Iran’s defiance to cooperate with the world powers over its nuclear program clearly adds to an already dangerous situation. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs sent a clear warning on Tuesday that “time and patience is running out” for Iran to come clean on its nuclear program. But President Obama is right to declare that “the door is still open” for to Iran engage in serious negotiations. So far, both sides have blamed one another for the lack of a breakthrough in talks. Given its ever-increasing profile in the Middle East, Turkey is now trying to break this impasse. The question is, though, whether the current Turkish leadership has the capacity to play the game adequate to Turkey’s significance in the region.
President Obama understands Turkey’s strategic importance. Last April, he made Turkey his first visit to a majority Muslim nation. It was also a historic first for any American president traveling to Ankara during his first 100 days in office. The president’s visit was perceived as an acknowledgement that Turkish Prime Minister Tayip Erdogan was becoming a regional Muslim leader whit his clout spreading from the streets of Gaza to Beirut; Damascus to Cairo—the traditional strongholds of Arab nationalism.
However, Erdogan became popular by constantly criticizing Israel—particularly after the Gaza war. The more he said against Israel, the more his standing grew in the Arab world. The Arab streets were encouraged to see a Muslim leader storming off the stage during a meeting last year with Israeli President Shimon Peres at Davos, or accusing Israel of sponsoring state-terrorism, or calling on President Obama to redefine terrorism in the region in an effort to remove that label from Hamas and Hezbollah. Recently, Erdogan also forced Israel to apologize over the humiliation of his ambassador in Tel Aviv.
Those actions have garnered Turkey more esteem in the Arab world than ever before. While the Saudis wield power in the Middle East because of their oil, Turkey relies on Erdogan’s “rock star” popularity for its standing, which only grows as he hammers Israel. Suddenly Turkey is gaining respect in the Arab world. Earlier this month in Munich, former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal refused to take part in a panel with Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Dany Ayalon because he behaved in a “boorish” manner toward the Turkish envoy in Tel Aviv. A Saudi official for the first time ever felt like he should stand up to Israel for Turkey.
Turkey continues to get more respect on the Arab streets—literally—in Lebanon on Feb. 14, when Erdogan’s picture and Turkish flags were carried during demonstrations commemorating the fifth anniversary of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination. Turkish flags were possibly raised in Beirut for the first time since it was lowered when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. It was even more of an astonishing sight—cause—Erdogan single handedly broke the isolation of Syria which was accused to be responsible of Hariri’s death. Indeed, the belief that Syria was behind the assassination had sparked the March 14 and the Cedar revolution which expelled Syria out of Lebanon.
Furthermore, without Erdogan’s help, Syria could not have repaired its relationship with the Saudi Royal Kingdom, which largely cut its ties with Damascus after Hariri’s death. If not for Erdogan, Saudi King Abdullah would not have traveled to Damascus, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would not have gone to Saudi Arabia to help Prime Minister Saad Hariri form the government. Erdogan’s backdoor diplomacy played a significant role in the much delayed Lebanese government’s formation. As a result, Hariri made Damascus one of his first foreign visits. But he even traveled to Turkey before he went to Egypt, which is considered to be the leader of the Arab world.
So the question becomes how these nations will cope with a nuclear Iran. The Arab world—at the very outset—seems to be pleased to see a growing Turkish role in the region as a strategic counterbalance to Iran. Turkey has adopted an even stronger Arab stance—especially on the Palestinian issue – than the Arabs. Just like Saudi King Abdullah, Prime Minister Erdogan believes that if Iran is being asked not to have nuclear weapons, then Israel should give them up as well. With his Islamist-rooted party ruling Turkey, Erdogan has consciously altered both the Turkish psyche and identity, defining it by opposing Israel. That very fact has a direct impact on national security related decisions.
Turkey—no longer—sees Israel as a distant neighbor. Erdogan feels overconfident of his standing in the Arab world. He believes that Turkey’s influence in the region today is catching up with the irrefutable authority of the Ottoman sultans ruling those lands. If there is a problem, however, for the Arabs is that Turkey also likes to have “zero problems” with its neighbors—including Iran. Indeed, Erdogan remains to be the only leader who strongly argues that Iran is not looking to get a bomb.
During a recent visit to Tehran, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu offered Iran a new way of thinking to exit this impasse with the international community. There is no information available as to what the Turkish plan is about. But almost at the time, Saudi Foreign Minister al-Faisal downplayed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s discussions of sanctions against Iran, saying that sanctions are a long term solution, but this problem requires an immediate fix.
Although the regional leaders talk about not wanting to see a nuclear weaponized Iran, their offers fall short of being a real force in stopping Iran’s direction. There could be even a debate as to whether a nuclear Iran would be perceived as a threat in Turkey or Syria, let aside Russia and China. In fact, Turkish calculation on sanctions is heavily relied on the assumption that Russians and Chinese won’t allow such a UN Security Council resolution be accepted. If they do, Turkey’s position will be difficult. As a non-permanent UN Security Council member, it will either decide to break-away from its traditional Western allies or it will follow the course. Either way, Turkey’s stakes will be high. Iranian regime has more opportunity to harm Turkey more than it can cause harm in the U.S. or Europe. Or Turkey will turn its back to the Western world.
More, if the sanctions are not the answer; if the region does not want to see yet another military confrontation, all needs to rise to the challenge of finding new ways to persuade Iran to become more open and cooperative with the international community. The regional countries can do a lot if they get united and determined in reaching out that goal. That said, they can’t realistically equate a nuclear-armed Israel and a nuclear-armed Iran. Israel’s nuclear capability strengthens its defense against attacks; Iran’s will shift the balance of power in the region. As much as none likes to admit, the Gulf countries might even be relieved by an Israeli military operation against Iranian facilities. When Israel attacked a nuclear site in Syria, the Arab world didn’t register much protest. All in all, it is that mindset which will determine whether the nations of the Middle East will accept Israel as a real partner in peace, or whether they will accept a nuclear Iran.
Based in Washington, D.C., Tulin Daloglu is a correspondent for Turkey’s HABERTÜRK. In the 2002 general election, she ran for a seat in Parliament as a member of the New Turkey Party. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org