One Year After Tehran: Can Turkey still be a 'model partner' in resolving the Iran nuclear impasse?

This post was co-authored by Dr. Philipp C. Bleek

Exactly one year ago this week, Turkey and Brazil unveiled an agreement they had jointly negotiated with Iran, intended to be a significant step toward resolving the international community's concerns regarding Tehran's nuclear activities. Instead of being the diplomatic triumph Ankara and Brasilia had sought, the response in the West ranged from tepid to dismissive, and the agreement went nowhere. What went wrong, and what does it suggest about Turkey's potential future role as an intermediary on the Iran nuclear issue?

The so-called "Tehran Agreement" would have provided Iran with fuel for a small research reactor used to make medical isotopes in exchange for an equivalent quantity of Iranian uranium. The United States and its European allies had previously unsuccessfully sought to negotiate just such a deal with Iran. Both Turkey and Brazil chafed at Western dismissal of their deal, all the more so because they perceived Washington as having encouraged their efforts.

At first blush, Turkey appears well positioned to mediate between Iran and the West. On the one hand, it has strong ties, rooted in decades of Cold War cooperation and bolstered by its NATO membership, with the United States and European states eager to persuade Iran not to pursue a nuclear weapons capability. On the other hand, Turkey has an increasingly robust relationship with Iran in the context of deepening energy, trade and political ties. Finally, Turkey has sought to position itself as a broker or mediator between the West and Iran as part of its broader aspirations as a regional power broker, a role that has only become more important given current turmoil in much of the Middle East.

So what went wrong? Based on conversations with officials in Washington, the lukewarm reception for the Turkish-Brazilian accord a year ago was a function of both timing and tone. Especially after Iran had balked at similar negotiations with Washington, U.S. officials do not appear to have expected the Turkey-Brazil negotiations to succeed, and assumed Turkey was merely posturing and would eventually get in line with the U.S. push for more robust sanctions on Tehran. U.S. officials saw Iran's agreement as a last-ditch effort to avert tougher sanctions, rather than a good-faith effort to open a path toward more robust engagement. Since the fuel swap agreement did not address most of the core underlying concerns about Tehran's nuclear activities, but was instead intended to be a confidence-building foundation on which more substantive agreements could be built, a disingenuous last-minute Iranian agreement was viewed as bringing little to the table.

Washington's stance

Relatedly, Washington was put off when the agreement was framed as though it addressed the international community's concerns regarding Iran's nuclear activities, rather than merely being an initial, confidence-building step. In unveiling the agreement, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu argued there was "no ground left for more sanctions or pressure," and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the West was merely "envious" of Turkey and Brazil's achievement.

At the same time, U.S. officials acknowledge that the United States sent Turkey mixed signals, in part because of disagreement within the administration about whether the Iran nuclear issue can be effectively tackled via engagement. Key U.S. officials appear to regard neither engagement nor sanctions as likely to stem what they view as a determined Iranian push for at least a nuclear weapons option. As a result, both engagement and sanctions are intended primarily as delaying tactics, buying time for internal changes in Iran or, in the worst case, eventual military action.

But others in Washington wonder whether the Turkish initiative might not have been a missed opportunity for the U.S. to support Turkey's negotiated deal and thereby support those within Iran who argue for greater engagement. Although officials in Washington often express concerns about Turkey being too closely aligned with Iran, many still acknowledge that Ankara is not interested in a nuclear-armed Iran and that the key difference between Ankara and Washington is over tactics, not strategy.

Going forward, for now there is little enthusiasm among senior Washington policymakers for a substantive Turkish role on the Iran nuclear issue. And despite grudging support from Ankara for the sanctions against which it voted, there is growing concern over Turkey's role as a transit point for Iranian sanctions-evading trade and financial transactions.

But if there is any chance of negotiations defusing the nuclear issue with Iran, there may be a future role for Turkey to play. US officials chafe at the fact that Turkey is no longer entirely in the U.S. camp on this issue, but it is not clear it would be an effective intermediary if it were. The rift between Washington and Ankara may help bolster Turkish credibility in Tehran, and in the long term, that may present an avenue that skillful US diplomacy could exploit.

This post was originally published in Today's Zaman

Dr. Philipp C. Bleek is an assistant professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Dr. Joshua W. Walker is an assistant professor at the University of Richmond and fellow at the German Marshall Fund.