Thursday marks the two-year anniversary of the 2010 flotilla incident, a crisis on the high seas that triggered a tailspin in Turkish-Israeli relations.
In the aftermath of the incident, Turkey recalled its ambassador and demanded an apology from Israel as well as reparations for the nine slain activists. Ankara even announced that its warships would escort future missions to Gaza.
Attempts to mend fences have stalled over the issue of an Israeli apology. With Turkey willing to accept nothing less than a full apology, and Israel for the moment unwilling to accommodate this demand, the two sides seem to be at an impasse.
Yet below the surface, not all is grim in Turkish-Israeli relations. Remarkably, economic ties have been flourishing between the two countries.
Turkish-Israeli economic ties took off in the late-1990s as part of a growing strategic convergence. Deepening trade was underpinned by a series of bilateral agreements opening Turkish and Israeli markets to each other. Notable agreements included a free trade agreement (1996), a double-taxation prevention treaty (1997), and a bilateral investment treaty (1998). These agreements ushered in an era of improving political and economic ties. Trade jumped from $449 million in 1996 to more than $2.1 billion in 2002. This remarkable acceleration continued with bilateral trade increasing 14.6% per year, on average, from 2002 to 2008.
Surprisingly, the diplomatic crisis has not translated into an economic crisis. Take for instance, a boycott announced by several Israeli grocery chains in the wake of the flotilla incident. Despite the assertions on the part of these retailers, Turkish export of vegetable products has remained steady since 2007, and exports of prepared foodstuffs, beverages and tobacco doubled between 2007 and 2011. From 2010 to 2011, trade increased by 30.7%, far surpassing the growth that occurred during the heyday of Turkish-Israeli ties.
Still, defense ties have been hard-hit. Following the flotilla incident, Turkey froze at least a dozen defense projects with Israel, including a $5 billion deal for tanks and an $800 million sale for patrol aircraft and an early-warning radar plane.
Despite these bruises, economic ties seem destined to deepen even further in the long term.
For starters, all the aforementioned trade and investment treaties remain solidly in effect. Secondly, neither side seems eager to disrupt the trend of booming bilateral trade. In the aftermath of the flotilla incident, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his intention to cut all relations with Israel, including trade. But Ankara rapidly corrected the statement, adding that commercial ties would not be downgraded. Similarly, when an Israeli investment house announced its plans to divest in Turkey, the head of the Israeli Chamber of Commerce urged firms to refrain from any actions that might hurt Turkish-Israeli business ties.
The mutual reluctance to rupture trade ties is understandable, especially in light of the global economic climate. After all, both countries owe much of their growth in recent years to buoyant exports, a large portion of which were sold in European markets. This means that both countries are vulnerable to a sluggish European recovery. Greater bilateral trade could pick up some of the slack, especially on the Israeli side, where Turkey constituted Israel’s sixth-largest export market in 2011 and could climb the ranks as Israel’s traditional markets remain anemic.
Israel is important for Turkey as well. In terms of volume, the Israeli market is small, but it presents significant opportunities for Turkish producers to move up the value chain. In March, the Turkish Industry and Business Association identified Israel as a priority investment partner, underlining the advantages of coupling Turkey’s land and labor with Israel’s innovation economy. A telling example of this potential can be found in Bursa, where Turkish manufacturers are assembling electric cars as part of a venture with the Israeli company Better Place. Thanks to this venture, Turkey is now producing its first electric car with technology that would not have been easy for the Turks to develop on their own.
There is also a political angle that could bode well for bilateral ties. Faced with an increasingly volatile Middle East, some Israelis are concluding that they are better off rebuilding ties with Turkey, even if this does not mean going back to the honeymoon years of the 1990s. Meanwhile, Turkey faces a popular uprising in Syria that holds the potential of spilling over its borders. Along with downward-spiraling ties with Iraq, not to mention regional competition against Iran, this suggests that Israel is perhaps not the biggest fish to fry.
Turkey and Israel seem to have potential for a fresh start. Even if the pair continues to diverge on certain core political issues, both seem to secretly prepare for the day they can make up again. As always, the flag follows the money.
A construction worker was killed and three people were wounded when Kurdish militants attacked a military outpost in southeastern Turkey near the Iraqi border, security sources said on Saturday.
Fevzi Altunc was killed late on Friday when gunmen from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) opened fire on the outpost in a remote area in Hakkari province, the sources said. The three wounded workers were being treated in hospital on Saturday, they said. They had been building the station in the wooded, mountainous area near the village of Yesilova. Security forces have launched an operation in the area, said Firat News, a website close to the PKK. The website said Altunc was killed and the others were wounded during a firefight between the PKK and Turkish soldiers.
Separately, PKK rebels kidnapped a village leader and five other members of a state-backed militia after stopping their vehicles at a road block in Bitlis province late on Friday, the sources said.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal about a Turkish military attack last December that left 34 Kurdish smugglers dead has led to intense debate inside Turkey and has given rise to new questions about the level of American involvement in Ankara’s fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The attack, which took place near a village called Uludere on the Turkey-Iraq border, came after the Turkish military came to believe that a convoy of PKK fighters was trying to enter Turkey through a mountain trail. After Turkish warplanes struck the convoy, based on intelligence provided by an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), it turned out that it was actually made up of villagers — mostly teenagers — smuggling fuel into Turkey. Although the Turkish government promised to investigate the incident and has also paid the victims’ families compensation, there has still been no explanation as to what caused the intelligence failure that led to 34 innocent people being killed.
