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By Murat Onur Contributor April 26, 2010

The international community rarely agrees on what constitutes a ‘security concern’ or a ‘threat’ to peace. One rare instance of such agreement is about Iran’s confrontational rhetoric and non-cooperation regarding its nuclear activities.

After last year’s failed negotiations, the U.S.-led Western block is preparing to adopt tougher sanctions on Iran. However, not much has changed in Ankara’s stance regarding Iran. Turkey, the only neighboring country to Iran in the UN Security Council, is trying to avoid further escalation of the crisis and does not want any sanctions in the region.

In Tehran, finding a diplomatic solution seems unlikely. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was recently quoted saying “Iran’s nuclear path is irreversible” in a facility where he introduced an enhanced centrifuge for faster uranium enrichment. The United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), reported that without further assistance from the Iranian government, it will not be able to rule out the possibility of a nuclear weapons program. Tehran, on the other hand, eyes the IAEA with suspicion and questions its objectivity.

It is known that Tehran often exaggerates its military capabilities. The fact is that most of its defense spending is concentrated around offensive equipment. In early April, a top Iranian general showcased an indigenously developed unmanned aerial vehicle arguing it could strike targets with high precision. Tehran also spends considerable resources on developing advanced ballistic missiles, and over the last few years it has successfully tested several. The IAEA calls Iran’s missile development program a “matter of serious concern.” Iran also launched a rocket capable of carrying a satellite during the negotiations for an IAEA-brokered agreement to settle the dispute with the West.

Yet, it is not only the United States, Israel or France that are worried about Tehran’s intentions. A look at defense spending of Iran’s neighbors shows the level of concern in the region. Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates invest heavily on acquiring advanced fighter jets and air defense systems. Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan is also concerned about Israel’s nuclear weapons and Turkey is also planning to spend billions of dollars to purchase air defense systems and over 100 of the most expensive fighter aircrafts ever built.

Experts, on the other hand, point out that sanctions create limited or no change, and isolate the target country and its population. They often cause devastating effects in the economy, while making minor changes at the government level. Current UN, EU, and U.S. sanctions against Iran did not change how Tehran functions, and some argue they actually provoked its confrontational nuclear strategy. New sanctions would also increase distrust of the international community among Iranians; a great tool for Tehran to manipulate public opinion. Conditions brought by sanctions could also diminish what is left of the opposition to the Ahmadinejad government.

Ankara supports diplomacy and is willing to mediate between the West and Tehran. Turkey’s so-called strategic depth, a foreign policy concept emphasizing Turkey’s soft power deriving from its cultural and historical presence in the region, is the basis of Ankara’s approach to the problem. But, over-relying on Ankara’s influence in Tehran and using foreign affairs as campaign material at home does not serve the country’s interests.

Instead of being part of the discussion, Turkey wastes too much time and effort on issues that are not primary concerns. Ankara not only loses its objectivity, but also appears as an ineffective actor that does not have much to offer. Whether it is the inequality between the reactions given to Darfur and Gaza; or losing reliability by abruptly uninviting Israel from a planned air force exercise, the Turkish Justice and Development Party’s (AKP in Turkish) foreign policy damages the country’s credibility.

Yet, one must look beyond the strategic depth rhetoric to understand Ankara’s approach. Two issues shape how Turkey moves regarding Iran: economic interests and energy needs. Turkey has a growing economic relation with Iran – bilateral trade volume recently the $10 billion mark. And, after Russia, Iran is Turkey’s second largest natural gas supplier. In other words, Turkey’s pragmatic interests are directly related to new sanctions on Iran.

However, declaring that Turkey will not support any sanctions before even knowing the details, limits Ankara’s options. Instead of speaking in absolute terms, Ankara should both communicate with Tehran and actively participate in discussions over sanctions. Supporting limited sanctions that would protect Turkish interests might be an option.

The West believes Iran has manipulated international diplomatic efforts, and gained time to further its nuclear weapons program. Unless the dialogue is carried out on Iran’s terms, rather than through the IAEA or any other U.S.-led mechanism, a diplomatic solution seems unlikely. No matter how hard Ankara tries, Tehran will not be convinced to cooperate simply because it would mean giving up the progress it has made in its nuclear program. It is time for Turkish foreign policy-makers to see the bigger picture and work on limiting the effects of sanctions on Turkish interests instead of declaring solidarity with Tehran.

Murat Onur is a graduate student of Security Policy Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs, the George Washington University. The views expressed here are his own. He can be reached at mfo@gwu.edu.

The photo in this article is being used under licensing by creative commons. The original source can be found here: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c0/Mahmoud_Ahmadinejad_Columbia.jpg.