Turkey Needs Strategy to Contain Iran

04/01/2015 08:02 am ET | Updated May 31, 2015

Photo credit: Zaman, Ali Unal

On March 27, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Iran is trying to dominate the region, just weeks before his visit to Tehran. He argued that Iran's expanding foothold in the Middle East is annoying Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies.

A year earlier, Turkish president said in Tehran that Iran is "like a second home" to him. Shortly after part of NATO's missile defense system was installed in southern Turkey, threatening remarks by Iranian officials against Turkey spiked. It followed a long period of honeymoon between the two countries, when Turkey was a staunch supporter of Iran against on international stage. Despite being a NATO ally, Turkey voted against fourth round of Iran sanctions at the UN Security Council in 2010 and made it clear that part of NATO's missile defense system stationed in Turkey must not directly aim at its neighbor. In the past few years, Ankara's approach to Iran was all but consistent.

Iran was hardly thankful for Turkey's vociferous, and inexplicable, defense of Tehran. The frequency of bashing Turkey, even threatening it, has subsided since the election of President Hassan Rouhani, but not ended.

As a matter of fact, Iran and Turkey deserve plaudits for keeping their fists unclenched for a long time while they fight proxy wars elsewhere, particularly in Syria. Erdoğan's unrelenting determination to root out the Syrian regime, backed and bankrolled by Iran, hardly affected relations between the two nations. Iran has also been a benefactor from events in Iraq and has increased its presence both in Baghdad and other areas as it helps the Iraqi army fight the Islamic State. Until only recently did Erdoğan speak out against Iran's crawling march in Iraq.

Conduct of foreign policy requires pragmatic calculations by cool-headed diplomats. If Ankara's policy toward Iran is to avoid an open conflict, it is apparently falling apart. Iran's destabilizing policies in the Middle East, Yemen being the latest one, should disturb Turkey. But only after Erdoğan's visit to Saudi Arabia this month did he realize how Gulf nations were on their toes because of Iran's menace.

Iran has always in the history been ambitious in dominating the region. If it could not influence political authorities in other countries, like it did in Iraq and Syria, it chose to destabilize them. Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Yemen are chief examples. Iran's attempt to influence events in the region when opportunity arises is neither new nor particularly surprising.

Because Turkey had chosen to ignore its Arab neighbors for much of the past century as an official state policy, Iran's activities didn't really bother Turkey. With Ankara seeking a greater role in the Middle East as it reasserts its clout in its Muslim backyard, it is time to draw red lines for Iran's unceasing expansionism.

Sending different signals at different times may and will lead to miscalculations. Turkey must make it crystal clear when its interests are at stake and develop a strategy in dealing with Iran. It doesn't have it today, but it must draft one as soon as possible.