The WSJ article from two days ago adds a new and dramatic wrinkle to the story: the original intelligence about the convoy was given to the Turkish military by an American UAV. Reportsthe Journal:
It was a U.S. Predator drone that spotted the men and pack animals, officials said, and American officers alerted Turkey.
The U.S. drone flew away after reporting the caravan’s movements, leaving the Turkish military to decide whether to attack, according to an internal assessment by the U.S. Defense Department, described to The Wall Street Journal. “The Turks made the call,” a senior U.S. defense official said. “It wasn’t an American decision.”
There is nothing unusual about an American UAV providing Ankara with intelligence. US drones have supporting Turkish military efforts since 2007, when Washington set up what is known as the Combined Intelligence Fusion Cell, a complex in Ankara where American and Turkish officers sit together and jointly monitor live drone video feeds. But that cooperation has been increased over the last year. As previously reported on this blog, last November the US moved a squadron of Predators from a base in Iraq to Turkey’s Incirlik airbase as part of an effort to deepen military ties with Ankara and to increase cooperation in the fight against the PKK.
As the WSJ article makes clear, though, there are some in Washington — in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill — who are concerned about how the intelligence provided by American drones might be used by Ankara:
A former senior U.S. military official, involved in sharing intelligence with Turkey before the December attack, said he and fellow officers were sometimes troubled by Turkish standards for selecting targets. The former official said Turkish officers sometimes picked targets based on a notion of “guilt by association” with the PKK. A current U.S. intelligence official defended the partnership. “That is going to be the exception. It is a horrible exception. It’s a tragic exception,” he said of the caravan strike. “But the vast majority of efforts to expand our information sharing and to work with our partners and allies around the world are going to have positive outcomes.”
U.S. personnel work in the Ankara Fusion Cell, in part, to monitor Turkey’s use of U.S. intelligence, U.S. officials said.
Turkish officials have assured the U.S. of their measures to avoid civilian casualties. They say privately that Predator drones help reduce attacks on the PKK using less precise weapons, such as artillery.
But U.S. officials say such mistakes are feeding a debate within the intelligence community and the Defense Department about setting better guidelines for sharing of U.S. intelligence.
Intelligence officials are divided on the issue. Some say the U.S. should withhold intelligence if it believes an ally might abuse the information. Others warn new rules could slow intelligence sharing during emergencies.
The report, meanwhile, has put the Turkish government in a tight spot. The suggestion that Turkish authorities gave a green light to attack the convoy after refusing an American offer to provide more Predator surveillance could make Ankara vulnerable to charges of negligence and could further inflame an already tense situation in Turkey’s predominantly-Kurdish southeast region. At the same time, regardless of how the intelligence was used, Ankara likely doesn’t want to be perceived domestically as working too closely with Washington or, worse, being somehow under American command. Not surprisingly, both the Turkish military and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have denied the claims made in the WSJ’s story. The allegations in the article were “made up,” Erdogan said.
One way or another, it’s clear that this incident will likely lead not only to a change in how Turkey uses UAV-provided intelligence, but also in how Washington controls what is done with the drone intelligence it provides Ankara.
Turkey’s Undersecretariat for the Defense Industry has disclosed a new five-year strategic plan, which finalizes completion dates for key projects including Turkish-made tanks, aircraft, satellites, destroyers, and helicopters, in a bid to lift the country’s defense industry into a higher league.
Altay, the Turkish-made tank project, will be complete by the end of 2015, the plan says. The first Turkish destroyer will be delivered in 2016. Atak, an attack helicopter, and Anka, an unmanned aerial vehicle, will be delivered in 2013 and 2014 respectively.
More than 280 projects have been carried out since 2011, according to the new 2012-2016 strategic plan. The total value of the contracts the undersecretariat signed last year was about $27.3 billion.
Top 10 Within Five Years
The plan envisages Turkey’s defense industry entering the top 10 worldwide within five years. The total turnover target for defense and aerospace industry exports for 2016 is $2 billion, out of an overall industry turnover of $8 billion, according to the plan.
Turkey will establish liaison offices in the Middle East, the Far East, the U.S., the Caucasus-Central Asia, and in Europe (EU-NATO). The undersecretariat will encourage collaboration between prime contractors, sub-industries, and small and medium enterprises, with universities and research institutions improving the technological base.
The Turkish government will support the establishment of testing and certification centers that meet international standards, in order to meet non-military and non-public sector demands. A land vehicle test center, a high-speed wind tunnel, an aerial vehicle flight test field, a missile systems test field, a satellite assembly center, and an integration and testing center will be among these facilities, according to the strategic plan.
Arms Projects Timetable
The strategic defense plan has laid out dates for the deadlines to manufacture the first domestically produced prototypes in the local defense industry.
A radar observation satellite will be ready by 2016.
The third-generation of the main battle tank, Altay, will be manufactured by the end of 2015.
The first destroyer will be delivered to the Turkish Navy by the end of 2016. Studies regarding development of a submarine will be completed by 2015.
Atak, a national attack helicopter, will be delivered by 2013. An all-purpose helicopter will be delivered by the end of 2016.
The mass production of a national infantry rifle starts in July.
