Turkey’s Crises over Israel and Iran
Turkey’s Crises over Israel and Iran
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship
Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship
Report 208 / Europe & Central Asia

Turkey’s Crises over Israel and Iran

While suspicions in Western capitals about its relationship with Iran and tensions with Israel have dealt setbacks to its “zero-problem” foreign policy, Turkey shares many of the goals of its Western partners and should continue to play an important role in resolving Middle Eastern and other conflicts.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

Executive Summary

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

Podcast / Global

Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker and Hugh Pope talk to expert Eleonora Tafuro, a research fellow at ISPI, to make sense of the complicated relationship between Russia and Turkey that has veered from collaborative to adversarial, often landing somewhere in between.

Russia and Turkey’s complex relationship sometimes baffles outside observers. In many respects, Turkey and Russia are fierce competitors: Moscow and Ankara back opposing camps in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh, and Turkey is a member of NATO – the alliance Russia views as both adversary and threat. Nevertheless, this has not prevented collaboration between the two powers, who share profound economic and cultural ties and have made concerted efforts to deepen diplomatic relations, often to the frustration of Turkey's Western allies. 

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker and Hugh Pope talk to Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti, a research fellow at ISPI, about Russo-Turkish relations. Eleonora helps unpack the two countries’ complex relationship and sketch out the deep economic and cultural ties connecting them, as well as the numerous sources of tension pitting Ankara against Moscow. She discusses Turkey’s juggling act in balancing relations with the EU and the Kremlin, and how Russo-Turkish relations and soft power shape geopolitics in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Africa. Mainly recorded prior to the massive invasion of Ukraine by Russia in late February, this episode also includes a brief addendum to reflect those events.

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

N.B. Please note that this episode was recorded in late January 2022.

For more on Turkish foreign policy, check out our Turkey regional page. For analysis on the Ukraine crisis and its global implications, make sure to explore our Ukraine page and read our latest Q&A: “The Ukraine War: A Global Crisis”.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.