Friday, March 24, 2006

Turkey's Emerging Fear: Iranian Influence

Iason Athanasiadis, Daily Star:
It was one of those revealing slips of the tongue that laid bare the true state of geopolitical affairs in the Middle East as seen from Ankara. Speaking to his Czech counterpart, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul recently confessed that he feared the spread of Iranian influence from southern Iraq to his own country. READ MORE

Although Gul later denied having made this statement, his comment was a valuable insight into Turkey's true concerns over political developments on its southern flank. There, the Bush administration has subjected three countries to concerted political pressure in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks. After five years of such pressure, Iran and Syria are turning into increasingly isolated international pariahs. The same policy, when applied by Washington to Iraq, culminated in the country's invasion and the growing fragmentation of its society along sectarian lines. Both Iran and Syria include similar ethnic mosaics, so the prospect of persistent instability could prompt them to dangerously realign along racial, tribal or sectarian fronts.

Turkey's other big concern is that the Bush administration's clumsy redrawing of the regional geopolitical map has brought about a potentially unstoppable rise in Iranian influence. And while Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accepted his country's secularism, he also heads one of the more overtly Muslim governments in the history of the Turkish republic. Erdogan appears to sympathize with the concerns of the Arab world's Sunni regimes that a rise in Iranian influence would upset the Sunni status quo in the region and threaten Ankara's position.

At a March 3 briefing in Istanbul, Turkish diplomats warned a group of leading foreign-policy columnists that the escalation of conflict in Iraq could turn the country into a "new Lebanon." Recently, a group of retired generals and ambassadors diagnosed the development of "theocratic nationalism" in Iran and warned of the danger it posed to Turkey.

These are the motives refocusing Turkish policy on Iraq. Iraq was once a province of the Ottoman Empire, and Turkey still views it as a strategic backyard in which it often deploys its army and Special Forces units. In the aftermath of Washington's Iraq invasion, the Americans further alienated Ankara when they arrested 11 Turkish commandos inside Iraq. The incident inspired a blockbuster Turkish film that tapped into the wave of popular anti-Americanism sweeping through Turkish society.

But never since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire prompted a retreat from Middle Eastern politics, has Turkey deployed its foreign policy supremos across the region's thorniest conflicts. The incoming Turkish ambassador to Iran, Gurcan Turkoglu, is Gul's top foreign policy adviser. Ankara recently announced its willingness to act as an intermediary with Tehran for a resolution to the dispute over its nuclear program.

It also held controversial meetings with embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and senior Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, after the Islamist movement won the recent Palestinian elections. Ankara's re-engagement in the region is worrying Israel (whose only openly Muslim ally until now was Turkey), even as the Turks offer Washington an additional channel through which to promote its Middle East initiatives and exert pressure.

Turkish concerns - shared by the United States - are fuelling a growing rapprochement between the U.S. and Turkey. And in the event diplomacy fails, Turkey is one of Washington's more reliable allies in Iran's vicinity that can help force the latter's hand. A Turkish diplomat recently told me that Ankara had learned from its previous falling-out with Washington, and would think twice about opposing an American strike against Iran.

For the moment, the big policy issue facing Turkey is whether Iraq will descend into civil war. This would set into motion a perilous train of events as Iraq's Kurds increasingly drift toward a unilateral declaration of independence. Even more worrying for Ankara would be the unchecked spread of Iranian influence across oil-rich southern Iraq. While a Kurdish state might prompt renewed but ultimately containable Kurdish separatist spasms in southern Turkey, the transformation of Iraq's most economically viable part into an Iranian zone of influence would turn Iran into a powerful regional actor threatening both Turkey and Israel.

Such calculations are forcing Turkey to refocus its foreign policy emphasis in Iraq away from cultivating ethnic allies such as the small and politically weak Turkmen community and toward more realistic options such as dealing with Iraq's powerful Shiite bloc. Following the dictum that my enemy's enemy is my friend, Erdogan received Jaafari last month, angering the Kurdish leadership.

The Turkmen, realizing that Turkey's support is waning, have panicked. This was evident in an interview given by the chairman of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, Sadettin Ergec to the Turkish New Anatolian newspaper. "If Turkmens are killed in Iraq, there will probably be repercussions in Turkey," he said. "It's Ankara's natural right to intervene as it neighbors Iraq, another Muslim country, and especially because Turks and Turkmens have the same roots. Turkish intervention in Iraq to protect the Turkmens would be natural in such a case," he added, stressing that his community was one of the few in Iraq without a militia to protect them.

But ethnic symmetries may not be enough to entice Erdogan to throw the brunt of his diplomatic support behind the small group at a time when Jaafari reportedly dangled the promise of expelling the 5,000 members of the Kurdish Workers' Party from Iraq, if they continued to mount cross-border attacks against Turkey. Furthermore, there is a natural alliance between Jaafari and Ankara over the disputed city of Kirkuk, from where a considerable number of Shiites and Turkmens are likely to be displaced in the event of a Kurdish takeover.

The talkativeness of Turkey's diplomats has continued beyond Gul's comment regarding Iran. Not long ago, Turkey's special envoy to Iraq, Oguz Celikkol, was reported as promising Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani that his country would be ready to recognize any and all Iraqi federative areas following implementation of the Constitution. While Ankara later firmly denied it was effecting such a massive policy shift, its diplomats' chattiness is furnishing clearer insights into how Turkey views the Middle East.

Iason Athanasiadis is a specialist in Middle East politics who often visits Iran. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.