“Do No Harm”: How Can Turkey Help With the Iran Nuclear Standoff?


November 15, 2010

Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki’s proposal to have the next round of negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran in Istanbul received awkward reactions from the Turks. Some Turkish news sites misunderstood Mr. Mottaki’s suggestion as Iran’s sine qua non condition to restart the talks. Even Abdullah Gül, Turkey’s politically-savvy president, made it sound like Turkey would soon join the talks as a leading mediator, which simply wasn’t true.

Of course, even without sitting at the table, Turkey can help to resolve the standoff in several ways.

The prime directive for Turkish officials should be “do no harm” – and it should be upheld primarily by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Mr. Erdoğan, together with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, has successfully orchestrated Turkey’s rising prestige around the world in the past decade. But the Prime Minister has also frequently boxed himself with less-than-refined remarks. Last March, Mr. Erdoğan suggested that he reserved the right to deport illegal workers from the Republic of Armenia after American and Swedish legislators passed resolutions describing the forced deportation of Ottoman Armenians during World War I as genocide. Then, in a meeting with women’s rights organizations last summer, Mr. Erdoğan drew the ire of many women after he confessed that he “does not believe in gender equality.”

Unfortunately, Iran’s nuclear program has not been spared from the Turkish Prime Minister’s gaffes either. Last month, Mr. Erdoğan pointed out the discrepancy between pressuring Iran for its nuclear program while the Western world remains silent on Israel’s nuclear weapons.

Mr. Erdoğan’s comparison, though meaning well, didn’t help Iran at all. The Iranians have never juxtaposed their nuclear program with Israel’s nuclear weapons because, as they frequently point out, they do not want nukes.

(Of course, whether Iran’s declarations are completely genuine is another matter.)

Thus, in order to “do no harm,” Mr. Erdoğan should stop comparing Iran’s nuclear program with those of other countries. Playing the “but you also have nukes” card brings Iran and the Middle East closer to war; not away from it.

Next, the Turkish government should impress upon the United States and Israel to stop threatening Iran. Everybody is aware that Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons could drag the region into war. But bullying the Islamic Republic may actually convince the mullahs to develop nukes.

Finally, Ankara has to do some tough-talking with Washington and Tehran behind closed doors. To the United States, Turkey has to point out the following: Last summer’s episode, when the United Nations Security Council resolution voided the Turkish-Brazilian-Iranian treaty, frustrated progress with the negotiations, and made Ankara and Brasilia look like idiots, cannot be repeated. Washington and other parties should decide as to whether they want Turkey to get Iran to swap its enriched uranium for nuclear fuel or if they want Turkey off the table completely.

Finally, the Turks have to show to the Iranians that their intransigence could start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Although Turkey and Iran enjoy very friendly relations today, a future nuclear arms race – regardless of who started first – would draw many Turks’ ire. As I write these lines, even members of Mr. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party are floating the not-so-distant possibility that Turkey will develop its own nuclear weapons should Iran (or another Middle Eastern country) initiate a nuclear arms race.

That would do much harm to the entire world.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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