Hürkuş, a training aircraft designed by TUSAŞ, and Anka, an unmanned aerial vehicle, will be delivered to the Turkish Air Force by the end of 2015 and 2014 respectively. And a jet motor prototype will be ready by 2016.
Long-range and medium-range anti-tank rocket systems will be in the inventory of the Turkish army by the end of 2012 and 2013 respectively.
Semi Active Laser Guided Missile, CIRIT, will be mass produced and integrated to ATAKs by the end of 2013.
Low and medium altitude air defense systems will be designed by the end of 2016.
Turkey will not let an armed organization roam freely in its mountains nor will it talk to terrorists, Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz said on Monday in an interview with Today’s Zaman.
Speaking about the government’s recently announced shift of strategy in fighting terrorism, Yılmaz said, “Men with weapons in their hands will not roam our mountains.”
According to Yılmaz, the terrorist network Kurdistan Communities’ Union (KCK), an umbrella organization that includes the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its affiliated groups, including the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), as Turkish prosecutors claim, voices the demands of the men with guns. He said the government would like to see a democratic organization as the representatives of the people of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish Southeast.
The minister also dismissed claims that a large number of generals currently jailed as suspects in ongoing trials into alleged coup d’état attempts could hamper the fight against terror. “Our military has the ability to carry out any task it is assigned with success,” he said.
He also criticized the General Staff’s “accreditation” policies, which do not grant some newspapers access to its news conferences or facilities. Yılmaz said such a press accreditation classification could never be approved by his ministry. “We don’t think this is proper,” he said. He also noted his belief that the accreditation problem faced by some newspapers will be solved.
The minister in addition noted that as Turkey advances its fight against terrorists, there will be no compromises on fundamental rights and freedoms. However, he said, “As long as the terrorists are in the mountains, the people of the region can’t exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms as they should.”
The minister also offered an assessment of the Uludere incident, where 34 civilians crossing the border with Iraq back into Turkey after a day of trading with merchants on the other side of the border were killed in an airstrike by Turkish fighter jets in late December 2011. “It is an incident that should have never happened. It is the state’s duty to be able to tell a terrorist from a smuggler.”
On BDP’s criticism of army chief
Minister Yılmaz also responded to a question on criticisms directed at Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel by the BDP, after the army chief voiced his opposition to offering education in public schools in the Kurdish language. Yılmaz said the BDP has every right to criticize whoever it deems necessary within the democratic system, adding: “But expressions that go well beyond the boundaries of criticism and turn into outright insults are unacceptable. It is impossible to tolerate these or words or act as if they were never uttered.”
In January, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) started legal action against BDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş for his statements targeting Özel. Demirtaş had said that Özel “is not even a corporal” in his eyes, after the army chief said he was opposed to the use of Kurdish in public schools. “Even if your rank is general, you are a corporal in our [the BDP’s] eyes. Your value is just that. It does not matter for us whether it is a general or a corporal speaking. You have no value in our eyes,” the BDP leader said earlier in January.
Minister Yılmaz also shared his opinion on some of the ongoing trials into past coups d’état in Turkey. He said all of the military interventions of the past had been convicted in the collective conscience of the people. He also offered information on the recent number of applications filed by individuals who want to benefit from a scheme that allows them to pay TL 30,000 to shorten their military service to just 20 days. So far 18,973 applications have been made, earning the Treasury TL 444 million.
The minister gave information on the state of affairs in Turkey’s transition to a professional army. “Currently, 35 percent of the military — made up of NCOs, senior gendarmerie sergeants and senior sergeants in the military — are professional soldiers,” the minister said.
Changes planned in defense industry
The minister also said there were plans to reduce the number of direct purchases of defense industry equipment by the military, responding to criticism that defense companies such as TAI, Aselsan, Havelsan and Roketsan — which are all subsidiaries of the Foundation to Strengthen the Turkish Armed Forces (TSKGV) are not being managed well. “We are proud of the point at which our companies stand today. They need to be taken further; their competitive power needs to be increased. Only if this can be realized can these companies continue their existence. Most tenders are awarded directly, and this definitely undermines the competitive side of these companies. After this, we will minimize direct purchases from these companies and have them compete in tenders as suppliers.”
“The U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq is reordering political dynamics not only in Baghdad but also in the broader Middle East. Nature abhors a vacuum, and a number of actors are seeking to fill the outsized role that America has played in Iraq over the last eight years.” says Sean Kane in his report ‘The Coming Turkish-Iranian Competition in Iraq’. “The two rising powers in the region, Iran and Turkey, share borders with Iraq and are rapidly becoming the most influential external actors inside the country.”
In this analysis, we will focus on the rivalry between these two rising powers in Iraq. Although it seems that the relations between Turkey and Iran are getting better in recent times, Iraq has become litmus paper in order to understand the real face of this friendly relationship. After a bit the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq, first signals of conflict of interests between these countries began to emerge.
Neo-Ottoman and Neo-Persian Competition?
