Turkey’s Crises over Israel and Iran
Europe Report N°208
8 Sep 2010
Damage to Turkey’s relations with Israel and suspicions in Western capitals about its relationship with Iran have dealt setbacks to Ankara’s “zero-problem” foreign policy. At the same time, there have been many misconceptions about Turkey’s new engagement in the Middle East, which aims to build regional peace and prosperity. From a Turkish perspective, Israel and Iran issues have separate dynamics and involve more collaboration and shared goals with Western partners than is usually acknowledged. Ankara’s share of the blame for the falling out with Western friends and Israel has been exaggerated, but there are problems in the government’s formulation and presentation of its foreign policy. These include short-sightedness, heated rhetoric, over-reach and distraction from Turkey’s core conflict-resolution challenges in its immediate neighbourhood, including a Cyprus settlement, normalisation with Armenia, resolution of new Kurdish tensions and commitment to EU convergence.
Turkey-Israel relations are at a nadir after Israeli commandos killed eight Turks and a U.S. citizen of Turkish descent on 31 May 2010, as they seized a ship that Ankara had discouraged from sailing but said it ultimately could not stop from trying to break the blockade on Gaza. The U.S. and EU member states should back UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s four-person, UN-led panel of enquiry into the tragic incident. Israel should work to normalise its important relationship with Turkey, including, if its soldiers are found to have used excessive force or committed crimes, by prosecuting suspects, and finding ways to give Turkey satisfaction in the matter. For its part, Turkey should use the current enquiries to satisfy Israeli and international opinion about the Turkish activists’ intentions and play its part to improve relations with Israel by moving away from maximalist demands and confrontational rhetoric. Previously good ties gave Turkey a unique status as a potentially effective mediator in the Middle East, including in Arab-Israeli peace talks, but frayed relations with Israel and the U.S. need to be set right if this potential is to be realised.
Turkey is also being criticised for its attempts to mediate with Iran over its nuclear program, especially after voting against additional sanctions on 9 June at the UN Security Council. But Turkey’s “no” was not to reining in any Iranian nuclear military ambitions. Ankara argues that it (and Brazil) believed it had U.S. encouragement to negotiate the swap of a substantial amount of Iran’s low-enriched uranium stockpile, as set out in the 17 May Tehran Agreement. It voted as it did in the Security Council, it says, to protect its negotiating leverage and to retain the Tehran Agreement as a possible way forward.
The U.S. and EU states should put aside simplistic clichés about Turkey “turning East”, “joining an Islamist bloc” or “turning its back on the West”. Turkey’s new foreign engagement has been first and foremost economic, with Christian and Muslim countries in Eurasia, the Balkans, Africa and the Middle East alike. The bulk of its trade and investment, its social, popular and educational connections, and the source of its intellectual and economic innovation all remain inextricably linked to EU states and the U.S.
Turkey also shares most of its Western partners’ goals in the Middle East, such as no nuclear weapons proliferation in the region, including Iran; a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that respects the full rights of both parties; and the elimination of al-Qaeda. It should find more ways to speak out for these common objectives. At the same time, its Western partners should recognise that due to geography and history, Turkey will reasonably pursue them at times with its own tactics and methodology.
Ankara can achieve more through a good working relationship with the EU and the U.S. than if it tries to forge ahead alone. The government and public opinion should avoid presuming, as they sometimes seem tempted, that the U.S. needs Turkey more than it needs Israel, or that personal relations with President Obama will substitute for policy substance. Even though Turkey is clearly becoming a stronger international player, cooperation with Washington and EU convergence are keys to its regional prominence and have contributed to its economic growth, boom in trade with neighbours and improved respect for human rights, as well as Istanbul’s growing reputation as a glamorous regional hub. Turkish leaders should also tone down populist or militant rhetoric, since it undermines allies’ trust, and resume more quiet dialogue with Israel to regain its unique ability to speak with confidence to all parties in its region.
Turkey has changed greatly over the past two decades, becoming richer and more self-confident, no longer dependent on Washington or Brussels alone. While Ankara should not exaggerate its own importance or capacities, its Western partners should recognise its genuine significance in its region and beyond and spend more time talking to it quietly, constructively and at high-levels. To this end, Washington and Ankara in particular might usefully consider establishing new mechanisms for regular dialogue and better coordination on the full range of their shared foreign policy interests, including in the Middle East. Moreover, while Turkey remains committed to its EU path, France and Germany must keep its membership perspectives credible, if all are to take maximum advantage of their shared Middle East goals. These commonalities remain a strong basis for cooperating to increase stability and diminish conflicts in the region.
Istanbul/Brussels, 8 September 2010