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The Race for Iran



There has been a lot of focus on Turkey this week in Washington, prompted by Prime Minister Erdoğan’s visit and his Oval Office meeting with President Obama.  Erdoğan has had a number of high-profile speaking engagements in town, as have Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu (whom some observers describe as “Erdoğan’s Kissinger”) and key advisers to the Prime Minister.  Today, at the New America Foundation, we hosted an extremely interesting roundtable with Ibrahim Kalin, Erdoğan’s chief foreign policy advisor (who assumed this role earlier in the year when Davutoğlu moved from the Prime Minister’s staff to become Foreign Minister) and Suat Kiniklioğlu, deputy chairman of the governing AK Party for external affairs and a senior member of the Turkish Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. 

The focus on Turkey is well deserved, and not just because Prime Minister Erdoğan is in town.  Under the AK Party, which formed its first government in 2002, Turkey has developed an impressively strategic approach to the formulation and conduct of its foreign policy.  One of the more important consequences of this approach has been a steady rise in Turkey’s importance in Middle Eastern affairs.  Some neoconservatives and pro-Israel advocates in the United States argue (as do some Israelis and Europeans) that this represents a dramatic shift in Turkey’s strategic orientation, driven by the AK Party’s ideological interest in forging an “Islamist” foreign policy.  But Erdoğan and his associates make a persuasive case that what they are doing is correcting an anomaly of the Cold War, when Turkey’s strategic ties to the West kept it from interacting normally—that is, on the basis of tangible economic and political interests—with many of its neighbors, including key Middle Eastern states. 

Turkey’s Western orientation—including its European “vocation”—remains a “major strategic choice”, according to Erdoğan and his colleagues.  But, under the AK Party, Ankara now complements that choice with the equally strategic pursuit of a “zero problems” policy toward all of its neighbors.  The pursuit of that policy is enabled by principled commitments to increasing economic cooperation and integration among states in Turkey’s regional environment and engaging all relevant actors in that environment (including some that Washington does not like very much, like the Islamic Republic of Iran). 

Erdoğan and his associates argue that building better relations with Turkey’s neighbors and fostering a more stable regional environment are essential to Turkey’s own security and prosperity.  The results of their “zero problems” approach have been deeply impressive on many levels—including, for example, a tenfold increase in the value of Turkey’s trade with its neighbors (now roughly a quarter of Turkey’s total trade portfolio) and a dramatic rise in Turkey’s standing among Arab and other Middle Eastern publics.  Our colleague Marc Lynch wrote a piece in ForeignPolicy.com this week aptly describing Erdoğan as “the most interesting man in the Middle East” ; a prominent pollster who works regularly in the region told us that Erdoğan has become a “rock star” in the region.   

These developments hold potentially profound strategic implications for the Middle East, as our friend and colleague Alastair Crooke, of the Beirut-based Conflicts Forum  pointed out in an Op Ed published last week in The New York Times (link here) and, in longer form, in Asia Times (link here).  The heart of Alastair’s argument is that the “release” of Turkish foreign policy in a new direction could be “as significant as the destruction of Iraq and the implosion of the Soviet Union were, 20 years ago, in ‘releasing’ Iran to emerge as one of the preeminent powers in the region”.  In other words, a new balance of power is taking shape in the Middle East, and Turkey has become an indispensable player in the regional order.             

Of course, we also believe that the Islamic Republic is an indispensable player in the Middle Eastern order.  We believe that, in the next year or so, Turkey may well conclude upstream energy deals with Iran, notwithstanding U.S. reservations–and that Washington will not offer a “serious” response (e.g., the United States will not impose secondary sanctions on Turkish companies) to such a development.  Erdoğan’s government is very clear that Ankara does not want to see Iran obtain nuclear weapons.  However, Erdoğan’s government is equally clear in expressing its view that the Iranian nuclear issue will not be resolved through diplomatic isolation and sanctions, much less through military confrontation.  From the Turkish government’s perspective, engagement is the only route to resolving this issue—engagement through which the United States and its partners would recognize Iran’s legitimate rights to the full range of civil nuclear technology and a secure place in the region and Tehran would take steps to restore and enhance confidence in the non-military nature of its nuclear activities.  We could not agree more strongly that this is the right model for resolving the controversy surrounding Iran’s nuclear activities.      

While Erodğan was reportedly well received by President Obama at the White House, it is a pity that the Obama Administration is not really prepared at this point to take advantage of the enormous benefits that Turkey’s rising influence in Iran and the Middle East more broadly could provide for American diplomatic efforts in the region.  At this point, frankly, the United States could use the help.  Turkey’s foreign policy path in the Middle East leads to greater strategic influence.  America’s path, followed without substantial alteration, will lead ultimately to strategic marginalization.    

