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The Iranian nuclear standoff: Where does Turkey stand?

Despite its leaders’ efforts to broker an agreement, Turkey seems to be accepting the possibility of an attack on Iran as a last resort. Now its priority is to prepare for that eventuality, so that a military conflict does not take it by surprise.

By Aylin Gurzel

FAMAGUSTA – Turkey has tried to broker negotiations between Iran and the West over Iran’s nuclear program. But, with talks repeatedly failing to generate any substantive progress, Turkey’s leaders are beginning to consider how a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would affect their country’s interests.

When Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, it sought to improve relations with Iran. To some degree, the two countries began with a blank slate, given that they had largely kept their distance from each other for several centuries. But Turkey’s mediating role in nuclear negotiations fueled suspicion in Iran, complicating Turkey’s efforts to establish a strong bilateral relationship.

But Turkey persisted. After all, it had staked its foreign policy on building relationships with its neighbors, and its leaders believed that their country’s NATO membership and geographical position would help it to assume an influential role in the region.

In order to capitalize on Turkey’s strengths, its government insisted on participating in the nuclear talks – even hosting a session in Istanbul this year. According to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s priority was “a stable and secure region within the framework of a new global order.”

But the continued impasse over Iran’s nuclear program has led Turkey to reassess its options. Turkey, which is covered by NATO’s nuclear umbrella, views international efforts to promote nuclear non-proliferation as woefully inadequate. As a result, a debate has been underway in Turkey over whether to pursue the development and acquisition of nuclear weapons. If negotiations remain deadlocked, and proliferation increases in the region, the country might well pursue this course.

Supporters believe that an Iranian nuclear breakout would justify such a move from Turkey. Conservative AKP deputy Ihsan Aslan, for example, has asserted that, given Israel’s nuclear arsenal, Muslim countries should also possess nuclear weapons. A nuclear-weapons program, he has argued, would bolster Turkey’s leadership position in the region.

Meanwhile, opponents contend that a nuclear Iran would only destabilize the Middle East. Former Turkish Ambassador to the United States Faruk Logoğlu has argued that a nuclear Iran would not only threaten the flow of oil, but would also make a regional war more likely.

Despite the high stakes, hopes for an agreement are low, especially given Iran’s increasing estrangement from Turkey. Since the establishment of a NATO missile-tracking radar in Turkey’s Malatya province, Iran has been hurling threats at its neighbor.

Moreover, the two countries are at odds over the crisis in Syria. Iran has provided substantial support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while Turkey has advocated military intervention on behalf of opposition forces. And, despite Iranian officials’ claims that they have nothing to do with increased terrorist activities in Turkey by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Turkey’s leaders remain unconvinced.

As a result, Turkey’s continued mediation efforts have become strained. Turkish National Intelligence Organization Undersecretary Hakan Fidan recently visited Iran to discuss its nuclear program and the deepening crisis in Syria. Soon after, National Security Council Secretary Saeed Jalili – Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator – headed to Ankara for further talks with Davutoğlu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. But, according to Turkish media, Erdoğan gave Jalili the cold shoulder.

Further destabilizing the region are enduring tensions between Turkey and Israel. The dispute over the Mavi Marmara – the Turkish ship that was bringing supplies to Gaza in 2010 when Israeli commandos boarded and seized it, killing nine Turks – remains a source of contention. While trade continues, the two countries’ military relations were halted abruptly.

An attack on Iran’s facilities would likely bring the two countries onto the same side. But unresolved hostilities with Israel could affect Turkey’s choices.

Turkey’s military is already planning to defend the country against an Iranian attack – a move that may lead Turkey to take a more aggressive stance on Syria. And the Turkish government is preparing for a halt in Iranian oil exports by diversifying its suppliers.

In short, despite Turkish leaders’ efforts to broker an agreement, they seem to be accepting the possibility of an attack on Iran as a last resort. Now their priority is to prepare for that eventuality, so that military conflict will not take Turkey by surprise.

Aylin Gurzel is an assistant professor of international relations at Eastern Mediterranean University. This article first appeared on Project Syndicate.

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    1. Craig Vale

      What perplexes me in this conversation re: Iranian pursuit of a “nuke”, is the complete absence of any discussion as to what legal right any nation has to engage in a “first strike” against another. Israel has determined that as a sovereign nation they have the right to arm themselves as they see fit. While there is no official acknowledgment of Israel having a nuclear capability, for most of us we accept it as fact that Israel does have the capability. Why wouldn’t folks walking the streets of Teheran not be paranoid of missiles based in Israel targeting their cities and consequently seek to defend themselves in a like manner ? Iran is a sovereign state as is Israel . Why is it okay for Israel to claim a national security interest with these arms and Iran is not entitled to do what they see as being in their best security interests and arm themselves similarly ? After all it IS Israel that has threatened Iran with a ” first strike” What international law allows Israel to have the bomb and not Iran? Is it solely due to the fact Israel is dead silent on the issue of whether or not they have the nuclear bomb ?