“From the sixteenth century until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, Iraqi history was largely determined by the ebb and flow of conflict between Ottoman Turks and the Safavid Persians. After Persia converted to Shiism, control of Shia holy sites in Najaf, Karbala and Samarra became symbolically significant to the Safavids, and the Ottomans tried to maintain Iraq as a Sunni buffer against the spread of the rival sect. In this centuries-long struggle, military conflict between the two empires focused on Mesopotamia rather than Asia Minor.” says Sean Kane. “The last century—the British mandate in Iraq, several decades of a strong independent Iraqi state, and the post-2003 American occupation—has been a hiatus from the historical pattern of Turkish and Iranian struggle for preeminence in Iraq. U.S. troops are scheduled to withdraw by December 2011, and the Iraqi state is not yet reconsolidated. Is competition among the heirs of the Ottoman and Persian empires likely to resume?”
I do not agree with Sean Kane in his categorization and approach because it is possible to skip political categorizations of 21st century when we get to the historical roots of this competition. In other words, secular/religious and cultural Islam/political Islam categorizations are more suitable for me in understanding this issue. If we pass over the Turkish model in the region and ethnical and sectarian divisions in Iraq, historical reasons will be more attractive to us. So, we should look at the different elements of this equation.
As Iraqi foreign minister Hoyshar Zebari says, this is the fact that today, Iran and Turkey are the biggest players and rivals inside Iraq. Soner Cagaptay, from Hurriyet Daily Newspaper, witnesses to this reality so: “Although both Turkey and Iran opposed the Iraq war at first, the fact that they have supported opposing camps in successive Iraqi elections has rekindled their competition. Today, Ankara and Tehran eye each other warily; neither wants the other to have more influence in Baghdad or over the Iraqi Kurds.”
Revelation of competition after the withdrawal of the U.S. forces
“The efforts of the Shi’ite to have a control over the fate of Iraq half-opened the way going towards the split. The Shi’ite Prime Minister Maliki’s show of force, his trying to push the Sunni out of the cabinet and the political course, his lashing out at Turkey, and Iran’s using itself for Syrian politics should be assessed as the first steps in Iraq going towards split.” says Cetiner Cetin, ORSAM Advisory Board Member.
As he mentioned, in the last period, Nouri al-Maliki revealed the coldness they have had with Turkey for a long time by indicating that they are concerned about Turkey’s interfering, rather than Iran’s, in the Iraqi internal affairs. “Right after the accusing and critical statements of Maliki, who draws his strength mainly from Iran, about Turkey, his accusing political attempts against the Sunni Vice-President Tariq al Hashimi, who is known for his close relations with Turkey, and against the Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak are actually the first signals showing that there will be attempts to block Turkey’s effectiveness following the U.S. withdrawal.” he said.
Here, we want to focus on the roots of this competition.
The roots of this competition
“Eighteenth-century English statesman Lord Palmerston famously stated that nations have no permanent friends or allies, only permanent interests.” says Sean Kane. “The starting point for forecasting the direction of Iranian-Turkish relations is therefore to examine each country’s interests in their old battleground of Mesopotamia.”
As he said, their political sway was made clear during Iraq’s extended 2010 cycle of government formation, when they were respectively instrumental in consolidating the two leading political groupings: Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya and Nouri al-Maliki’s National Alliance. While Turkey’s preference represents ‘secularism’; Iran’s preference represents ‘religious viewpoint’.
“Although Turkey and Iran have a lot of grounds on which to cooperate — the number of Iranians coming to Turkey last year was 2 million — the two countries struggling for leadership in the region have also opposing interests.” says Aydin Albayrak. “Iran is a major actor in Iraq, where it supports Shiite groups, whereas Turkey tends to support the secular movement while still maintaining good relations with Shiite elements.”
This means that although Iran and Turkey have good relations, their viewpoints are different from each other. “The relationship between Turkey and Iran has received heightened attention in the United States since the effort by Turkey and Brazil to negotiate a deal on the handling of Iran’s nuclear fuel in mid-2010. Although Ankara argues that Turkey’s new foreign policy platform of ‘zero problems’ with its neighbors and independent stance toward Western policy in the region poses no contradiction to its traditional Western alliances, some American policymakers and analysts view this approach as a realpolitik move by Turkey to reorient itself to the Muslim world, including Iran, based on Turkish economic and energy interests. Others believe that, despite this shift, Turkish and Iranian relations remain dominated by mutual mistrust and that the two countries view themselves as competitors for influence and preeminence in the region.” says Sean Kane. “More recently, a flurry of analyses has looked at Turkish and Iranian involvement in Iraq and whether the two countries consciously consider themselves rivals there.”
In addition to these, according to Joschka Fischer, while Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government is trying to maintain good relations with Iran, its ambition to become the leading Sunni power means that Turkey must sooner or later contest Iran’s influence in Iraq, as well as in Syria and Palestine. And that means conflict.
On the other hand, there are some commentators who reject the claims about the rivalry between Turkey and Iran. “Marina Ottaway disagrees specifically with the notion of a Turkish-Iranian rivalry in Iraq, arguing that Turkey has no interest in antagonizing Iran by playing the Sunni card in Iraq and has shown through its votes at the United Nations that it values good relations with Iran.”
What are roles of Iran and Turkey in Iraq?
“Ankara is now Tehran’s most viable rival for preeminence in the region, but compared to Iran, it has repeatedly failed to take decisive action.” said Alakbar Raufoglu. “With less than two months before American troops withdraw from Iraq, the question of whether Turkey is prepared to take the necessary actions to play a leading role in the region remains unclear. If Turkey fails, it risks ceding its influence to Iran.”
Moreover, according to Cetiner Cetin, now, we can more clearly see the fact that Iran does not intend to leave Iraq to anyone after the withdrawal of the U.S.
