Foreign Policy Blogs

Turkish Geopolitical Ascendancy and the Iranian Decline

40856With the global economy struggling to re-surface from a deep and
self-inflicted recession, the international geo-political order is locked in a lengthy transformation for what appears to be a multi-polar world. In this new and yet-to-be-shaped global geo-political order, there are emerging economies that aim to leverage their rising economic power and turn them into geo-political and geo-energy assets.

Turkey is one such power. Faced with a complex geo-political and energy environment in its region and an economy increasingly integrated into the global trade system, Turkey is executing on a newly developed, grand foreign policy doctrine. This doctrine is bent on harmonizing the country’s power axes with a new geo-politic and geo-energy environment in its region and beyond.

The new emerging Turkish foreign policy and geo-strategic doctrine is putting Iran on the periphery and contributing to Tehran’s decline in its ability to exert leadership in the region. Equipped with a new foreign policy doctrine and a well-established private economic sector, Turkey is deeply cognizant of its emerging strategic advantages over Iran and will leverage these advantages by further strengthening its ties with the Muslim world and filling the void where Iran is seen as a destabilizing force. These efforts by Turkey are poised to effectively strip Iran of its ability to exert political and economic influence in the region.

Since the coming to power of revolutionaries in Iran in 1979; tension, distrust, and reciprocal fears of exporting religious ideology and secularism were hallmarks of Turkish-Iranian relations. Relations between the two countries remained frosty until the mid 1990’s; that is when Necmettin Erbakan rose to power. Erbakan was the leader of the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi), the first openly Islamist party in a fiercely secular republic. Upon assuming office, Erbakan raised the ire of Turkey’s secular establishment by announcing his intent to forge close ties with Tehran, choosing the latter as the first destination for his foreign state visits. Forging closer ties with Iran and other Muslim states in the region by Erbakan put the ground work for Turkey’s about-face in its foreign policy.

Under pressure from Turkish military, Erbakan was removed from politics and the Welfare Party was transformed ideologically into a lighter form of its former self. The party chose a new leadership and adopted a new name: the Justice and Development Party (AK Partisi) with the party’s reign handed over to Recep Tayip Erdogan, an observant Muslim with roots in political Islam and mentored by Erbakan. Since then Erdogan has managed to move the country out of its decades-old geopolitical reticence. He also has implemented series of EU-mandated social and political reforms. The reforms, combined with Erdogan’s penchant for reduced military role in politics, essentially dethroned the Turkish army as the vanguard of Turkish secular order.

Today the Turkish foreign policy and geopolitical doctrine are reflections of a new self-discovery chiefly designed by Erdogan’s party. And the man behind the new Turkish foreign policy doctrine is none other than Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister. Davutoglu developed the new doctrine in a landmark paper entitled “The Strategic Depth (Stratejik Derinlik)”, which was published later as a book. Based on this new doctrine, Turkey is envisioned as a country worthy of a much greater role in influencing geopolitical and geo-energy developments in the Middle East and Central Asia. It sees Turkey as an underutilized power that should no longer be shackled by Western interests and an American-designed polity. It is in light of these new calculations by Turkey that one should see the Iranian decline.

Turkish advantages over Iran are shaped by five factors. The first is Iran’s chronically belligerent foreign policy, which is comprised of meddling in internal affairs of regional states, and attempts to destabilize the region’s pro-Western regimes. The second factor is Iran’s declining economic fortunes first and foremost due to chronic mismanagement and a deeply corrupt economy, whose woes are presently exacerbated by international sanctions. Third is Iran’s fractured power structure worsened by the post-election unrest. This fractured power structure has paralyzed policy and decision making apparatus both for domestic and foreign policy issues as witnessed by Tehran’s flip flops in implementing domestic economic policies as well as lack of clarity in its nuclear negotiations with the West.

The fourth factor is a deeply disenchanted public that has been subject to systemic human rights abuses and impregnated with a strong potential for social unrest. And the fifth factor lies in religious rivalry. Turkey is a predominantly Sunni Muslim country with a long and unforgotten history of religious rivalry with Persia, particularly under the Safavid period (1501-1736). Today Turkey holds the upper hand in forging friendly ties with fellow Sunni states in the Middle East and beyond. These states have welcomed developing strong economic ties with Turkey as one of the major rising economies that happens to be Sunni Muslim with a non-interfering foreign policy.

Turkish foreign policy makers know that Iran, as a major regional power, is the only formidable obstacle in bringing Davutoglu’s doctrine into fruition. Therefore, they see the current environment as presenting a unique moment for Turkey’s geo-political fortunes. Having been exposed to it directly throughout the 1980’s, the Turks realize that Iran’s belligerent foreign policy towards Arab states and Israel as well as Tehran’s nuclear program and its massive human rights violations at home have handed Turkey a great opportunity to further solidify its ties to the Muslim world as a non-interfering, democratic, and increasingly multi-regional power that still holds a potential to act as a peace broker. Turkey is blessed with yet another advantage that is handing it yet another winning card; and that is the Turkish economy, which presently stands as world’s 16th largest.