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        Some answers:
        >Why wouldn’t folks walking the streets of Teheran not be paranoid of missiles based in Israel targeting their cities and consequently seek to defend themselves in a like manner?

        Because Israel never threatened Iran and in fact provided some support during Iran-Iraq war. It was solely Ayatolla’s regime decision to convert Israel into enemy.

        >Iran is a sovereign state as is Israel. Why is it okay for Israel to claim a national security interest with these arms and Iran is not entitled to do what they see as being in their best security interests and arm themselves similarly?

        Of course they have such right. All they have to do is exit non-proliferation.

        >After all it IS Israel that has threatened Iran with a ”first strike”.

        Israel threatened to strike Iran because:
        A – Iran has threatened Israel multiple times
        B – Iran is actively engaged in proxy warfare against Israel
        C – Iran has no right to develop nuclear bomb accordingly to the non-proliferation treaty which it has signed.

        >What international law allows Israel to have the bomb and not Iran?

        Non-proliferation treaty.

        >Is it solely due to the fact Israel is dead silent on the issue of whether or not they have the nuclear bomb?
        See answers to previous question.

        Reply to Comment
    2. John Hollis

      Too late!
      Edorgan is a Zionist supporter and has been from start. That is why it is doing everything it can to finish Asad who is arch enemy of Zionists. That is why Turkey has lost credit with every freedom fighter across middleEast. Turkey is looking for short term games all the time, hence they are used by everyone incluidng US. Once properly ingaged militarily, Turkey will taste the fruit of bitrial bythe their very supposedly friends such as US, Israel etc. Let them learn the hard way that Iran could compromise with US any time but honour and self beleif never allowed the the Iranians to sell the poor Palistanians to the idea of improving their positions and self interest and Turkey could perhaps learn from that. Edorgan does anything to get a smile from his bosses in the west. It is a shame that he will go down and will never get it. Did you see NATO’s reaction to the conflict between Syria and Tyrkey recently? NAto said they will keep out of the conflict!! This emans Turkey will remain a 2nd rated NATO member who just obeys orders and is never considered as a true member! Iran on the other hand stands on its two feet and decides for itself. that is ture independance which Turkey never learnt!!

      Reply to Comment
      • Piotr Berman

        “NATO will stay out of the conflict!”

        A border incident of the kind that Turkey is causing herself on occasion is not a convincing case for war. Turkey pummeled Syria for two days and got a pound of flesh. What next? A bloody war and even more awkward eventual occupation? Or not?

        NATO operates by consensus. You have to convince Belgium, Slovakia etc. that the cause is worth sending young people to die. Would, say, Belorus send troops to occupy a piece of Lithuania, Lithuania would indisputably need help and deserve help. Here clearly Turkey does not need help, and everybody knows that Turkey does not deserve help: if you transfer weapons to rebels by truckload, some shit is bound to happen.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Piotr Berman

      Erdogan is an impatient and hot tempered loudmouth, a fact that overshadows many of his endeavors. He started some much needed reforms of the status of Kurds in Turkey and now it degenerated into the return of the dirty war. He started some restoration of “Muslim dignity” in respect to Palestine which is now thoroughly forgotten. He started some democratization, and now there is a cancerous Ergenokon affair that swept hundreds into seemingly indefinite pre-trial detentions that are more and more ridiculed as based preposterous accusations. He started opening relationships with Iran and Armenia, now there is an actual possibility of Iran, Russia, Iraq, Armenia and Syria closing their skies for Turkish airplanes as a retaliation for Turkish provocations.

      Of course any talk about possible nuclear weapons in Turkey or an open military strife with Iran is preposterous. Nukes are really not good for anything, and both countries have mountain regions along the border inhabited by Kurds, turning any possible war into an unproductive quagmire.

      Now of course Syria is THE issue. I think that as the victims of repression were multiplying Erdogan felt that he has to do “something”, and crates of weapons and ammo from Saudi Arabia were very easy to deliver across the very long border. But what started so nicely now looks more dubious.

      Number one, at least 1/3 of that long border is a Kurdish region. For some reasons those Kurds were treated quite badly by Syrian government. However, as the situation became dire, patching up the situation there was the easiest step for the regime. MOREVER, it was nicely explained that neither Iraq nor Syria were interested in expanding the influence of Iraqi Kurds, so the best solution for them was to give reign to PKK. With the extra bonus of causing trouble for Turkey. The length of the border that PKK can easily cross tripled.

      The second aspect is that the most “productive” recipients of weapons are often the most violent. I call it “pet cobra” policy (originally invented by ISI in the region where actual cobras live). To all boys and girls: cobras do not make good pets. NEVER try it at home.

      One Turkish commentator noted that all actors of the Syrian tragedy either have kins across the border in Turkey or will have as there will be waves of refugees. For example, Syrian Alawites are religiously related to Turkish Alevis. If there will be Sunni refugees, some will be radicals feeling they were stabbed in the back, and using their skill with explosives in Turkey. And of course the Kurds.

      Reply to Comment