A story is circulating among denizens of Washington foreign policy watering holes that a rupture between Turkey and Iran is on the horizon. This, of course, would be warmly welcomed by the Obama administration. It feels aggrieved that Erdogan and Brazil's President Lula da Silva exposed the United States' disingenuous policies on the Iran nuclear issue by reaching an accord that conformed to stipulations set down in a Presidential communication itself. Moreover, a spurned Turkey refused to go along with the subsequent American sponsored sanctions resolution in the UNSC despite a White House call to Erdogan from the President. Now, Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon has called on Turkey to show concretely that it still values its Western ties. In all this static, the Turkish perspective gets lost.
A Turkish doctoral student of mine recently returned from a six month visit interviewing over a hundred officials, politicians, journalists,' etc. He was able to elicit quite candid thoughts from highly placed people -- active and retired. The following points emerge from his discussions.
1. The Turkish entente with Iran has been developing for seven years. It is part of a comprehensive strategic assessment that stresses: the value to Turkey as a status quo power of maintaining good relations with all its neighbors; the current opportunity for doing so in an historic first; Iran is an important neighbor with whom cordial relations are a reasonable expectation. Turkey's principal national interest is viewed as sustaining the rapid pace of economic development in which secure energy supplies play a major role. Indeed, the extensive accords signed with Iran in the past few years are seen as the essential element in a plan to diversify sources of oil and natural gas. In addition, the Iran connection is central to Ankara's vision of itself as an energy hub linking Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe. The depth of the government's feelings about a right to make its own strategic choices came across in the blunt remarks of President Gul last year in response to American criticism of its dealings with Iran: "Expansion of relations on a regional level seems quite natural for Turkey, and it is not important what other states think of it. Turkey cares for its own interests. Turkey will establish good ties with its neighbors with the aim of stability and security in the region...We are an independent country. We look out for our national interests. We have to make investment for the [energy] supply security of Turkey."
2. 2003 is an important date because at that time the intelligence services reached the conclusion that active terrorist groups that were conducting assassinations and bombings had no connection with Iran as, as had been presumed. The activities of one, Hezbullah-in-Turkey (THB), composed of Kurks, had been suspected by the Turkish National Security Council (MGK) authorities of having clandestine backing from Tehran. The conjectured motivation was to channel Kurdish militants toward Turkey while sparing itself. That conjecture was rejected with accumulated evidence that the group was a creature of the Turkish "deep security state," made up of dissident security and military figures, that sought to undermine Erdogan and his EDK party by creating unrest which could be blamed on him and his Islam tinged policies.
3. The Iraq occupation rekindled fears of a renewed Kurdish PKK threat thanks to its links with Kurdish leaders in Iraq and its unimpeded access to support bases in the autonomous Kurdish north of Iraq. The Iraqi Kurdish government had full American backing since it was the most reliable ally that Washington had in the turbulent Iraqi political arena. Strenuous Turkish efforts to obtain information from the U.S. about PKK camps and operations in Iraq met first with stonewalling and then a flurry of intelligence that proved to be useless. That experience soured major elements of the secular Turkish security establishment toward the U.S. which is seen as slighting Turkish security interests while pursuing its own in occupied Iraq.
4. The Islamist tinge of Erdogan's EDK at first was an obstacle to improved relations with Iran. The latter's radical and violent fundamentalism ran against the grain of the party's base of practicing Muslims because it directly contradicted their conception of Islam. It also hurt their party's image among the Turkish public.
5. Turkish leaders are less exercised by the Iranian nuclear program for these reasons: Turks are accustomed to playing the game of power politics and are a self-confident people -- unlike the Arab states; they do not believe that Iran is rushing pell-mell to build a bomb; they believe that Iran's security interest is in deterring an American or Israeli assault that aims at destroying the Islamic regime; they see little tangible threat to themselves; and they are concerned that the selective punishment of Iran for exercising its full rights to develop energy may be applied to Turkey at some unspecified time in the future. No determination has been made whether the actually testing of an Iranian weapon would force Turkey to undertake its own nuclear weapons program, although that is a disquieting prospect for most. Turkish leaders are convinced that the only strategy that could 'neutralize' Iran's nuclear weapons potential is comprehensive negotiations with Iran (as Tehran proposed in April 2003) that would cover all manner of security issues of concern to Iran, the US, and regional parties. They want a role in that process.
6. The Turkish government, not just Erdogan, feels that it was misled and then offended by Washington in regard to the Turko-Brazilian initiative. That is an added factor in the considered Turkish conviction that it cannot trust American strategy, tactical decisions and leadership on all manner of issues in the Greater Middle East. Their cold-eyed appraisal of what we've done in Iran, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan is that the Americans have poor judgment, are reckless and do not care what others in the region think or what their interests are.
7. While there are some, especially in the military, discomforted by the resulting strains with Washington, a wide consensus has crystallized in support of both the analysis and prescription outlined here.
It would be nice if some folks in the think-tank world and the press, not to speak of the administration, were attentive to what's actually going on in Turkey instead of fantasizing as per usual.