Turkey Moves Toward Regional Leadership

In a Mideast region being ripped apart by greed, short-sightedness, arrogance, refusal to compromise, a growing addiction to violence, and the virtual absence of wise leadership, Turkey appears to see itself as the leader of a new moderate regional coalition. Can Washington maintain pace?

On October 30, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu held a joint press conference in Iraqi Kurdistan, saying:

It is time for Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis to rebuild the Middle East. Therefore, it is time for everyone to take brave steps.

This does not automatically mean equality for Turkish Kurds, of course, and yet, it seems an improvement over the Turkish military attacks of last winter and suggests a real openness in Turkey to questioning sensitive political taboos.

Turkey’s Kurdish Question. One small but perhaps “brave” step taken by Turkey was the release on October 20 of five PKK members who surrendered in the name of achieving a peaceful settlement but had been arrested. Whether or not Turkey will institute reforms to make its own Kurds feel more welcome as Turkish citizens remains to be seen. That 100,000 people would turn out in Turkish Kurdistan to welcome the PKK members home as heroes was a signal that Istanbul should tread lightly in Kurdish regions. It might start with a “brave” step to open a dialogue in response to the call for a “civilian constitution” by Mehmet Şerif Gençdağ, who spoke on behalf of the returnees. Co-chairman of the Democratic Society Party, or DTP, Ahmet Türk underscored the point by stating in a speech in Kurdish that “introducing freedom in Turkey will not lead to the country’s disintegration, an excuse currently being used by people to generate fear in society.” A hardline stance toward Turkey’s Kurdish minority by Istanbul would certainly give the lie to its protestations of wanting a policy of peace and cooperation throughout the region. If Istanbul is serious, it will have to take care to avoid letting those parties desiring continued regional tension exploit Kurdish sensitivities for that may be the most serious ticking bomb that could explode in Erdogan’s face.

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Too ambitious?

In a partial answer to those who may think Erdogan is overextending his country, Turkey is moving forward with plans to become the regional energy hub by cooperating with Kazakhstan and Russia.

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Turkey: Mideast Peacemaker?

At the same time as Turkey was negotiating the shoals of its Kurdish question, Prime Minister Erdogan was in Iran criticizing nuclear powers for imposing “arrogant sanctions” against Iran.

Turkey is positioning itself to be the agent of a possible historic regional realignment. If any genuine willingness can be found in the West to follow through on Obama’s conciliatory message of understanding that came in the early, optimistic months of his administration, then it could be Erdogan who will end up earning the Nobel Peace Prize by facilitating a Western-Islamic compromise.

Although Erdogan may yet face domestic opposition to his effort to move Turkey away from its traditional foreign policy subservience to Washington, Turkey has much to gain from flexibility. If it can succeed in moderating Tehran’s treatment of its people and reach agreement with Iran on a joint activist stance supporting Muslim democracy combined with resistance to Arab dictators, resistance to al Qua’ida terrorism, and resistance to Israeli expansion, it will transform regional affairs. Turkey and Iran together have the power to provide real regional leadership, should they be able to agree on the way forward, and moderate Islamic activism is a position that currently has a very large vacancy.

Erdogan spelled out part of what a Turkish-led moderate bloc would mean a few days before his late-October visit to Iran, telling al Jazeera:

We are not in favor of presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iran and in our region. But it is not fair and unjust to put pressure on Iran while someone else in the region has such weapons. The world must assume a fair attitude. In that case a totally different environment of confidence will emerge.

The vision of a single set of rules to govern regional nuclear rights would fundamentally shift interstate relations, where the region is currently dominated by Israel’s exclusive possession of nuclear weapons.

Going beyond nuclear rights, Erdogan laid out a general principle that could, if accepted in Washington, go far toward resolving its conflict with Iran:

Iran has a long-standing political tradition of its own. You cannot ignore Iran and any attempt to encourage negative approaches to Iran will damage efforts to ensure peace in the region.

A Turkish commentator reassured Washington (whose own invitation to Erdogan was postponed because of “a Turkish holiday,” thereby affording Erdogan time to consolidate ties with Iran and Iraq first) by soothing that the new warmth in Turkish-Iranian relations does “not signify a shift toward an Iran-oriented foreign policy.” Perhaps not, but it does signify a shift toward acceptance of Iran as a legitimate player combined with a hint that Iran might facilitate its acceptance by some unspecified shifts of its own. In noting politely that “Iran has always been a key actor in regional peace and stability because of what it has done and what it will not do,” [emphasis added] Erdogan seemed to be telling Washington to accept Iranian prominence and telling Iran to avoid destabilizing behavior. It is not yet clear whether either side will be willing to accept Erdogan’s advice. After all, it was Larijani who only two weeks ago reaffirmed Iran’s commitment to defending the rights of Muslims. Whether or not Tehran and Istanbul can come to agreement on how that should be accomplished remains to be seen.

Western Calculus.

