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How Turkey is turning into the next Iran

Despite Ankara facing away from the West, the United States and Europe must come up with a way to address Turkish concerns, as well as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan desire of becoming a regional superpower without posing a threat to the Middle East allies.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Benjamin Weil
Benjamin Weil

While Iran has virtually no close ties with the West and certainly does not speak with the White House, Turkey is a NATO member, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan speaks from time to time with U.S. President Donald Trump. Other than that, the resemblance between Turkey in past few months and Iran is strikingly odd. Is Iran serving as Turkey’s role model, or does it just so happen that it has taken similar courses of action?

Looking at the years prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the United States has helped Iran develop government institutions and Westernize the country culture. One such move was the White Revolution, an aggressive campaign of social and economic Westernization that included redistribution of land, increased rights for women, and attempts to improve literacy and health in rural areas. Following the revolution and the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran has become more hostile towards the West and turned its back to the liberal reforms.

In Turkey’s case, while it remains a member of NATO, Erdoğan has abandoned Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s vision of a secular country to become more religious. Will his next move be disengagement from the West? Only time will tell, though the recent acquisition of the S-400 missile system from Russia suggests that Turkey is heading in that direction.

Much like Iran, Turkey sees itself as regional power. Both countries have a rich history of regional dominance; Iran trying to recreate the Persian Empire from centuries ago, and Turkey looking back at the Ottoman Empire form decades ago. Iran has spread its tentacle across the region by creating proxies and militias in Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Turkey has supported Hamas in Gaza, has created proxies in Syria and sent fighters to Libya.

As Iran and Turkey grow their influence in the region, so, too, does their opposition grow. There have already been clashes between Iran and their rival: Saudi Arabia. According to some reports, Iran was behind the drone attack on Saudi Aramco’s facilities in September 2019. At the same time, Turkey has also launched an aggressive campaign in the Mediterranean Sea. It has signed a maritime border deal with Libya in November 2019 to demarcate their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and disregard Greek and Egyptian maritime borders.

According to the deal, unrecognized by any other country, a portion of Egypt’s EEZ has been recognized by Turkey as Libyan. Turkey has also been trying to hinder any energy activity or project development in the sea. So far Egypt—Turkey’s regional rival—has yet to react, but this route that Ankara is headed down may lead to some sort of escalation between the two countries.

A map of Exclusive Economic Zones in the eastern Mediterranean, including Turkey’s claims.

The maritime agreement between Turkey and Libya has granted Turkey the power over a popular shipping route, similar to the Straits of Hormuz that is partially controlled by Iran. Much of the maritime trade route between the Far East and the Gulf to Western Europe and North America goes though the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea. While the Canal is controlled by Egypt, the Turkish-Libyan deal will allow Turkey to block any ship in the Eastern Mediterranean, should it wish to.

At the moment, Turkey has already sent a number of warships to Libyan waters and has a record of activating its military navy to “escort” civilian ships out of areas in the Mediterranean. The Turkish blockade of the Italian drillship in Cyprus in 2017 and the deporting of the Israeli research ship out of Cypriot water in 2019 have gone with no reaction. It is not out unrealistic to imagine Turkey following Iranian footsteps in the Straits of Hormuz and block the Mediterranean Sea should a country decide to act against it.

And there is the relationship with Europe. In regards to the JCPOA, Iran has been trying to eat the cake and keep it. On one hand, it signs a deal with the countries and doesn’t adhere to it; on the other hand, Iran continuously threatens Europe that it will leave the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) if it doesn’t get its way.

Similarly, Turkey has an open request to join the European Union, albeit the negotiations are stalled, at the same time that Turkey threatens Europe to flood the continent with refugees. In essence, Iran and Turkey are trying to hold the European Union hostage. In the Iranian case it has driven a wedge between Europe and the United States; in the Turkish case, there is still hope for U.S.-E.U. cooperation. It’s not too late to form a coalition of countries to work with Turkey and steer them off the path of becoming “Iran 2.0.” Despite Ankara facing away from the West, the United States and Europe must come up with a way to address Turkish concerns, as well as Erdoğan’s desire of becoming a regional superpower without posing a threat to Mideast allies.

This all leads to one conclusion: This Turkey problem must be addressed right away. The longer the United States continues to ignore this problem, the bigger it will get in the future. We must draft a clear policy that clearly outlines the U.S.-Turkey relationship. America must make it clear to the Turks that if they would like to be a Western-style country and a part of NATO, then they must act like one.

Contrary to popular opinion, there is a way that Turkey can be voted out of NATO. Erdoğan has been hiding behind his NATO membership as he has gotten closer and closer to Russia by purchasing the S-400 missile system. It’s time we understand who our friends are, who our enemies are, and not allow potential enemies to hide in the sheep’s clothing of NATO membership.

Benjamin Weil is director of the Project for Israel’s National Security for the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a pro-Israel and pro-American think tank and policy institute in Washington, D.C. He formerly served as the international adviser to Yuval Steinitz, a member of Israel’s Security Cabinet.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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