The continued success and growth of Turkish private sector with a growing market share in the Middle East has been a decade-long and still unfolding development. This has proved enormously effective in broadening Turkey’s geopolitical horizons and contributed to moving Turkey closer to the realization of the goals stipulated by Davutoglu in “Strategic Depth”. At present, the Middle East receives 20 percent of Turkish exports, about $19.2 billion worth of goods. The growth of Turkish private sector has been praised repeatedly by the UN and, as recently as August 2010, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) chose Istanbul as the site of its international Private Sector Development Center.

The impact of Turkey’s soft power is seen in the improving ties with Syria. Despite U.S. efforts, Turkey remains the best chance for the West to break Syria from Iran and steer Damascus away from Tehran toward the West and the Sunni part of the Middle East. This is becoming an increasingly plausible scenario given Iran’s worsening economy and increased international sanctions against it.

With the continuation of Iran’s nuclear saga vis-à-vis growing concerns by regional states about Iranian nuclear intentions, Turkey sees a growing alignment of Israeli and Arab strategic interests. In this context, Turkey has remained shrewdly active on both sides of the spectrum, benefiting from building trust with Arabs while demonstrating support for Iran’s right to peaceful use of nuclear technology. But what is not covered often in the press is an equally strong concern by Turkish security establishment about the Iranian nuclear program. So the question arises as to what Turkish goals are behind the display of support for Tehran’s nuclear program?

Simply put, the answer lies in the new economic order that is rising slowly from the ashes of the global recession. Turkey’s relentless and systematic efforts in cultivating close economic and cultural ties with the Arab/Muslim world emanate from the realization that too much dependence on Western markets, EU in particular, is not in line with Turkey’s long-term geopolitical ambitions. Moreover, Turkey sees EU as a region with minimal growth rate mired in multiple economic crises and in need of careful and lengthy reforms. In light of the above calculations, Turkey sees Iran as a power on a path of decline and in need of assistance to stave off further economic and political isolation. For Turkey, Iran is increasingly encircled by an alliance of western powers with a worsening and deeply mismanaged economy.

Turkish investments in various sectors of the Iranian economy and export of a multitude of products to Iran attest to the Turkish determination in playing an active role in the Iranian economy at a time Iran is becoming increasingly cut off from global trade. Turkish-Iranian trade grew to over $10 billion in 2009 from only $1 billion in 2000 and Turkish private investment can be seen in various segments of the Iranian economy. Contrary to Turkey’s, the Iranian private sector has been continuously shrinking due to mismanagement, institutional corruption, increased international pressure, and having the world’s highest rate of brain drain. Today the Iranian leadership presides over a country stricken by a multitude of economic and social crises. While Iran remains a formidable military power with significant capacity to influence events in its region, it has failed to sustain economic growth and prosperity at home (even at modest levels) and build healthy economic ties with Arab states based on mutual trust.

Any successful Turkish efforts in mitigating—or even in resolving—the nuclear crisis between the West and Iran would solidify the Turkish position in exerting influence over Iran’s geopolitical standing in the region. This could have serious implications for Iran if it wants to play an active role in Central Asia’s geo-energy developments as Iran, its hands tied up, could easily lose Central Asia’s energy transport routes to Turkey. This is important as Iran’s hopes of gaining accession to Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) have been dashed by the latter’s rejection of Iran’s membership as the SCO does not admit any country under UN sanctions. For Iran accession to the SCO would provide it with a buffer against the development of any anti-Iran alliance by the West. Accession to SCO would also ensure Iran’s economic interests in Central Asia as Tehran has high hopes of tapping into the region’s immense energy reserves. In other words, where Iran has stumbled strategically, Turkey has come to seize the opportunity and fill the void.

Turkey remains unencumbered—as it has to date—by Western concerns over its expanding relations with the Muslim world. Ironically, under Erdogan’s leadership since 2002, Turkey has implemented wide-ranging social and economic reforms and remained firm in its bid to gain accession to the EU. Also, it is worth being reminded that Turkey has the second largest army in NATO with 70% of all supplies for U.S troops in Iraq going through the Incirlik (pronounced in-jeer-leek), the large military base in the country’s southeast. Moreover, Turkey has remained a crucial force in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) since its inception, building Afghan civil and military institutions with a Muslim soft power unmatched by any other NATO members.

The new Turkish geopolitical orientation and its smooth execution have coincided with the formation of a new power and political make-up in Iran. The new militarist leadership in Iran represented by Ahmadinejad is still in the process of solidifying its grip on power as it seems embarked on building a new structure based on fierce nationalism and marginalization of the clergy.

Apart from unveiling newly built missiles and unmanned drones, it still remains to be seen what geopolitical and economic orientation the new militarist elite in Tehran have and whether their orientation will accommodate Turkey’s growing clout in the region or ultimately clash with it.



Reza Akhlaghi

Great Decisions Discussion group