All Writings
September 8, 2010

Can Turkey Defuse Iran’s Nuclear Challenge?

Now is the time for Turkey to play a meaningful role in curbing Iran's ambition to acquire nuclear weapons. As sanctions intensify – and before Israel or the United States seriously consider taking more coercive (including military) action against Iran's nuclear facilities – Turkey's unique position, influence over and experience with Iran could be utilized. But for Turkey to play such a role, it must display the moral equivalence and the kind of pragmatic leadership that can engender confidence in its meditation efforts in the region.

At this time in particular, Turkey could deliver a clear and strong message to Iran: there is indeed a way out of isolation, before it is too late. The pressure on Iran has increased significantly following the adoption of a fourth round of sanctions by the United Nations Security Council in June, as well as more stringent measures, which were subsequently adopted by the United States, the European Union, Canada, Japan and Australia. The banking and energy sectors – and Iran's revolutionary guard – have been particularly affected. As Tehran becomes increasingly cornered, it should be induced to seek avenues to break its international isolation. Since Iran has never claimed to be pursuing nuclear weapons, with Turkey's unique position of influence, it provides a logical channel through which Tehran could make a deal that would meet the demands of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the five permanent members of the United Nation Security Council (the US, China, Russia, France and Great Britain) plus Germany (P5+1) without losing face.

Turkey is uniquely suited to play this role. First, Turkey's success with Brazil in concluding a deal to swap Iran's nuclear fuel, although not addressing many of the key questions about Iran's nuclear program, demonstrates that Ankara can succeed in advancing diplomatic initiatives with Tehran. Second, as a Muslim majority state, Turkey is likely to be more trusted by Iran than others. In this regard, the current Islamic-oriented ruling party in Turkey – AKP – further augments Turkey's influence. Third, Turkey's position as a member of NATO enhances its credibility in communicating with both Iran and the West. Throughout the Cold War, Turkey's role in NATO was to serve as a counter-weight to Soviet influence in the region and as a strategic base of military resources. Today, Turkey could play a unique role within NATO to advance diplomatic initiatives such as re-engaging Iran, while representing the collective concerns and interests of NATO members. Finally, Turkey maintains good relations with both the United States and Iran. Despite Ankara's opposition to the United States-led effort to pass the latest round of sanctions against Iran in the United Nations Security Council, the strategic interests of Turkey and the United States for a stable, secure region remain aligned, warranting greater cooperation and collaboration between them.

Turkey cannot afford the threat of regional violence that an Iran armed with nuclear weapons would engender. Playing a leadership role to curb Iran's nuclear ambition would not only advance Turkey's foreign policy doctrine, championed by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, to seek "zero problems with neighbors," but would also safeguard its economic and security interests in the region. The increased sanctions against Iran have already affected Turkey's existing economic relationship with the Islamic Republic, with which Turkey's bilateral trade exceeds $10 billion per annum. Already, Turkey's refined oil exports to Iran have dropped significantly as a result of the international sanctions which Turkey cannot defy with impunity. But a violent conflict in Iran would lead to far worse consequences, such as considerable instability along Turkey's borders and increased threats to Turkey's significant economic interests throughout the region, including its ability to serve as an energy corridor from the Middle East and Central Asia to Europe.

In order for Turkey to play a leadership role in addressing the Iranian nuclear dilemma, it must learn from its past mistakes. The Turkish-Brazilian deal achieved with Ankara to swap Iranian nuclear fuel was successful, but insufficient. On the one hand, it suffered from Turkey's miscommunication with the United States, and on the other hand the fact that it did not meet the full criteria that the U.S. and the international community had sought. In particular, Iran has continued to evade unimpeded inspections by the IAEA and, despite the Iran-Turkey-Brazil arrangement, Tehran has yet to disclose all of its nuclear plant locations. In addition, instead of ending enrichment of uranium in accordance with UN resolution 1929, Iran has pledged to continue enriching uranium beyond 20 percent, bringing it closer to weapons grade. Moreover, as confirmed by a recent report of the IAEA, Iran still refuses to comply with the demands of international inspectors to disclose the design plans of its nuclear plans and continues with its increasingly aggressive program to enrich uranium, which is unacceptable to the international community. Any future efforts by Turkey must be predicated on Ankara gaining the trust of the United States and significantly strengthening its coordination and cooperation with the global community. In this regard, the recent comment by Glyn Davies, United States Ambassador to the IAEA, suggesting that Turkey, and potentially Brazil as well, could play a meaningful role in the negotiations with Iran going forward, is a positive sign that the United States recognizes the importance of involving Turkey.

However, for Turkey to ultimately succeed, it must learn to walk the moral high ground by setting a new tone to its regional leadership. The kind of heated rhetoric displayed by Prime Minister Erdogan in the wake of the flotilla incident, as well as following the United Nations Security Council resolution, harms Turkey's ability to reach its potential as an honest broker, not to speak of a regional and global leader. For example, Mr. Erdogan's comment during a breakfast meeting in Paris last April, that Israel was "the principle threat to peace" in the Middle East certainly did not serve to advance the cause of peace and security in the region. Turkey should avoid such rhetoric and instead gain moral authority by displaying political integrity and pragmatic leadership. It should start to do so by more publicly recognizing its own concerns regarding Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. As Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said this past spring, "We don't want Iran to have nuclear weapons and we don't want any military tension in our region." This is a message that should be increasingly communicated to Iran, the United States and Israel.

Turkey should also not dismiss Israel's genuine security concerns when it comes to Iran's nuclear ambitions. Even more, in the spirit of searching for a realistic solution, Turkey should delink the Iranian nuclear program from Israel's nuclear posture. Focusing on the question of Israel's nuclear capability will have the opposite effect of what Ankara would like to achieve. Israel will not relinquish its nuclear posture without a sustainable and comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreement in place that will include some of the leading Islamic states, especially Iran. Instead, Turkey should pro-actively call for both a stop to Iran's nuclear efforts and a comprehensive regional peace, which together would provide the foundation necessary for a Middle East free of nuclear weapons. By promoting regional peace and security in this way, Turkey could also begin to heal the current tensions with Israel, and provide Israelis with confidence in Turkey's diplomatic leadership vis-à-vis Iran. Finally, in coordinating its efforts with the United States and the international community, Turkey should be willing to convey to Iran the potential consequences of its continued defiance of the international community, including the likelihood of additional crippling sanctions by nations across the globe.

Of course, there are those who will instinctively oppose Turkey playing a mediating role at this stage. They maintain that Turkey cannot address such problems when it continues to have unresolved conflicts of its own, including those with the Kurds, Armenians and Cypriots. Furthermore, many argue that the recent tensions between Turkey and the United States, and Turkey and Israel, obviate its ability to play such a leadership role in the region at this particular juncture. But such arguments too easily dismiss Turkey's emerging leadership role in the region and the significance of its national interests which are shared with the United States and Israel.

Turkey has frustrated many in the West in recent months – and years – while claiming that it has been acting not only out of its self-interest, but the longer goal of regional stability and peace. But today, acting out of self or regional interest requires Turkey to cooperate with the United States and the international community and work to restore its close alliance with Israel. This is the only way for Turkey to enhance its credibility and be in a strong position to convey to Iran the ramifications of its pursuit of nuclear weapons, while providing an avenue for Tehran – should it relinquish its nuclear ambitions – to emerge from international isolation.

With sanctions affecting and hurting Tehran, now is the time to capitalize on the potential of Turkey's leadership. If successful, Turkey will have averted a potential regional conflagration, safeguarded its security and economic interests, and solidified its role as the leading bridge between East and West.