“The timing of the crisis shows that after the withdrawal of the U.S., Iran is not intended to leave Iraq to anyone else.” says Assist. Prof. Serhat Erkmen. “Another dimension of the timing of crisis is the fact that it came right after Maliki’s accusing and critical statements on Turkey. As it is well known, some time ago, Maliki revealed the distance with Turkey they have had for a long time by stating that he has hesitations not because of the possibility that Iran could interfere in the Iraqi internal affairs but that Turkey could do it so, in a statement he made to one of the U.S. journals.”
As we can see, many commentators and writers fear Iranian influence in Iraq. For them, Turkey is a balanced element in Iraq and they prefer secular Turkey to religious Iran.
“Turkey has the advantages of being neither Arab nor Persian and of demonstrating a newfound distance from Western powers. Its strategic goal of becoming an energy conduit from the Middle East to Europe also gives it a compelling economic interest in a unified and prosperous Iraq fueled by increased hydrocarbon production.” says Sean Kane. “Iran, on the other hand, has the advantage of religious and cultural ties with the majority of Iraq’s population, but its involvement in the country is toxic for the minority Sunni population and watched warily by all Iraqi nationalists.”
Additionally, according to him, “Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to represent the starkest opposing tendencies in Iraq, but Turkish influence is the most significant regional counterweight to Iranian preeminence. That Turkey is not identified with either pole of the region’s toxic ethnic (Arab-Persian) and religious (Saudi Wahhabi–Iranian Rule of the Jurist) divides means that it has greater acceptance in Iraq and potential for positive input. From the Iraqi Shia point of view, Turkey, despite being Sunni Muslim, is not perceived as a source of terrorist attacks in Iraq or intolerance toward Shiism in the way that the Wahhabi creed is.”
Here, it is required to look at the commonalities and differences between Iranian and Turkish policies in the region. Sean Kane summarizes these topics briefly:
“First, the commonalities. Both emphasize maintaining the unity and territorial integrity of Iraq, particularly as it relates to their own restive Kurdish minorities, and avoiding a return to all-out sectarian conflict. Both also, somewhat reluctantly, accept the model of a federalized Iraq, but likely differ on the extent of decentralization this should entail.
It is on who should rule Baghdad and how that Ankara and Tehran have profound differences. As a secular democracy, Turkey publicly advocates for a genuine political process and broad, representative, and inclusive Iraqi governments in which no single group dominates. Although in practice tinged by its own Sunni orientation, particularly since the Islamist AKP came to office, Turkish political activity in Iraq does not approach Iran’s overtly sectarian approach. Tehran’s irreducible priority continues to be to ensure a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad that would turn a traditional security threat into a friendly state.
Tehran and Ankara also differ in their reactions to the U.S. policy goal of a sovereign, stable, self-reliant Iraq capable of positively influencing regional stability. Turkish officials assert that they cannot overemphasize the importance of a stable Iraq to Turkey, remarking that Turkey has paid a heavy price whenever Iraq is not stable, and that when Iraq is stable, the region is stable. The view from Tehran is radically different. Iraq has since ancient times been a rival and, more recently, a check to Iranian influence in the Middle East. This latter role encompasses the disastrous eight-year war Saddam Hussein launched in 1980, which included chemical weapons strikes against Iranian cities and the death and injury of as many as a million Iranians. Given this history, the prevalent view among Iran’s academic and political elite toward Baghdad is still one of mistrust and perceived threat. In fact, it is the veterans of that conflict that now rule Iran and they largely prefer a relatively weak, divided, and passive neighbor incapable of posing a future political or conventional military threat.
The third major area of diverging interests is trade. Both Turkey and Iran are vying to become Iraq’s leading commercial partner. Turkey sees Iraq as an integral part of its effort to become the economic bridge from the Middle East to Europe. Iran sees an opportunity to shift Iraqi trade eastward, away from its traditional orientation to the Arab world and Turkey, as part of its effort to become the connection between the Middle East and central Asia. Iran estimates its 2009 trade with Iraq at between $4 billion and $5 billion and has set a goal of increasing this to $20 billion within two years. Turkey estimates its own Iraqi trade at greater than $6 billion and expects it to grow to $20 billion within four years. In an ironic twist, the Kurdistan region has become the Turkish economic beachhead into Iraq, and Turkish companies now have leading roles in the construction, trade, and energy sectors in the north of the country. Iran, meanwhile, has the pride of place in southern and central Iraq, where it has become a leading investor in infrastructure, energy, and religious pilgrimage projects. Iranian scholar Mohsen Milani sees this as part of Iran seeking to realize a key foreign policy goal of establishing a ‘sphere of influence’ in Iraq’s southern provinces.
Despite the importance of trade with Iraq to both Iran and Turkey, the future of Iraq’s energy sector is even more significant and yet another area of difference. Turkey is not significant oil or gas producer but instead a rapidly growing hydrocarbon consumer. Moreover, a key strategic plank of its neo-Ottoman foreign policy is to become the main energy conduit from the Middle East to Europe. As a hydrocarbon consumer and transit point, Turkey stands to gain on two fronts from dramatically increased Iraqi hydrocarbon production. Consequentially, Turkish state-owned and private energy companies have directly invested in six gas and oil fields in southern and central Iraq and are major players in oil exploration efforts in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Iran is a hydrocarbon exporter, and, though it has explored gas transit deals with Iraq, its ability to tap its own vastly underexploited oil and gas reserves is precluded by international sanctions. Iraq’s ability to move forward with major international investment that Tehran cannot even contemplate for the forseeable future. Even partial Iraqi success in production increases could see Iraq overtaking Iranian production levels by 2015, and OPEC production quotas would therefore have to be recalculated.
