Turkish Role in Negotiations with Iran

Now the Turks must face their dilemma. It is all very good to want to negotiate as a neutral party, but the most important party isn’t at the table: Saudi Arabia. Turkey wants to play a dominant role in the Muslim world without risking too much in terms of military force. The problem for Turkey, therefore, is not so much bringing the United States and Iran closer but bringing the Saudis and Iranians closer, and that is a tremendous challenge not only because of religious issues but also because Iran wants to be what Saudi Arabia opposes most: the dominant power in the region. The Turkish problem is to reconcile the fundamental issue in the region, which is the relationship between Persians and Arabs.

The nuclear issue is easy simply because it is not time-sensitive right now. The future of Iraq is time-sensitive and uncertain. The United States wants to leave, and that creates an Iranian ally. A pro-Iranian Iraq, by merely existing, changes the reality of Saudi Arabia. If Turkey wants to play a constructive role, it must find a formula that satisfies three needs. The first is to facilitate the American withdrawal, since simply staying and taking casualties is not an option and will result in the conventional air war that few want. The second is to limit the degree of control Iran has in Iraq, guaranteeing Iranian interests in Iraq without allowing absolute control. The third is to persuade Saudi Arabia that the degree of control ceded to Iranians will not threaten Saudi interests.

If the United States leaves the region, the only way to provide these guarantees to all parties is for Turkish forces, covert and overt, to play an active role in Iraq counterbalancing Iranian influence. Turkey has been a rising power in the region, and it is now about to encounter the price of power. The Turks could choose simply to side with the Iranians or the Saudis, but neither strategy would enhance Turkish security in the long run.

The Turks do not want an air war in Iran. The do not want chaos in Iraq. They do not want to choose between Persians and Arabs. They do not want an Iranian regional hegemon. There are many things the Turks do not want. The question is: What they do want? And what risks are they prepared to take to get it? The prime risk they must take is in Iraq — to limit, not block, Iranian power and to provide a threat to Iran if it goes too far in the Arabian Peninsula. This can be done, but it is not how the Turks have behaved in the last century or so. Things have changed.

Having regional power is not a concept. It is a complex and unpleasant process of balancing contradictory interests in order to prevent greater threats to a country’s interests emerging in the long run. Having positioned itself as a host for negotiations between the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany on one hand and Iran on the other hand, Turkey has a basic decision to make: It can merely provide a table for the discussion, or it can shape and guarantee the outcome.

As the Americans have learned, no one will thank them for it, and no one will think better of them for doing it. The only reason for a deeper involvement as mediator in the P-5+1 talks is that stabilizing the region and maintaining the Persian-Arab balance of power is in Turkey’s national interest. But it will be a wrenching shift to Turkey’s internal political culture. It is also an inevitable shift. If not now, then later.

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