BACKGROUND: Turkey and Iran share a long and intricate historical relationship, and the two former imperial powers have influenced each other significantly over centuries. In modern times, the Iranian monarchy emulated the secularizing reforms launched by Kemal Atatürk, inaugurating a period of booming relations between the two western-aligned powers. That changed with the Islamic revolution of 1979, which shook the Turkish republic to the core.
As thousands of Iraniansfrom the ancien régime fled to Turkey, where they were welcomed, various parts of the Turkish political scene drew various conclusions. The establishment, in the middle of a struggle with leftist and Kurdish-nationalist elements, was fearful of the prospect of a forceful Islamic reaction to the secular republic. The Iranian events may indeed have influence the military leadership, once taking power in September 1980, to bring about the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” that sought to internalize elements of Sunni Islam to strengthen national unity and fight communism. But it equally drove home the need to suppress Islamic extremism whenever it arose. The Iranian regime’s rogue tendencies made things worse: not only was the Islamic republic’s high-tone rhetoric one that undermined everything Kemalist Turkey stood for, its targeted assassinations of exiled Iranians in Turkey soured relations.
The burgeoning political Islamic movement in Turkey drew entirely different conclusions. To them, simply put, it became clear that they were not necessarily on the wrong side of history. The Iranian revolution showed that secularizing states were not invincible, and that Islam could be turned into a powerful political mobilizing force. Importantly, their attitudes toward Iran began to change. Whereas the strongly Sunni Turkish Islamists had traditionally been prejudiced against the Shi’a militancy of their Iranian counterparts, such sentiments faded and even turned into admiration as they saw Iran turn into an Islamic republic. When Necmettin Erbakan became Turkey’s first Islamist Prime Minister in 1996, Iran was one of his first foreign destinations.
It was thus natural that the AKP, with its roots in political Islam, would make the improvement of Turkey’s ties to Iran a priority issue. It did so successfully, and was undeterred by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election in 2004. In 2008, The AKP government invited Ahamdinejad to visit Turkey – a visit that was quietly moved to Istanbul from Ankara after Ahmadinejad refused the traditional protocol of visiting Atatürk’s mausoleum. The AKP not only indulged this caprice, but allowed Ahamdinejad to use a visit to the Blue Mosque to engage in an anti-American and anti-Israeli show.
Ties with Iran were also bolstered by mutual interests concerning Iraq, which both Ankara and Tehran want to maintain as a unitary state. Indeed, Tehran benefited greatly from Washington’s inability or unwillingness to support Turkey’s efforts to eradicate PKK support bases in northern Iraq from 2003 to 2007. As Iran cracked down hard on the PKK’s Iranian arm, PJAK, to most Turks the perverse reality was that Iran proved a better ally against terrorism than the United States.
IMPLICATIONS: Many world leaders have found it hard to strike the right chord on dealing with the Iranian unrest. Even U.S. President Barack Obama finds himself under fire for his careful approach to the developments, although any greater American involvement would probably play into Ahmadinejad’s hands. Nevertheless, Ankara’s reaction amply illustrated the AKP government’s quandary. Indeed, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent Ahmadinejad a warm letter of congratulation on his re-election, making him one of the first world leaders to do so. This move was clearly premature given the disputed character of the election and the unclear outcome of the intra-regime struggle that ensued.
Indeed, the government later had to backpedal as the crisis unfolded. Its official policy has now switched to terming the election an internal affair of Iran’s – but Ankara still refrains from criticizing either the election or the violence employed against students and demonstrators by Iran’s ruling elite, stating mainly its hope that events “do not overshadow” the election that was held. Ankara thus departed not only from the policies of its western allies, which have leveled strong criticism against the credible evidence of electoral fraud, and especially at the lethal use of force against protestors: it differed also from the policies of most Middle Eastern governments, which have adopted a wait-and-see attitude.
The AKP government’s policy fits well into the “zero-problem” policy with its neighbors that it has sought to establish since coming to power. But in this particular instance, even in the Middle Eastern context, it puts Turkey in alignment with the radical regimes such as Syria and Qatar, rather than with moderate governments across the Middle East. That is reminiscent of Turkey’s position in the Gaza crisis several months ago, where Turkey again sided with the pro-Hamas regimes, led by Iran, rather than with the more balanced policies supported among other by Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
The AKP’s inability to respond convincingly to the Iranian crisis is notable not only because it happens on the watch of a Minister of Foreign Affairs who is a Middle East specialist, Ahmet Davutoglu, but because it misses the opportunity to play a role in a crisis has such momentous implications for Turkey. Indeed, the moderation of the Islamic republic, which opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi has explicitly espoused, would greatly improve Turkey’s regional environment. Not only would the looming threat of a confrontation between Israel and/or the United States and Iran recede, but the opportunities of building economic and energy ties between the West and Iran would grow considerably, opening up great potential for Turkish involvement.
For centrist Turks, the prospect of an Iranian regime that would reduce its sponsorship of terrorism and extremism abroad and that would play a more constructive role in regional affairs would make such an outcome an even greater benefit. So would the likely improvement of the plight of Turkic-speaking Iranians, primarily the Azerbaijanis, who form a great cultural and economic bridge between the two countries. Of course, Turkey’s hardcore Islamists would likely see dangers in the Islamic republic’s crisis. While Mousavi is no secularist, aPerestroika in the Islamic republic might advance the theocracy’s in a manner similar to the reforms brought about by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. That, in turn, could deflate the political Islamic movement in Turkey, which has been on the ascendancy since the mid-1970s.
On the other hand, if Ahmadinejad survives the crisis, he will do so as a deeply compromised and in many eyes illegitimate president, while the Iranian regime will have abandoned all pretenses to a democratic element and turned into an increasingly authoritarian and repressive theocracy. Ankara may in that scenario maintain an excellent relationship with the regime; but that short-term gain may be offset by the danger of losing influence in the country’s future should the regime collapse in the medium term.
CONCLUSIONS: Ankara’s reaction to the Iranian crisis is reminiscent of its disorganized and ad hoc handling of other recent crises, such as the Georgia war last August and the Gaza crisis a few months after that. There are, however, two more specific conclusions to be drawn. First, in spite of the benefits a moderation of the Iranian regime would bring for Turkey, the AKP government is no force for change in Iran, rather a force that by default supports the status quo. Indeed, the zero-problem policy has made Ankara indifferent to the outcome of the power struggle in Tehran. That may avoid problems in the short term should the regime stand; but it would likely generate a whole set of difficulties and missed opportunities should it not.
Secondly, the response brings further question to the implications of the zero-problem policy itself, the brainchild of current Foreign Minister Davutoglu. This policy indeed dictates refraining from intervening in the affairs of Turkey’s neighbors. But that also implies that Turkey has no opinion on developments in its neighbors’ internal affairs, or on their system of government. Indeed, it makes Turkey a passive bystander to developments in its region, developments that have great impact on Turkey’s own security and interests.
Svante E. Cornell is Research Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".