Well-meaning and with lofty goals, Turkey's "zero problems with neighbors" foreign policy came crashing down once the advent of the Arab uprisings exposed some of the policy's internal contradictions and shortcomings.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with striving to have no problems with neighboring countries, but Ankara's overly optimistic approach -- which, among other things, failed to see how its own ambitions for regional leadership would set off alarm bells in the capitals of other countries with similar aspirations -- was not able to withstand the tensions and dynamics unleashed by the new crises in the Middle East, especially in Syria.
But it's fairly clear now that Ankara is working on rebooting its regional foreign policy, with its strained relations with Iraq being used as a test case of what a new version of the "zero problems" policy might look like.
Ties between the two countries hit rock bottom in April of last year, when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, upset about Ankara's support for his political rivals, labeled Turkey an “enemy state” bent on interfering in his country's internal affairs. In response, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his Iraqi counterpart – leader of a Shiite party – was fanning the flames of sectarianism in Iraq. The exchange of words led to ambassadors being summoned in both capitals.
In recent weeks, though, Turkey and Iraq have had reciprocal visits by their foreign ministers, and visits by their prime ministers are in the works. Writing in Today's Zaman, analyst Yavuz Baydar provides the background to all the action taking place on the Turkey-Iraq front:
Back in February, I wrote an analysis piece for Eurasianet that looked how their differing position regarding the crisis in Syria and political and economic competition in Iraq were helping cool down what had been warming relations between Turkey and Iran. The tension and rivalry between these two regional powerhouses would only sharpen in the coming months, analysts told me at the time, an assessment that is being reinforced by recent events.
For the last week, the Turkish press has carried several front page stories about an alleged Iranian intelligence ring that was captured after collecting information in eastern Turkey's Igdir region. From the Hurriyet Daily News's report about the arrests:
The operation was started in Iğdır after it was revealed that photos of the Iğdır Provincial Gendarmerie Command building were taken by people using a minibus with the license plate “04-D-3759.” Police stopped the vehicle on the outskirts of the city and detained two suspects of Iranian origin. The suspects, Shahram Zargham Kohei and Mohammed Reza Esmaeilpour Ali Malek were determined to have taken photos of strategically important security zones in the region.
During questioning, the suspects revealed that they had demanded information in return for money from a number of important figures from state institutions in Van’s Çaldıran district. It has also been revealed that information was collected about Turkey’s military institutions in Iğdır, the local governor’s office, and a number of firms, daily Radikal has reported.
Ankara has released the latest figures for Turkish-Iranian trade and they have yielded one very interesting statistic: in the last five months, three quarters of Turkey's gold exports have gone next door to Iran. Reports Today's Zaman:
Data from the Turkish Statistics Institute (TurkStat) have shown that Turkey exported gold worth $4.02 billion in the first five months of 2012, with $3.08 billion of that sum exported to Iran. This means Turkey’s gold exports to Iran have increased roughly eightfold compared to the same period in 2011. It is speculated Iranians are turning to gold as a method of saving as Western sanctions tighten.
The mass purchase of Turkey’s gold is being undertaken by rich Iranian families living in Turkey. These families largely do business in the fields of construction and iron and steel production. There are rumors that they purchase Turkish gold via third persons in order not to be noticed, and that they entrust the purchased gold to the Central Bank of the Islamic Republic of Iran (CBI), again via third persons. The CBI supports the purchases in order to gain strength in the face of increasing sanctions from European countries.
Rich Iranians may be turning to Turkish gold as a kind of safe haven, but the Financial Times' "Beyondbrics" blog suggests something else is going on. From the FT:
So what’s going on?
In a nutshell – sanctions and oil.
In recent months, western powers, notably the US and the European Union, have tightened financial sanctions on the Islamic regime in an attempt to force Iran to scale back or halt its efforts to enrich uranium.
In March, Iran was cut off from from Swift, the global payments network, effectively blocking the country from performing any international financial transactions.
After being grounded for several months following an unspecified digestive tract illness and subsequent surgery, the normally on-the-go Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was back in action this week, with a trip that took him first to South Korea and then Iran. In both cases, the question of nuclear power -- that of Turkey and of others -- was high on the agenda.
While other issues, namely Syria, are on Erdogan's plate during his visit today to Tehran, the question of Iran's controversial nuclear program will clearly dominate his talks with the Iranians (among others, the Turkish PM is meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani). In the past, Erdogan had been accused of being too quick to defend the Iranians and the intentions of their nuclear activity, but there was some indication that time around he was coming to Tehran with a sterner message. Initial reports out of Iran, though, found Erdogan voicing support for a "peaceful" Iranian nuclear program. “No one has the right to impose anything on anyone with regards to nuclear energy, provided that it is for peaceful purposes,” Erdogan said during a press conference with Iranian First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi.
As a complement to my Eurasianet article today about the growing regional rivalry between Turkey and Iran, you might also want to take a look at an International Crisis Group report released today about the politics surrounding Iran's nuclear program and what role Turkey might be able to play in brining about a resolution to the standoff between Tehran and the west over this issue.
The report suggests that sanctions alone might push Iran further into a corner and that diplomatic engagement -- the kind Ankara has been promoting -- should still be given a try. The report also says that Turkey, with its historic connection to Iran and its familiarity with working with the Iranians, could be an ideal country to help engage Tehran on the nuclear issue. From the report:
Placing one’s eggs almost exclusively in the sanctions basket is risky business. There is a good chance they will not persuade Iran to slow its nuclear efforts, and so – in the absence of a serious diplomatic option including a more far-reaching proposal – the U.S. might well corner itself into waging a war with high costs (such as possible Iranian retaliatory moves in Iraq, Afghanistan and, through proxies, against Israel) for uncertain gains (a delay in Iran’s nuclear progress countered by the likely expulsion of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, intensified determination to acquire a bomb and accelerated efforts to do so).