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett 



  1. Peter Marx says:

    I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  2. WigWag says:

    So now (according to Hurriyet)the Turkish Constitutional Court has banned the “Democratic Society Party,” the most prominent Kurdish Party for supposedly being too close the the PKK. The members of the DSP in the Turkish Legislature will be removed from office and the leaders of the DSP will be banned from political activity fot 5 years. The vote of the Constitutional Court was unanimous.

    It would be somewhat unfair to blame this on Erdogan because, after all, the Turkish Constitutional Court came within one vote of banning his political party just last year.

    The point is that this will certainly cause a significant deterioration in relations between the Turkish Government and its Kurdish minority. Kurds in Turkey will no longer have an important political outlet to express their grievances. This will make the Europeans look even more askance at admitting Turkey to the EU.

    This is just more proof that all the talk by Mr. Leverett, Ms Mann-Leverett and Ben Katcher about Turkey’s increasing regional influence is exagerated. Turkey has so many internal problems that the liklihood that it will play a major role on the world stage is just not that great.

    Sort of sounds like the same situation as Iran, doesn’t it? Political parties banned; restive minority groups; a divided public; repressive courts.

    Maybe these two countries do actually have some things in common.

  3. Lysander says:

    Wig Wag,

    I don’t think the Leveretts are arguing that Iran is a “good” country vs a “bad” one. They do however make two very important points in their blog.

    1) The Iranian government has a lot more popular support in the country than any in the west care to admit. The hard line positions regarding their nuclear program, support for Hizbullah, Hamas and the Palestinians in general enjoy even broader support. A Musavi presidency may or may not have resulted in domestic reforms. It would have changed the style of Iranian foreign policy but not the substance. A Kerry presidency may have differed in some ways than Bush but would have been similar in even more.

    Further more, while we are all touched by your sincere concern for the welfare of Iran’s people, it cannot escape your notice that prior U.S. interventions in Iran’s domestic affairs have ended unhappily. I see no reason why it would be different this time.

    2) Iran is hardly all powerful but it has legitimate national interests and, despite its problems, has the means to pursue them. If the U.S. tries to block those interests, Iran has the means at hand to retaliate against U.S. interests. A “realist” might prefer to reach som sort of compromise or mutual accommodation. Neocons will continue to beat their heads against the wall. Keep in mind that the realists did not control policy in the time of Bush. It was not they who stopped the U.S./Israel from pursuing their desired military option. It is not they who are stopping it now.

    3) Haaretz today has an article by Yossi Melman about a recent Haravrd school war game regarding Iran’s program. I urge you to read it. After reading it, assuming you agree with its conclusion, tell us what you think US policy should be?


    Lastly, the points you make are heard endlessly in the main stream media. Iran supports terror. Domestic repression. Nuclear weapons. Existential threat. Sanctions. Weak economy. Military option. Yadda yadda yadda. It is nice to read an alternative analysis from time to time.

    Thank You,

  4. WigWag says:

    Actually, Turkey and Iran do have one very important thing in common; according to today’s issue of Hurriyet they both ban “You Tube.”

    It’s too bad. A quick search on “You Tube” reveals over 60 separate videos featuring Flynt Leverett. Hillary Mann Leverett sports over 20 You Tube videos herself. Alas Ben Katcher has none but I am sure that will be remedied in the near future.

    What a shame that the good citizens of Iran and Turkey can’t watch videos of the proprietors of the “Race for Iran” on their computer screens.

    Of course Flynt and Hillary and Ben probably don’t see it that way. After all, they’re “realists” and we all know how much value “realists” attach to quaint notions like civil liberties.

  5. WigWag says:

    Anyone who makes a habit of reading “The Race for Iran” knows that the Leveretts make a habit of exaggerating Iranian prospects while completely neglecting the impediments the Iranians face in achieving their aspirations to be a “major player” in the Middle East. That’s why the readers of this interesting blog are often treated to silly sentences like this:

    “Of course, we also believe that the Islamic Republic is an indispensable player in the Middle Eastern order.”

    Fair enough, but the narrow-mindedness of the Leveretts (and Ben Katcher) is amply demonstrated by their failure to even mention the extraordinary turmoil rocking Iran. In just the past two days Iran has experienced massive street demonstrations carried out by brave students who put life and limb at risk. Only rarely do we hear from the proprietors of this blog about the massive upheaval taking place among Iranian elites, the virtual coup de etat carried out by the Revolutionary Guards or the increasing militancy of Iranian minority groups. Of course the Leveretts are loathe to even acknowledge that the recent Iranian election was anything less than an exercise in Jeffersonian democracy.

