Why Turkey Pretends to be Outraged

Turkey chastises Israel but is really looking at Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey addresses the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, May 28, 2010
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey addresses the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, May 28, 2010 (UNAOC)

Immediately after the Israeli Navy intercepted six vessels attempting to circumvent its blockade of the Gaza Strip on Monday and killed at least nine on board in the onslaught that ensued, Turkey responded with outrage. The country withdrew its ambassador from Israel and pushed the United Nations Security Council to condemn the raid.

The fierce Turkish response stood in stark contrast to its appeasing foreign policy of recent years. The country has tried to position itself as something of a Middle Eastern power broker and with success: together with Brazil it managed to negotiate a nuclear fuel exchange agreement with Iran in late May. Turkish relations with all nearby states have been fairly stable so why this newfound bellicosity toward Israel?

Thomas Barnett may have the answer. Writing for Esquire, he notes that besides the largely self serving concern for the Palestinian people, which it shares with nearly all Arab nations in the region, Turkey, above all, is deeply concerned about Iran’s nuclear program — not just because it doesn’t like the idea of an Iranian Bomb. A nuclear Iran would elevate that regime to great power status; something Turkey has been pursuing as well.

Barnett is by no means convinced that this week’s events will lead to more than saber rattling. “Israel’s three-year-old blockade of the Gaza Strip was already preapproved for official UN censure,” he notes, “thanks to last September’s Goldstone Report.”

The next logical step for Israel’s critics was to place it on the international front burner, dislodging the UN Security Council’s regional fixation on Tehran’s nuclear enrichment program. An aid flotilla loaded with one ringer (i.e., the sixth and largest ship populated with committed activists spoiling for a violent — and videotaped — showdown) was a brilliantly timed move of passive-aggression on Turkey’s part. But no fight equals no media coverage, so the flotilla ignored Tel Aviv’s demands that the relief supplies be off-loaded in an Israeli port for inspection and subsequent shipment to Gaza. And while the first five ships submitted peacefully to the boarding inspection parties, the sixth exploded in violent resistance — as planned.

Only for Turkey to react with proper shock, of course. Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç described Israel’s actions as “piracy” and “a dark stain on the history of humanity.” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu compared the attack to 9/11. According to Barnett, the rhetoric is no more than that. What matters is that now, “Ankara has its bloody shirt, which will be used — once Tehran inevitably announces the weaponization of its nukes — to justify Turkey’s rapid reach for the same.”

Last year, The Wall Street Journal already warned that a nuclear arms race may be ahead in the Near East. The paper also noted at the time that Iran’s appeal to “Muslim superpower” status was cause for consternation with Egypt, Saudi Arabia — and Turkey. “In that context, Tehran’s development of long-range missiles and the Muslim world’s first space satellite are considered political coups.”

Turkey’s nuclear desires are part military, part political. And suddenly, “if perhaps on purpose,” writes Barnett, “Turkey can claim that — despite its efforts to broker a non-nuclear peace in the region — it needs its own deterrent against Israel’s nuclear arsenal, too.”