27.2.2011. Τουρκία-Ιράν και στρατηγικό βάθος-ισλαμική κοσμοθεωρία
27 Sunday February 2011 | Sunday 27 , February 2011 | GMT 12:12:12 | THR 15:42:12
In the last two years, Turkey’s foreign policy has experienced a new found activism focused in particular on the Middle East, South and Central Asia, areas which, with the exception of Central Asia, have not been a major focus of Turkish foreign policy since the creation of the modern Turkish Republic.
In fact, the pace of Turkey’s foreign policy in the last two years in terms of its involvement in the regional politics of the Middle East and South Asia has been nothing short of breathtaking. During this time, Turkey has hosted conferences on Afghanistan, tried to mediate between Pakistan and the Karzai government, offered to host a representation bureau on its territory for the Taliban, made significant inroads in Lebanon and Syria, become an important economic and political player in Iraq, looks to expanding ties with the [P] GCC and even has entered the foray in the Arab-Israeli conflict and established ties with HAMAS. What is significant is that Turkey has made these inroads without substantial change in its relations with Israel. For example, despite some tensions in Turkish –Israeli relations, because of first the spat between Erdogan and Simon Peres in Davos and the Mavi Marmara incident, there has been no rupture in Turkish-Israeli military and other ties .Indeed, the fact that Turkey is on speaking terms with Israel has rendered it more attractive to the Arabs , including potentially HAMAS, as a viable mediator.
Additionally, as part of this strategy of reaching audiences thus far remote from Turkey, such as the Shias of Iraq and Lebanon , Turkey has also reached out to its own small Shi’a minority , which incidentally are still called “ kafir “ ( unbeliever) as illustrated by Erdogan’s participation in Shia mourning ceremonies in Turkey in December 2010. Turkish Diyanat is also considering the teaching of the Jafari Fiqh in Turkish religious schools partly in order to prevent Turks from going to Iranian or Iraqi Shia learning centers. Meanwhile, it has begun to form a league of Turkic speaking countries similar to the Arab League in order to shore up and institutionalize its relations with the Central Asian states, while also strengthening its presence in Central Asia’s only Persian speaking country, Tajikistan.
Moreover, this activism in the East has so far not been at the expense of Turkey’s relations with the West. Nor has it dampened its determination to pursue its goal of joining the European Union whether as full member or in some other form. On the contrary, despite a degree of alarm expressed by some observers in the West about Turkey’s Eastern drift, Turkish leaders are fully aware that Turkey’s continued links to the West are essential for the success of its new regional ambitions. To illustrate, it was through its role in the NATO forces in Afghanistan that Turkey dealt itself into Post-Taliban Afghan politics, since Turkey not since the 1930s had any significant ties with Afghanistan. Similarly, the fact that the West, and some Arab states, sees Turkey as a counterweight to Iran in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and potentially in the Persian Gulf, certainly helps its goals..
Turkey has also pursued an active international diplomacy through casting itself as a potential mediator in the Iran-West nuclear standoff. Although this role caused some difficulty for Turkey in relations with the West when the latter refused to accept the compromise reached among Turkey, Brazil and Iran regarding the latter’s nuclear program, nevertheless, this mediating role has enhanced Turkey’s diplomatic profile.
In order to play this mediating role, Turkey has changed its approach towards Iran emphasizing economic cooperation, especially in the Turkic speaking regions of Iran notably Azerbaijan provinces. Considering the fact that since the Ottoman times Turkey has been keenly interested in this part of Iran this new presence has significance beyond trade and economics.
Iran has welcomed this new Turkish policy and has interpreted it as a significant shift in Turkish orientation which could potentially change the balance of regional power against the West and in its own favor and even perhaps lead to the creation of a new Islamic bloc. Iran has also been largely oblivious to seriously competitive dimensions of this Turkish policy[*] which given Iran’s current problems with the West and the Arab states and even its eastern neighbors such as Pakistan and Afghanistan , coupled with Turkey’s strong economy, could undermine Iran’s position and eventually even cause security problems for it.