Any possible continued U.S. military presence in Iraq is the final point of difference between the two countries. The Turkish parliament famously refused to provide permission for U.S. troops to use Turkey as an invasion route in 2003. Privately, however, they now express support for a small, continued U.S. presence in Iraq after 2011 on the basis of worries about Iranian dominance in Baghdad and the future of the trilateral security mechanism established between Turkey, Iraq, and the United States in 2008 for combating the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK). This mechanism, from the Turkish perspective, has proven useful in addressing a top national security concern and provided a diplomatic channel through which Turkey was able to conduct its outreach to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). For Iran, the national security priority is the departure of ‘encircling’ U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Tehran lobbied against the 2008 Security Agreement between Iraq and the United States that authorized the American military presence in the country until December 2011.”
When we compare the commonalities and differences in their policies, we can say that although it seems the direct opposite, their agenda is very different.
In that case, why many Western and American analysts emphasize the role of Turkey as a balanced element. If we can understand the expectations from Turkey in Iraq, it will be easy to show the whole picture.
What are the expectations from Turkey?
“Some suggest that the withdrawal of US troops has finally opened a new space for Iran to maneuver in the region that will strengthen Iranian domination. Some Turkish analysts suggest that the new Iraq is nothing but a new axis of an Iran-Damascus pact that enables Iran to have free geographical access from the Persian Gulf to the Eastern Mediterranean.” says Emre Uslu, from Today’s Zaman Newspaper. “ Against this argument, some US experts, including political science professor Stephen Van Evera of MIT, think that ‘fears of Iranian domination of Iraq rest on the premise that Iraqi Shi’a identify so strongly as Shi’a and so little as Arabs or Iraqis that they will accept domination by Shi’a Iran. In fact, however, Iraqi Shi’a have a strong identity as Arabs and Iraqis. They have affinity for other Shi’a, but will not accept Iran or other non-Iraqis as overlords. Iranian dominance of Iraq is not in the cards’.”
In my opinion, this comment is very optimistic. It is a fact that the U.S. is afraid of Iranian influence and its receipt for this fear is Turkey’s balanced role.
As Vladimir van Wilgenburg mentions, a recent report by the United States Institute of Peace suggests that Washington should be less concerned about increased cooperation between Turkey and Iran because the two countries have different visions for the Middle East, suggesting that the “renewal of the historical Ottoman-Persian rivalry in Mesopotamia is likely as the dominant American presence fades.”
In addition to this reality, as we said before, it is very difficult to find any conflict between American and Turkish interests. So, many Western analysts suggest that Ankara’s engagement will be critical in limiting Iran and Syria’s (mostly negative) influence in Iraq.
“Walter Russell Mead, editor-at-large of the American Interest magazine, said Turkish success in Iraq would lead to a less pro-Iranian coalition in Baghdad, referring to Turkey’s rivalry over the country.
Mead connected any Turkish success in the Middle East as equal to Iran’s failure. He said ideologically, Turkey hopes to lead the Sunni Islam world while Iran aspires to lead the entire Islamic world. He also added that the same thing could be applied to Syria where Turkey’s success there could be spelled as Iran’s failure as well as loss of Iranian ties to Hamas.”
Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations, also, says Iraq’s other Sunni-dominated Arab neighbors — such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait — should stop isolating Iraq’s Shiite government and embrace it instead. If they don’t, he says, then Iraq will only be pushed closer to Iran.
Moreover, “They (Turkey) are doing this throughout Iraq, in Kurdistan as well as in Baghdad and even Basra, which is not usually an area of Turkish influence,” said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. “The presence of a Turkish consulate in Basra is very much part of a strategy to dam in Iranian influence in Iraq through investments and trade.”
According to diplomatic columnist Semih Idiz for the Turkish daily Milliyet, Ankara shares Washington’s concerns about growing Iranian influence in Iraq. “The increase of the Iranian through Shia elements in Iraq, that is what Turkey will be worried about,” said Idiz. “And with Turkey there is a political competition going on for influence between Iran and Turkey.”
In addition to this, as Dorian Jones mentions, last month, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal said Washington has proposed to take over the influential role of training Iraqi military personal, now that U.S. troops are pulling out.
“We have been contributing in training military elements in Iraq within the framework of NATO,” said Unal. “This issue has come up to the agenda, and of course, we will be considering it. According to Dorian Jones, such a move is seen as strengthening Turkey’s influence in greater Iraq and countering what observers say is expected growing Iranian influence with the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
When we look at the picture from this side, it, unfortunately, seems to us that Turkey’s regional role is shaping around the Western and American interests in addition to its own interests. This Turkey is distant from being an alternative to Shi’a-Sunni polarizations. It means that Turkey sooner or later contests Iran’s influence and interests in Iraq. It also refers to the Turkish role and model in the region:
“This is partly a replay of Ottoman era politics. The new Turkish Islamist government is eager to revive Turkey’s historical role as the leading power of the region. (Two hundred years ago the Ottoman Empire ruled everything from the Danube to the modern Iran/Iraq boundary and across North Africa as far as Algeria.) As Arab nationalism has failed and declined, Sunni Islam has replaced it as the leading political movement in much of that world. Arab nationalism was both secular and anti-Turkish; Arab nationalists regarded the Ottomans as an imperialist great power. But if Arabs look at the world through a religious lens, Istanbul used to be the seat of the Caliph.”
