turkey. What do you think about that?
A: Well, the particular government that you referred to, that of Nuri Al-Maliki, was an extremely exclusionary government and I think the Nuri Al-Maliki government is one of the reasons for the development of ISIS; because when you examine the support for ISIS, you observe that it has received a lot of support from Sunni tribes, which ordinarily would not like an organization like ISIS running their lives but because Maliki was such a sectarian and exclusionary political leader, his policies served to introduce great divisions into Iraqi politics. And the Turkish government after the loss of power by Maliki, has tried to improve relations with the Iraqi government and intends to continue if the Iraqi government improves inclusion of all groups in Iraqi rule; but Turkey has also developed close relations with the regional government of Kurdistan.
Q: So, do you think that Turkey will finally make the decision in declaring a war against ISIS or at least compromise its interests in order to crush ISIS and make sure that it will not grow in the region? There are reports that people from Turkey and some other neighboring countries in Europe – from Western Europe, from Britain, and virtually every nation – are joining the ranks of ISIS? Do you think that Turkey will finally make the tough decision?
A: Well, these people coming from different parts of the world to join ISIS are like people from other parts of the world coming to join the Shiite militia of different sorts in the Middle East. So, we have to recognize that it’s a sectarian event that is not just fed by Sunni militants but by militants of all kinds of sects. But it is important to remember that at the moment, there is a fight going against ISIS. The expectation is that it is losing some of its resources; it’s no longer, for example, able to generate significant amounts of cash by oil production; and other states are getting organized to fight it. So, it may be that current attempts will yield some kind of result to keep ISIS under control. These radical movements never disappear as such but they may be rendered quite ineffective and Turkey is hoping that this is going to be the case with ISIS. It is clear that Turkey does not have any interest in getting involved in an actual ground-fighting in the area.
Q: Personally, what do you think about the ongoing talks between Iran and the six world powers over Tehran’s nuclear program? Do you think that a possible comprehensive deal between Iran and the P5+1 can serve the interests of not only the region but the whole international community? And do you think that the Turkish government will support such a deal?
A: Well, I think I would be very happy if the current talks –the second stage I should say – is also successful because my own judgment is that Iran has achieved nuclear capabilities; it doesn’t need to build a nuclear weapon. By negotiating with the P5+1 and reaching an agreement, it is gaining access to the international system as a major partner and it seems that the Iranian people have an interest in having more peace and enjoying more economic prosperity. So, my wish and hope is that the agreement will go through. And, in the long-run, I do not think that Iran will lose its technology. If at a future date, it deems it absolutely necessary to have a nuclear weapon, it may develop it rather quickly. But I think possessing the technology and the means is just as important as having the weapon itself. Possessing the actual weapon is probably a waste; it’s a weapon that is presumably built not to be used while requiring a substantial investment.
The costs of the Iranian nuclear aspirations on the international community and on the Iranian people have been very high; and now that Iran has basically achieved a level of capability that it can translate into nuclear weaponry and that it has established a high status in the international community, I think the grounds are appropriate for a more fruitful relationship.
Q: So, let’s conclude our conversation with the question of Islamophobia. Turkey is a secular government but it has a large Muslim population. Do you think that Turkey has any mission or intention for changing the image portrayed of Muslims in the mainstream media, especially following the terrorist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine office in Paris, and counter the waves of Islamophobia? Eventually the terrorist attacks were blamed on the Muslims. Do you think that Turkey has an interest in changing the public image of Muslims and countering the rise of Islamophobia?
A: Well, if Turkey wants to change the image, Turkey has to become a much more democratic and less authoritarian society than where this government wants to lead Turkey. So, when we complain about the fact that the majority of Muslims have nothing to do with this movement, we have to do away with any ambivalence we have about that position. We have to demonstrate very clearly that we are not with them. At the same time, we have to demonstrate our tolerance for a society in which everyone with different beliefs etc. has a place and is accorded equal respect. Many societies with Muslim populations continue to engage in practices that ignore these basics.
Q: Do you think that producing this wave of discrimination against the Muslims on the basis of their religion and blaming the whole Muslims for the wrongdoings of a small extremist minority is a right decision that is being made by some Western governments and being by propped up the media?
A: No. I don’t think there is a conscious decision by any Western government along the lines you are implying. Let us look at it this way; when unfortunate things happen, people sometimes blame the Christians, Jews etc. So, there seems to be a tendency among the general public to use these labels rather indiscriminately to brand phenomena which may have little to do with the label you are using. I think it is totally unjustified to call the current despicable behavior Islamic. In fact, you know, many established Islamic scholars have pointed to the fact that whatever is being done in the name of Islam by these people have very little to do with original religion itself. But the fact is that these people are using religion as an excuse; and the other fact is that most societies with majority Muslim populations do not demonstrate a very strong reaction to this phenomenon. As long as we maintain our ambivalence about ISIS and other similar movements, then others will essentially label us unfairly. We have to take on the responsibility ourselves.