The reason for this diagnosis is that the ambitions of the AKP government go far beyond those of the Generals and even Turgut Özal who focused on Europe and Central Asia, and after the Soviet collapse hoped to make Turkey the hub of a new Eurasia instead of the one based on Russia’s centrality. The AKP with its ideology which combines Islam and Turkish nationalism has a greater vision of Turkey as a new reincarnation of the Ottoman sphere of influence bound by links of trade, investment, culture and, in some areas language and ethnicity, with Turkey as the linchpin. The AKP because of its Islamic credentials, references albeit oblique to the Ottoman legacy, the last Islamic Caliphate, is also in a better position than the Generals to reach the Arab and other Muslim audiences. At the same time Turkish Islam is seen by many in the Muslim World and by the West as more progressive than that practiced in other Muslim majority countries and hence non-threatening. This combination makes Turkey under AKP a far more formidable rival for Iran than the Turkey of the Generals ever was, although for the time being less of a security threat. The AKP intellectuals, as told to this author by one of them, in fact, see Iran as the only viable rival for Turkey and potential hindrance for the achievement of its Neo-Ottomanist ambitions.
For now, Turkey is trying to avoid disaster in its neighborhood, which would adversely affect its economic prospects, by preventing a new war in the Persian Gulf, this time with Iran, while trying to check Iran’s military ambitions, pursuing its economic growth and also neutralizing Iran and making inroads in those regions of Iran closest to it both geographically and linguistically.
Meanwhile, Iran faced with mounting economic and political pressures and active efforts by many regional and international actors to undermine its regional ties, plus suffering from some inherent handicaps, notably sectarian differences and cultural rivalries mostly on the part of Afghanistan, in terms of relations with its Arab and non Arab neighbors is not in a position to compete effectively with Turkey. Rather it has responded eagerly to Turkish overtures thus facilitating Turkish plans.
Clearly, a Turkish policy of forming economic and other ties with Middle East and South Asia and developing more extended relations with Iran could under certain circumstances be in the interest of all concerned and serve the cause of regional stability. But given the heavy constraints on Iran and Turkey’s real ambitions a more skeptical and cautious view of Turkish activities is required from Iran. Iran, therefore, should not be fooled by the smiling Turkish foreign minister who is the theoretician of Turkey’s new policy of Zero Problems and creating strategic depth for Turkey.[†]
Iran’s continued problems with a large number of important international and regional actors, and its economic and financial limitations and needs puts it in a disadvantageous position in terms of its relations with Turkey. Iran need not and should not engage in a competition with Turkey for regional influence, but it should carefully calculate the long term consequences of Turkey’s newly found activism for its own interests. For example, Iran should worry about becoming too dependent on Turkish markets for its natural gas because should relations sour, as they have done so often in the past, Turkey can replace Iran with other sources of supply, notably Russia and Iraq. Turkish competition would also affect Syrian-Iranian ties, as well as relations with Iraq. Certainly, Iraq even under a Shi’a government could and has used Turkey to improve its bargaining position vis a vis Iran. Similarly, as in the past, Turkey remains a formidable rival in Central Asia.
Closer to home a too prominent Turkish presence in parts of Iran and greater interaction with Turkey could accentuate their differences with the rest of the country and by creating a too close economic connection weaken their ties with the center. In short, Turkey potentially could become a pole of attraction for segments of the Iranian population .In this connection, it is also useful to remember that influential elements in Turkey, including within the Islamist groups, believe that most of Iran since the time of the Saljuqs was part of Turkey, and that since that time until the end of the Qajar dynasty Iran was largely ruled by Turks.
The sad reality is that ,unlike Turkey and the Arabs, Iran has no natural allies bound to it by ties of ethnicity, language and religion, since Iran’s Shia character makes it suspicious to most other Muslims. In places such as Iraq, where common Shi’a faith could potentially create bounds with Iran ethnic differences cause estrangement. Meanwhile, other Iranian peoples such as those in Afghanistan and even Tajikistan see themselves as the true inheritors of the ancient Iranian civilization and use freely Iranian symbols and heroes as their own, and hence do not constitute reliable partners for Iran. In short, Iran is surrounded by either hostile or competitive neighbors.
What the above means is that Iran has to be on good or reasonable terms with all major regional and international actors. Certainly, Iran should refrain from attracting powerful antagonists and conduct its economic and diplomatic relations in such a way that would provide it with a wide range of options in terms of viable economic and political partners who could help it achieve its development goals rather than be a drain on its resources, and guard it against manipulation by its neighbors both near and far and big and small as has been frequently the case in recent years, or by other players.
The new Turkish activism and how effectively Iran responds to it will demonstrate whether Iran is up to this challenging task.
*] Some Iranian commentators however, have noticed the competitive dimensions of Turkey’s new policy.
[†] Ahmet Davutoglu is the author of StrateJik Derinlik , 2001 ( Strategic Depth) which reportedly has been very influential in shaping Turkey’s new foreign policy, as well as books on Ottoman civilization.
27 Sunday February 2011 | Sunday 27 , February 2011 | GMT 11:14:22 | THR 14:44:22