    The inevitable question arising from all of this is why the people who produce the “Race for Iran” are so unwilling to present a more nuanced view. Surely it’s not out of intellectual incapacity; the only explanation I can think of is that it results from a deep attachment to a passionately held ideology. This is hardly what one would expect from realists; especially, to use Steve Clemons term, “crack cocaine realists.”

    In light of this, no one should be surprised at the unbalanced and simplistic view that the Leveretts advance about Turkey. They seem to have joined that small group of Turkey boosters trying to advance the idea that Turkey is on the way towards regional superpower status. In fact, so enthusiastic are they in promoting Turkey that an unsophisticated reader might actually think they were suggesting that Turkey was well on its way to achieving the status of a world superpower.

    Mark Lynch is certainly right; Erdogan (and Gul) are interesting figures who have accomplished some important things. But Turkey also faces enormous challenges both at home and abroad. Ben Katcher, in his posts here and elsewhere, has chronicled only a very small number of these challenges. Is it too much to ask for a nuanced presentation on Turkey that presents both the country’s challenges and opportunities? If their posts on Iran are any indication, I guess the answer is yes.

    Here is a short list of the challenges facing Turkey:

    1) Problems with Europe: Sarkozy is unalterably opposed to Turkish membership in the EU. Germany is opposed as well and with the new German Government more right-wing than ever, this won’t be changing any time soon. The likely new Prime Minister of Great Britain (David Cameron) has actually made a statement supporting Turkish membership but he and his political party are hostile to the EU. In fact, Cameron has aligned UK representatives to the European Parliament with the far right wing coalition the opposes Turkey.

    The new President of the European Union (Herman Van Rompuy) has said,

    “Turkey is not a part of Europe and will never be part of Europe. The universal values which are in force in Europe, and which are also fundamental values of Christianity, will lose vigor with the entry of a large Islamic country such as Turkey”

    As Ben Katcher has pointed out, Anders Fogh Rasmussen doesn’t seem to think much of Turkish accession either.

    It is also interesting to note that in the last elections to the European Parliament, Europeans overwhelmingly voted for candidates who oppose Turkish membership in the EU. And speaking of Turkey, it is particularly interesting that the recent Swiss vote to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland was motivated in part by a statement Prime Minister Erdogan made several years ago when he said,

    “The mosques are our barracks, the domes are our helmets, the minarets are our swords, and the faithful are our army.”

    2) Internal strife: Despite some laudable efforts by Erdogan, Turkey’s relationship with its Kurdish minority isn’t getting any better. By some accounts up to 40,000 people have been killed over the years as a result of this conflict and the Kurds still experience vicious discrimination. To make matters worse, Turkey’s Supreme Court will be issuing a decision soon that might outlaw the major Kurdish political party. Of course, Kurdish terrorism in Turkey continues unabated; just this week several Turkish soldiers were murdered by Kurdish terrorists.

    Unfortunately for the Turks, their problems are not just with the Kurds. The Alevi are the largest ethnic subgroup in Turkey and they are increasing disaffected. The hostility that the Alevis have towards Erdogan and his political party is palpable. Alevis face discrimination in the armed forces, in government and in their religious affairs (why they are Muslims, they don’t pray in Mosques). It is highly likely that the anger the Alevis have towards Erdogan will become more strident over time.

    3) Cyprus: What more needs to be said? Not only are the Turks responsible for the military invasion and occupation of a third of the island, they are responsible for the most recent “unreversed” episode of ethnic cleansing outside of Africa, Turkey’s expulsion of tens of thousand of Greek Cypriots from their homes.

    4) Armenia: To his credit, Erdogan has reached out to Armenia and with U.S. assistance Armenia and Turkey may establish diplomatic relations (unless the Armenian presence in Nagorno-Karabakh gets in the way). But the refusal of Turkey to acknowledge its role in the Armenian Genocide is precisely why Europe is so skeptical of the Turks. Anyone wanting to know more about this should read some of the books and academic papers of Clark University Professor Taner Akcam. He’s one of the few Turks who has been willing to call what the Turks did to the Armenians by its proper name; genocide.

    5) Poverty: Turkey is in the bottom third of nations in the world in literacy, infant mortality and life expectancy. It is in the bottom half of nations in the world in per capita income.

    The Leveretts are right; Turkey is an interesting nation well worth keeping an eye on. The nation occupies an area of geographical significance and by the standards of most Muslim majority nations it isn’t as backwards as many of the others.

    But it has a very long way to go and there is no guarantee that it will leave its “third world” status behind.

    Exaggerating Turkish prospects is as silly and unproductive as exaggerating Iranian prospects.