Iran and Turkey’s competing requests for visa-free access to Azerbaijan increasingly smack of a scene from a romance novel, where a beauty in period dress faces a choice between two debonaire wooers.
Enchanted by Azerbaijan's various strategic charms, both suitors have cancelled short-term visas for Azerbaijani visitors, but Azerbaijan is taking its time to reciprocate, trying to mete out its graces sparingly and equitably to the two fellow Muslim countries.
Baku, though, is increasingly pressured by both sides to make a decision between its attraction for longtime ally and cultural soul mate Turkey and its complicated relationship with Iran.
Azerbaijan even had to offer explanations today after the Turkish daily Today’s Zaman, citing senior Azerbaijani presidential aide Ali Hasanov, reported that pressure from Iran is preventing Baku from proceeding with a visa-cancellation deal with Ankara.
The story claimed that Iran threatened to block Azerbaijan’s access to its exclave of Nakhchivan should Baku cancel its visa requirement for Turkey.
Hasanov, though, protested that “I only meant to say that canceling the visa regime with Turkey can only happen in sync with canceling the visa regime with Iran,” 1news.az reported.
“At this stage, the simultaneous cancellation of visa regimes with either country brings us to issues related to national security, immigration and other issues that we are not ready to deal with right now,” he elaborated.
Sound familiar? Quite plainly, Baku is just not ready to commit.
In a sign that Baku is still busy haggling over Nabucco, Azerbaijan’s state energy behemoth on Wednesday announced that the gas transit project is not the only fish in Azerbaijan's gas-rich Caspian Sea waters. This comes just on the eve of the June 6 signing of a memorandum on the pipeline project by energy companies from Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Germany and Austria.
In its Nabucco comments, Azerbaijan has switched regularly from the laudatory to the indifferent, an apparent reflection of the turns in its epic bargaining with project promoters and participants. It remains to be seen if this latest change in mood will somehow give Baku greater leverage.
Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Taner Yildiz earlier this week underlined that the pipeline participants have a Plan B if Azerbaijan gets cold feet -- namely, Turkmenstan, Iraq and Iran.
According to a Turkish wire service report, the crew of an Iranian cargo airplane has been arrested after weapons were found hidden on the plane, which had been forced to land in Turkey while transiting the country on its way to Syria. The airplane was the second Iranian cargo aircraft flying over Turkish airspace to be forced down for an inspection in recent days.
The arrest of the crew of the Iranian plane comes only week after Israeli commandos seized a weapons-laden ship that was traveling from a Syrian port to Alexandria, Egypt, and which had also made a stop at the Turkish harbor of Mersin. According to Israeli officials, the weapons originated in Iran and were ultimately headed for Gaza.
[UPDATE -- AFP has more on the story. A statement released by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, said the airplane was stopped under the scope of UN sanctions against Iran and only that "banned items" were found during a search.]
[UPDATE II -- Reuters has details from a report Turkey filed on the incident to the UN.]
Reuters has a new report out that looks at Iranian financial activity inside Turkey and western concerns that the country, which has booming trade relations with Tehran, could become a safe haven for Iranians seeking to avoid the nuclear sanctions placed on their country. From the article:
Turkey and other U.S. allies have been allowing Iranian
banks with suspected links to Tehran's nuclear program to do business within
their borders, frustrating Western countries trying to put a financial squeeze
on the Islamic Republic, Reuters has learned.
An examination of classified reports and interviews with
Western diplomats, government and intelligence officials underscore that Turkey
and others have resisted international pressure to make it harder for Iran to
finance its uranium enrichment program.
"Turkey's blossoming financial-economic relationship
with Iran provides Iran with a gateway to the entire European financial
system," according to an intelligence report on Turkey and Iran provided
to Reuters by a diplomat. "The fact that Turkey is allowing itself to be
used as a conduit for Iranian activity via Turkish banks and the Turkish lira
is making it possible for Iranian funds in Turkish guise to make their way into
Since last year's controversial elections in Iran, a large number of Iranian refugees -- many of them political activists -- have made their way across the border to Turkey. Although their lives are no longer in danger, these refugees are now finding themselves forced to deal with different hardships in Turkey. As The Times' Martin Fletcher reports:
Since the election in June last year more than 2300 Iranians have applied to the UN High Commission for Refugees for asylum in Turkey. Some are homosexuals or members of persecuted faiths but most are political and human rights activists, journalists, students, artists and ordinary Iranians goaded into action by the regime's denial of democracy.
The majority are young and single, some of the brightest and bravest of their generation, forced to flee secretly to avoid arrest at airports or border posts.
Turkey, which has diplomatic and economic relations with Iran, tolerates but hardly welcomes these dissidents. It denies them permanent refugee status and disperses them to 32 small cities around the country for the three years that it can take the UNHCR's overstretched officials to assess their asylum claims and find countries that will accept them.
The exiles, delivered from the terror of Iran, find themselves caught in another kind of prison - unable to speak Turkish, forbidden from leaving their assigned cities, in effect barred from working or engaging in political activity, and with no means of support beyond the little money they brought with them.
They must pay a $US200 resident fee that few can afford and report to the police twice weekly. They live in the worst housing, sometimes sleeping several to a room. A few work illegally but earn less than $US10 a day.