Is Iran the winner?
“When the United States’ last election surge withered away with the failure of the March 2010 Iraqi contest to produce a government, Iran stepped in to broker a settlement involving current PM Malaki (Malaki also serves as Minister of Defense and Minister of the Interior but is not a dictator) and the jolly Sadrists. Malaki, a Shia, happily recalls his days in exile in Iraq during the Saddam reign while Sadr hid out as a religious “student” in Qom when he was on the U.S. military’s capture or kill list post-2003.” says Peter Van Buren. “Both men remain beholden to Iran and continue to shift Iraq closer and closer to Tehran’s policy positions. Iran has its own proconsul in Baghdad, well-known locally but not discussed much in the west. The guy moved into the job after a tour as head of the Iranian special ops Qods Force.”
In parallel to this comment, according to some analysts, the real winner of the war in Iraq is neither the Iraqis, nor Americans, but the Iranians.
But, Emre Uslu does not agree with this approach. “Does this means that Iran will have the freedom to do whatever it wants in Iraq?” he asks. “A simple answer to this question is no. There are at least two reasons why that is. First, despite the fact that US troops have withdrawn from Iraq, US influence on Iraq still remains strong through US advisors and Iraqi dependence on US armaments. Therefore, the US would exert its influence on Iraqi leaders to limit Iranian domination in Iraq. Second, Iraq’s dependence on US weapons systems prevents Iraqi Shi’a leaders from opening up wholeheartedly to Iran. Therefore, beyond the identity issues to be considered, there are more complex issues for Iraqi leaders to consider when leading their country.”
“In the Middle East, there is room for one shah or sultan, but not a shah and a sultan.” says Soner Cagaptay. “Ankara and Tehran appear locked, once again, in their centuries-old competition to become the region’s dominant power.”
Although “Turkey adopted an attitude in favor of a broad-based government” in Iraq, Turkey prefers to be a side of the Iraqiyyah Party. Actually, this preference play along with a new Turkish role in the Middle East. As Sean Kane emphasizes, Turkey’s blend of Islam, democracy, and soft power is a more attractive regional template than Iran’s formula of Islamic theocracy and hard power.
This Turkey’s rising influence in Iraq will please the U.S. and Western countries. So, they encourage Turkey in order to be effective in Iraq. “Any attempt by Ankara to challenge Iranian influence in Iraq will likely strain relations with Tehran.” said Dorian Jones. “Those relations are already under pressure over Ankara’s support for the opposition against Tehran’s key ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.”
On the other hand, as Veysel Ayhan mentions, “despite the fact that some Iranian writers argue that Iran defends the territorial integrity and political unity of Iraq, when one observes Iran’s policy over Iraq, it can be seen that Tehran has a policy of making relations with all the Iraqi groups.”
“This way, it is seen that it takes steps in directing all the groups in line with the interests of Iran or threatening them when needed.” he says. “It is also necessary to indicate that the countries defending the territorial integrity of Iraq are not pursuing a determined policy on this matter. On the other hand, the main target of the Iran regime is known to establish an Iraq that is easy to control and direct.”
As Brian M Downing emphasizes, sectarian conflict in Iraq is again a concern as the Shi’ite government seeks the arrest of a Sunni vice president whom they tie to an assassination team. But neither Turkey’s these approaches nor Iran’s privileged policies can solve the problems of Iraq. The stability and security in the region are not independently of the developments that may take place in Iraq and policies/influences of neighbouring countries.
In this game, Turkey should stay out of being a pawn for Western interests and adopt unique policies. In this way, Turkey may bring into a friendly connection with both Iraq and Iran. This approach will be approved from all the groups and fragments in Iraq.
Turkey may reportedly replace Hamas’ chief financier, Iran, to alleviate the Gaza ruling party’s financial pain as it has faced difficulty in receiving aid from the Islamic republic.
Israeli daily Haaretz quoted Turkish sources on Saturday that stated Gazan Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh conveyed his party’s financial difficulties to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during his first visit to Turkey and that Turkey is seriously considering funding Hamas.
The report added that Haniyeh explained to Erdoğan in some detail the financial difficulties Hamas has faced after expected aid from Iran didn’t arrive on time and was significantly decreased.
Foreign aid is essential to helping Palestinians survive, including in Gaza, which, though ruled by Hamas, receives almost half of the Palestinian Authority’s budget in social services and salaries. It said Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal has left Syria for good and is considering moving the party’s headquarters to Qatar or Jordan.
Mashaal, 55, has been based in Damascus since 2001, fearing for his safety and restriction of movement in Gaza. He has been the chief of Hamas since 1996, responsible for setting policy and planning operations against Israel.
Earlier this month Haniyeh toured Egypt, Sudan, Turkey and Tunisia. It was the first time he has left Gaza since Israel siege in 2007. He is also expected to visit Iran, Qatar and other Muslim countries at the end of this month. Hamas officials say the goal of Haniyeh’s trip was to improve ties with Muslim countries swept up in the uprisings shaking the Arab world.
