Mr Zero Problems’ Predicament

The Turkish foreign minister has to carefully balance relations with old friends against new ones or risk losing both.

That Turkey should host the latest attempt at negotiation with Iran last month was no accident. Ankara has, in recent months, demonstrated its willingness to act as middleman between the suspected nuclear proliferator and the West many times. It fits the “zero problems toward neighbors” strategy of the country’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu. He may well be remembered in fact as the architect of Turkey’s rise to regional preeminence.

Turkey is creating a new place for itself in the Middle East. For the better part of the twentieth century, the aggressively secular republic was tuned westward, joining NATO and dreaming of one day becoming part of the European Union. Those hopes haven’t been shattered but Turkey realizes that it won’t be welcomed in any time soon.

Even as the country is continuing reforms along the lines of what Brussels demands, it has noticed a power vacuum in its own backyard. With the sudden removal of Saddam Hussein from power and the political clout of Egypt likely to remain bruised for months if not years in the wake of recent unrest, there is ample room for even a non-Arab power to reclaim its heritage and reestablish itself firmly in the Middle East.

If there is something neo-Ottoman about Turkey’s aspirations, it does not seem to bother Jordan, Lebanon nor Syria, with whom it is planning to build a free-trade zone.

Turkey has already enacted free-trade agreements with Egypt, Israel, Morocco and Tunisia. It hopes to achieve similar arrangements with the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia.

Most of these countries are only too happy to connect with Turkey’s burgeoning economy which has grown impressively in recent years while the West experienced recession. Turkish exports to the Middle East and North Africa have swollen nearly sevenfold to $31 billion in 2008. The country is investing in many neighboring states, including Iraq, where it has has played a crucial role in mending disputes between the country’s warring sectarian factions. Its significance as a conduit for energy to Europe is set to increase as the future Nabucco pipeline will carry natural gas from Azerbaijan to the West.

Turkey’s “soft power” success is expressed in less tangible exports: the export of culture and ideas. Millions of Middle Easterners, including including one and a half million Iranians, come to gape at the Turkish miracle every year.

It seems Turkey is now one of few countries the Iranians believe they can trust. Ahmet Davutoğlu explained why to an American assistant secretary of state in November 2009. “Only Turkey,” he said, according to a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks last year, “can speak bluntly and critically to the Iranians.” He was confident that Tehran was prepared to strike a deal.

In conjunction with Brazil, Turkey negotiated a nuclear fuel exchange agreement with Iran in May of last year. The deal was rejected by Western powers who feared that the Iranians were disingenuous and merely buying for time. The United States, moreover, had just persuaded China and Russia to back United Nations Security Council action against Iran. Brazil and Turkey opposed the sanctions.

It is not that Turkey doesn’t mind a nuclear Iran. In the wake of Israel’s violent interception of a flotilla of blockade runners last summer, Thomas Barnett suggested that Turkey’s condemnation of the strike was actually inspired by its nuclear anxiety.

If it is to continue to be regarded as a credible power broker by Iran, Turkey can’t afford to be seen as siding unconditionally with Israel and the West as it previously has. Now, “Ankara has its bloody shirt,” according to Barnett, “which will be used — once Tehran inevitably announces the weaponization of its nukes — to justify Turkey’s rapid reach for the same.”

Or, as Davutoğlu told the American assistant secretary in 2009, “Turkey’s foreign policy is giving ‘a sense of justice’ and ‘a sense of vision’ to the region.”

Speaking with The New York Times, the foreign minister said there was no need to “take sides” anymore as during the Cold War. “We are not turning our face to East or West,” he explained. But it is almost impossible to have zero problems with neighbors if you live in Turkey’s neighborhood.

After it voted against UN sanctions, the United States threatened to withhold an arms sale to Turkey because, as President Barack Obama is supposed to have told the Turks at the G20 summit in Toronto, Canada last year, they had failed to act as an ally. As Turkey — and Brazil — saw it though, it was voting for continued diplomacy, not for Iran or against the United States.

Davutoğlu has now to prove himself as the architect of “zero problems” he professed to be. If Turkey is to become, or remain, a Middle Eastern power, it has to carefully balance its old alliances against new ones. If it overplays its hand in the region, it risks losing confidence in the West. Without that trust, countries as Iran have no reason to accept it as an intermediary in the future.

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