But a Turkish-sponsored Western-Islamic compromise remains far in the future, for such a compromise would entail a highly uncharacteristic voluntary Western pullback from its current aggressively militant stance. The astonish shortsightedness of the West in refusing to participate in NATO war games in NATO partner Turkey without the presence of non-NATO Israel and the hostile reaction to the U.N. report on Israel’s war crimes in Gaza bode ill for Erdogan’s hopes to be a regional peacemaker.

Iranian Calculus.

And that’s not the sum of the obstacles in Erdogan’s path by far. His hopes of success also hinge on his ability to persuade Iran to play ball. As Gülnur Aybet put it:

Turkey’s primary purpose in this visit is not to act as a mediator between Iran and the West but to deliver an independent Turkish message to the Iranian authorities that Iran is not being convincing about the civilian intentions of its nuclear program to the international community. However, Turkey insists it will engage Iran on this issue as a country which empathizes with Iranian sensitivities.

But Erdogan has a good shot at persuading Iran to moderate its behavior. Iran can only gain by a conciliatory attitude toward Turkey. Israel’s hardline attitude makes triangular relations a zero-sum game, affording Iran a golden opportunity to enhance its regional position at Israel’s expense by pulling Turkey away from its close ties to Israel. Turkey also represents the route for Iran to break out of the West’s economic embargo and improve ties with Europe. Not content to wait for the future Nabucco pipeline, Turkey and Iran have, according to Iran’s PressTV, signed an agreement for Turkish aid in constructing an oil refinery that directly undermines Western economic sanctions and thus offers Tehran a powerful incentive to compromise with Turkey on other issues. Beyond this, for Iran to receive sympathetic attention from NATO member Turkey puts a serious crack in the anti-Iranian Western front that Tehran would be very foolish to spurn. Washington risks being overtaken by events.

Indeed, Tehran seems determined to maintain the diplomatic momentum. Majlis Speaker and prominent regime foreign policy spokesperson Ali Larijani stated enthusiastically:

The Islamic Republic of Iran perceives no limitation or restriction on the expansion and development of its brotherly relations with Turkey.

In addition, Ahmadinejad’s just-announced decision to participate in the November 5-9 meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conference in Istanbul suggests the two sides are determined to keep the diplomatic momentum going. Iran, still a regional outsider, hardly seems to have much choice if it still aspires to regional prominence. Even its one state ally, Syria, seems to be moving into the Turkish orbit with the creation of the Turkey-Syria High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council. Ahmadinejad will thus evidently see Erdogan again before Erdogan manages to find the time to visit Washington; Ahmadinejad would be well advised to take advantage of his luck and show up in Istanbul with a substantive package of security compromises for his host.

Potential Western Benefits.

If Iran has good reason to play ball with Turkey, the West also stands to gain. The economic benefit of having a second source of critically-needed natural gas for Europe to reduce its dependence on Russia is hardly trivial. In security terms, the West also stands to gain. Muslim, NATO-member Turkey is well positioned to persuade both sides to moderate their positions on the nuclear issue, persuading Iran to behave with real transparency in return for an unambiguous Western acceptance of an Iranian civilian nuclear industry. Aside from the nuclear issue, a West seeking resolution of the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts would surely benefit from any joint Turkish-Iranian steps to combat illegal narcotics and stabilize Afghan and Iraqi societies.

With Turkey having just doubled its commitment of troops in Afghanistan and taken over NATO command in Kabul, Turkey is in an increasingly strong position to persuade Washington to listen to its views. The same is true for Iraq, where Turkey is accelerating its efforts to provide economic support and just signed “more than 40 agreements ranging from fighting Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorism to energy cooperation and sharing water” even as it implements diplomatic initiatives toward the Kurds.

Can Washington Compromise?

Whether or not the West will come in sufficient time to appreciate the opportunity Turkey is offer, however, remains unclear. Will the West shoot itself in the foot to the extent of alienating Turkey in order to pander to the Israeli rightwing? Or, to put it differently, will Washington’s regional ambitions prevent it from accepting the idea of an independent and regionally powerful Iran?

If Washington is indeed determined to learn from the Dec. 2008 Gaza experiment the lesson that the right way to deal with the Muslim world is military suppression of those who refuse to subordinate themselves to Western preferences plus obdurate refusal to allow independent Muslim entities to participate as equals in the global political system, then that may indeed be the result.

Before the Israeli rightwing cheers too loudly, it might contemplate the implications of a Mideast in which Turkey and Iran are jointly leading an international movement in opposition to Israel and, simultaneously, managing a future Nabucco gas pipeline keeping West Europe warm. While Washington empire-builders may extrapolate from tiny Gaza that military force can repress larger Islamic societies, it seems clear that Erdogan has learned something very different—that the chaos resulting from Western/Israel military suppression of Muslim desires for independence is simply becoming too dangerous to continue tolerating. Maybe Greater Israel advocates in Israel and the Washington elite should rethink the lessons of their Gaza Laboratory.

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