An aide to Haniyeh said earlier this month that he would meet leaders in Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, Qatar, Bahrain and Turkey and discuss rebuilding the Gaza Strip, which suffered damage during a month-long Israeli offensive in 2008-09.
After having lost its broadcasting rights in Denmark in January following unlawful broadcasts and consequently getting dumped by Eutelsat, a French company, ROJ TV now uses a Luxembourg based U.S. company, Intelsat. Danish newspaper Politiken has claimed that Intelsat is at least partly owned by a Greek company.
ROJ TV is known for being part of the political branch of PKK, a criminal establishment recognized as ‘terrorists’ by Turkey, United States and other countries.
Even though seen as a desperate attempt, a high-profile international lawsuit is currently in progress between ROJ TV and Eutelsat. Should ROJ TV win the lawsuit, the organization will be able to use both satellite networks for its illegal broadcasts in support of terrorist activities in multiple countries.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu underlined that his country will not allow the NATO to use its territory to strike Iran.
Davutoglu made the remarks during a joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow.
He said that Turkey has never cooperated with those who wanted to harm its neighboring countries like Russia, Iran or Syria.
Iran-Turkey border has always been a border of peace, and it will continue to be so, he added.
Noting that he discussed Iran and Syria issues with Lavrov, Davutoglu said that Turkey’s position with Russia was very similar in Iran issue, adding that talks on Iran’s nuclear program should resume rapidly.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia and Turkey had almost the same position on Iran and Russia wanted this issue to be solved through diplomatic means.
Moscow believes that Iran’s nuclear problem can be solved only diplomatically and politically, he added.
Russia wants the soonest resumption of the talks between Iran and the Group 5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany) and Iran.
Israel and its close ally the United States accuse Iran of seeking a nuclear weapon, while they have never presented any corroborative document to substantiate their allegations. Both Washington and Tel Aviv possess advanced weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear warheads.
Iran vehemently denies the charges, insisting that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only. Tehran stresses that the country has always pursued a civilian path to provide power to the growing number of Iranian population, whose fossil fuel would eventually run dry.
Iran has, in return, warned that it would target Israel and its worldwide interests in case it comes under attack by the Tel Aviv.
The United States has also always stressed that military action is a main option for the White House to deter Iran’s progress in the field of nuclear technology.
Iran has warned it could close the strategic Strait of Hormuz if it became the target of a military attack over its nuclear program.
Strait of Hormuz, the entrance to the strategic Persian Gulf waterway, is a major oil shipping route.
Even as he became the latest and most senior member of the Iranian government to publicly declare his readiness for nuclear talks, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Thursday lashed out at the West over its tough new economic sanctions that he said have hurt the Iranian people.
Addressing students in the southern city of Kerman, Mr. Ahmadinejad blamed the West for what he called its “excuses” for not restarting negotiations and heaped scorn on the United States and Europe over new sanctions, which target Iran’s oil industry. While they have hurt ordinary Iranians, he said, the sanctions have done nothing to weaken Iran’s resolve in the face of “bullying” over its nuclear program.
“You are the real enemy of the people and are putting pressure on them,” the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Mr. Ahmadinejad as saying. “I admonish you to pave the right track and do not make any excuses while the time is ripe for negotiations.”
The remarks come ahead of a visit by United Nations nuclear inspectors to Iran next week and March 2 parliamentary elections in Iran, where the economy has sputtered under the weight of sanctions and high inflation. With the country’s currency, the rial, having weakened to a record low against the dollar, Mr. Ahmadinejad on Wednesday reversed himself and allowed interest rates on bank deposits to rise in an attempt to ease inflationary pressure. The move was seen as a rare tacit admission of the effect the sanctions have exerted in Iran.
The uranium enrichment program in Iran has become the most urgent point of contention between Iran and the West, which has long suspected the Iranians are working to build a nuclear weapon despite their repeated denials. Iran has said it is enriching uranium for civilian energy and medical purposes. Israel, which considers Iran its most dangerous adversary, has hinted at the possibility of a pre-emptive military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Mr. Ahmadinejad said publicly on Thursday that the sanctions had created hardships for average people in Iran but that they would weather the difficulties. He added that Western insistence that sanctions are aimed at curtailing its nuclear program and not at the Iranian people was “a big lie.”
While Mr. Ahmadinejad said he was ready to resume nuclear talks, his comments did not appear to bring Iran closer to resuming negotiations with Europe and the United States. The previous round of negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program broke down over a year ago after Iran presented conditions considered unacceptable to the West.
European leaders are waiting for Iran to respond to an October letter seeking a resumption of talks without preconditions if Iran agreed to discuss its nuclear enrichment program. During the last talks, Iran refused to discuss that main issue, seeking instead the removal of sanctions and the recognition of a right to enrich uranium before negotiating could begin.
Some Western diplomats have viewed Iran’s latest public offers of negotiations as an effort to buy time, allowing the country to enrich more uranium as talks get under way. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s statements on Thursday did not appear to coincide with any official diplomatic response, European officials said. Earlier this month during a visit to Turkey, the Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, said that his country was ready to resume negotiations. He said discussions were under way about the site and date, Iranian news media reported, and that the talks would “most probably be held in Istanbul.”