Ninety years after the Ottoman Empire gasped its final breath, Turkey is again rising to a position of dominance.
For the discontented masses in the Middle East and beyond, non-Arab yet Muslim Turkey has become a rallying point, thanks to its government’s strident defense of the Palestinians and, after decades of enforced secularism, its pious embrace of Islam as a foundation for Turkish society.
As a result, Turkey’s Islamist Prime Minister, Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, has assumed a status much coveted by Middle Eastern leaders past and present: admired at street level and respected as a critical player by external powers, especially the United States.
When Erdogan spoke with President Obama last week, the conversation centered on Turkey’s anxieties concerning Iraq, Syria, and Iran— all countries with which it shares a border.
In the case of Syria, where the regime of Hafez al Assad continues its bloody repression against opposition forces, rumors of outside military intervention are again circulating, centering on the idea of a no-fly zone over the country which Turkey, a NATO member, would play a critical role in maintaining.
Turkey has also become a central consideration in terms of the West’s response to Iran’s nuclear program. With one eye on public opinion, Turkish leaders like Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have scorned the notion that Iran’s nuclear ambitions represent a global threat, often adding that these concerns would be more appropriately directed at Israel’s nuclear arsenal.
At the same time, Turkey has offered to host talks with Iran’s leaders over the nuclear stand-off—thereby insinuating that Turkey has the ability to succeed where almost a decade of previous such efforts have failed.
Publicly, Iran has reacted to the Turkish offer with enthusiasm. Its parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani—a hardliner who once shocked an international security conference in Munich by making a speech in which he denied the Holocaust—breezily declared in Ankara, the Turkish capital, that “all issues can be easily solved through negotiations.”
The Obama Administration has shied away from criticizing Turkey, mainly because it sees Turkey as the primary counter to Iranian influence in the Middle East.
On one level, that assessment is correct; the conflicts in Iraq and Syria clearly demonstrate that Iran and Turkey are on opposite sides. And with Iran threatening to close the Straits of Hormuz, a transit route for one-fifth of the world’s oil supply, no one would dispute the necessity of having friends in the region, even fair-weather ones.
Yet none of that should lead us to conclude that Turkey is a solid, reliable ally, ready to assist with the overriding challenge in the Middle East today: neutralizing Iran’s nuclear program. So why does the Obama Administration behave as though it is?
Much of the answer lies in the Administration’s unwavering belief that there are “moderate” Islamists whom we must engage, indulge and respect. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rushes to deny American involvement in the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist, or when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta denounces U.S. Marines for urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban terrorists in Afghanistan, they do so in the hope of mollifying the anger of the so-called “moderates,” who are exemplified best by Erdogan’s government. If Turkey plays ball, the reasoning goes, similar political forces like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and even the Hamas terrorists ruling Gaza are more likely to follow suit, and choose dialogue over conflict.
The Administration also knows that Turkey, like the conservative Arab Gulf states, doesn’t want Iran to weaponize its nuclear program, since such an outcome would cement Iran’s position as the leading power in the region. Still, Turkey has cleverly ensured that this understanding works to its advantage. It can count on American sympathy for its aims in Iraq and Syria, and it can exert greater influence over Iran’s leaders than might otherwise be possible.
Of all the conceivable strategic pitfalls in the American-Turkish relationship, the most obvious one is the dilution of new sanctions on Iran. Turkey’s stance that it will only respect sanctions agreed on by the UN has spurred other countries, including India, China and Japan, to make similar statements.
If the sanctions fail, will the Obama Administration be prepared to entertain military action? Indeed, will it stand in the way of those countries, like Israel, who may be willing to pursue the military option? Ultimately, if Turkey sabotages the sanctions strategy, will the Obama Administration continue smiling in Ankara’s direction?
The Administration’s track record strongly suggests that it will. If so, the world will have been treated to another display of the strategy often derided as “leading from behind,” which has dogged the U.S. in its dealings with other Middle Eastern flashpoints. Only this time, the consequent benefits to Iran could be fatal.
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