Can Turkey balance Iran?

If the Arabs expect Turkey to balance Iran, it is unlikely to happen under current Turkish leadership.

Turkey''s FM Davutoglu speaks with Turkish PM Erdogan during a meeting at the government palace in Tunis
Prime Minister Erdogan must carefully balance Turkey's foreign policy in order to appease his supporters [REUTERS]

Doha, Qatar – In June 2011 and a few days before the national elections, I attended a workshop in one of Turkey’s top universities, the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. The topic was Iran’s nuclear programme and Turkey’s management of the crisis. Among the participants were a few bureaucrats from the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and some prominent Turkish academics.

All but an American academic spoke approvingly of Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s initiative of the Nuclear Fuel Swap Deal signed a year ago. The main speaker, an influential Turkish academic, even claimed that the deal was the best course of action ever taken to solve the crisis – but the world, he added, missed it. In reaction to the American academic’s doubts, the professor confidently asserted that without Turkey the crisis could not be solved.


We were in the midst of the Arab Spring and it was obvious that the Turkish leadership was entertaining the idea that Turkey could be a model for the Arab World.

 Egyptians celebrate Erdogan’s arrival

I was puzzled. How could the Turkish leaders live with two contradictions the Arab Spring uncovered? First, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ahmet Davutoglu had long befriended unpopular Arab rulers, but at the same time managed to polish their images among the Arab masses.

Once the protests broke out in Egypt, however, Erdogan and Davutoglu immediately distanced themselves from Hosni Mubarak. It was a smart move. But, with Bashar al-Assad, the duo were extremely patient. It took longer, but Erdogan and Davutoglu eventually did the same with Assad.

After the Arab Spring Davutoglu changed his visionary guiding principle in foreign policymaking. Now “zero problems with the neighbours” would guide Turkish foreign policy. The Turkish leadership thus solved the first contradiction.

A ‘friend’ indeed

The other contradiction is more serious and yet to be solved. The Turkish leaders have also tried to befriend the Gulf Arabs and the Iranians at the same time. For example, Turkey and the Gulf States frequently exchanged high-level visits in the 2000s. After 40 years, for example, a Saudi King visited Turkey, in fact twice. Turkey increased its exports to the region and was declared to be a strategic partner of the GCC.

Rapprochement with the GCC Arab States did not deter the Turkish leadership from developing closer ties with Iran. Turkey in fact did more than that. For Iran’s sake Turkey put at great risk its strategic interests with the United States, the European Union, Israel – and not to mention the Arab World – by engineering the Nuclear Fuel Swap Deal. One month after the deal, Turkey also voted against further UN sanctions on Iran as a non-permanent member of the Security Council.

Is it pure self-interest? In large part, yes. For Turkey, Iran is simply more important than the GCC as a market. Since coming to power, Erdogan and his team have tried hard to open up the Iranian market to the Turkish companies and made decent progress. Trade volume between the two countries increased from $1.25 billion in 2003 to $16 billion in 2011. Erdogan set even a higher number, $30 billion, as a benchmark to be realised in the near future.

On the other hand, the total trade between Turkey and the whole Gulf States is around $11 billion in 2011. Even though Turkey may hope to increase that number in the near future, I am sure, they are realistic about the full potential: Turkey faces tough competition from American, European, and Far East Asian companies and does not get favourable treatment.

Iran is critical to Turkey for other reasons. First, in order to fight effectively the re-strengthening Kurdish terror organisation, the PKK, Turkey must closely work with Iran. Even Iran’s inaction is going to trouble the Turkish military. Second, Turkey aims to become a regional energy hub or at least an energy transit country. Iran figures in most, if not all scenarios, for the successful realisation of that aim.

A balancing act

 Turkey: A model for the ME?

There is also a domestic constraint. The policy of balancing Iran is going to be an extremely hard sell. Even though for quite different reasons all but few societal groups will object to such a balancing.

First, the Kemalists will object to it because such a positioning will involve Turkey unnecessarily with the problems of the Middle East. This will constitute a radical departure from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s isolationist, independent and peaceful foreign policy.

The ultra-Nationalists, the Leftists and the Socialists will join forces with the Kemalists, not because they are isolationists, but because they are anti-US and anti-Israel. In fact, these groups have long already accused Erdogan and Davutoglu of following too pro-American and pro-Israel policy. So far, their campaign did not seem to persuade the ordinary folks. But, any anti-Iran foreign policy orientation will give credit to their accusations and make these groups even more vocal in their criticisms.

There are other societal groups, who will object to such an anti-Iran orientation. First, there are those Turkish Political Islamists, who get more inspiration from Iran than Saudi Arabia or any other Arab state. These groups constitute one part of the JDP constituency and may shift alliance if Erdogan and Davutoglu appear too anti-Iran. Some of them are already critical of Erdogan and Davutoglu for not cutting all ties with Israel despite Erdogan’s fiery rhetoric about Israel.

Second, even anti-Iran religious groups will object to such a re-orientation of Turkish foreign policy. It is not because of their sympathy for Saudi Arabia. Most religious groups in Turkey have strong Sufi orientations and find Wahhabism or Salafism extremely disturbing. These groups, which in fact constitute the overwhelming majority of religious groups in Turkey, will raise strong objections to Turkey taking any side between Iran and the Arab states. In fact, the religious leader of the most influential religious group, Fethullah Gulen, repeatedly warned the JDP leadership of such an adventure.

Finally, most Turks who do not belong to any of these groups are generally very apathetic about the developments in the Arab world. They have quite a simple understanding of the international politics of the Middle East, viewing most Arab regimes as simple puppets of the United States. On the other hand, Iran is, in their view, a proud country standing against the bullies, the United States and Israel. Erdogan and Davutoglu have so far successfully appealed to the ordinary folks’ nationalistic impulses, but a strong-anti Iran position might discredit the duo’s future appeals.

In short, Turkey is not going to play any balancing role in the epic battle between Iran and the GCC countries. Simply, Iran is too important and most, if not all, Turks will object to such an adventurous foreign policy.

Birol Baskan is Assistant Professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar.