"Zero problems" with the Islamic Republic

Even at the height of diplomatic tensions with Iran and after an intensification of sanctions against the country, Turkey did not fall in with the West's strict line on Iran. Sinan Ulgen explains why

By Sinan Ulgen

Following Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif's recent visit to the Gulf states, the Islamic Republic's charm offensive is set to continue with President Hassan Rouhani's trip to Turkey early next month.

Unlike the majority of Iran's Arab neighbours, Turkey unequivocally welcomed the interim nuclear deal concluded last month between Iran and the P5+1 (the United Nations Security Council's five permanent members and Germany). But Turkish policymakers are keenly aware that the agreement may upend the Middle East's fragile balance of power.

From Turkey's perspective, the nuclear deal, if successfully implemented and made permanent after six months, is set to eliminate a major security concern.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government does not want to be faced with a nuclear Iran, fearing the emergence of an asymmetric power relationship with the Islamic Republic after centuries of balanced ties.

In favour of a diplomatic solution

But nor did Turkey want a military intervention in Iran, led by the United States. It was believed that a military strike would create even more problems in terms of regional stability and security. That is why Turkish policymakers have consistently championed a diplomatic solution to the Iranian conundrum, which is what they got with the latest deal.

The Iranian Fuel Enrichment Plant Natanz (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
A thorn in the side of the West: in February 2010, the Islamic Republic began enriching uranium to 20 per cent at the facility in Natanz. In May of the same year, Iran announced that it had reached agreement with Turkey and Brazil to send uranium abroad for enrichment. Several Western countries rejected the move

There are other reasons why Turkish officials have welcomed the interim agreement so warmly. First, they interpret the deal as a vindication of their ill-fated effort in May 2010 (together with Brazil) to reach an agreement with Iran on the disposition of Iran's nuclear fuel.

Turkish authorities continue to highlight that earlier tripartite agreement with Iran. The Foreign Ministry, for example, released a statement noting that "The agreement … constitutes the first concrete positive development concerning Iran's nuclear programme since the Tehran Declaration of 2010."

Turkey is also satisfied that the deal does not weaken its position on sovereign rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Turkey has consistently defended the interpretation that states have the right to establish domestic uranium-enrichment programmes under the NPT, provided that they comply with their treaty commitments.

Iran as an important trade partner

Even at the peak of diplomatic tensions with Iran, Turkey refrained from adopting America's more maximalist position, which challenged the validity of Iran's right to enrich uranium. So the tacit and conditional acceptance of this right is a satisfactory outcome for Turkey.

Although Turkey currently has no plans to develop a fuel cycle of its own, its ambitious agenda for developing nuclear power has made policymakers intent on safeguarding the rights recognised by the NPT, including the right to enrich uranium.

There are also significant economic considerations for Turkey, which relies on Iran for a substantial share of its energy imports. Equally important, as a neighbouring country, Iran has been a traditional trading partner – a relationship worth more than $15 billion per year.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu (photo: AP/picture-alliance)
"Zero problem policy" and strategic depth are the cornerstones of Ankara's foreign policy: "Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government does not want to be faced with a nuclear Iran, fearing the emergence of an asymmetric power relationship with the Islamic Republic after centuries of balanced ties," writes Sinan Ulgen

As a result, Turkey's export potential has been negatively affected by the rising stringency of the sanctions regime against Iran, with trade losses estimated at $6 billion for the first nine months of 2013. The gradual easing of the sanctions is expected to benefit Turkey's export industries, which hope to satisfy pent-up Iranian demand for consumer and investment goods.

Fear of an increase in Iran's influence

Finally, in contrast to Arab states like Saudi Arabia, Turkey is generally comfortable with the deal's geopolitical ramifications. The improvement of Iran's relationship with the West and the easing of diplomatic pressure on the Islamic Republic is not a major concern.

But, for the Gulf states – and also possibly for Israel – this scenario is viewed as opening the door to stronger Iranian influence throughout the region. These countries believe that, following the interim agreement, the US will fail to demonstrate sufficiently strong resolve to deter Iran from seeking regional hegemony.

In that case, tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran will become more acute in the years ahead, emerging as the main destabilising factor in the region. It is in this context that Turkey's role as a secular power, one capable of transcending the sectarian divide, will become more important than ever.

Turkish policymakers would be well advised to seize this opportunity to consolidate the country's effectiveness as a regional actor, one that is uniquely positioned to stem the danger of a widening – and potentially extremely dangerous – rift.

Sinan Ulgen

© Project Syndicate 2014

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de