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An Unlikely Trio Can Iran, Turkey, and the United States Become Allies?


By Mustafa Akyol

Insanity, it is often said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. When it comes to the Middle East, writes Stephen Kinzer, a veteran foreign correspondent, Washington has been doing just that. Hence, in Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future, he proposes a radical new course for the United States in the region. The United States, he argues, needs to partner with Iran and Turkey to create a “powerful triangle” whose activities would promote a culture of democracy and combat extremism.
This is, of course, a counterintuitive argument. At the moment, Iran, with its radical ideology and burgeoning nuclear program, is one of Washington’s biggest headaches. And although Turkey is a longtime U.S. ally, the U.S.-Turkish relationship has recently been tested. Last June, for example, Turkey’s representative on the UN Security Council voted against U.S.-backed sanctions on Iran. These days, most of Washington is asking, “Who lost Turkey?” rather than envisioning more extensive cooperation with it.
Yet Kinzer’s U.S.-Iranian-Turkish alliance is a long-term project, and the idea has ample grounding in the modern history of the region. Unlike other Muslim countries there, Kinzer shows, Iran and Turkey have at least a century’s worth of experience struggling for political freedom, during which they “developed an understanding of democracy, and a longing for it.” This means that they share some fundamental values with the United States. Moreover, Iran and Turkey have educated middle classes — bases for strong civil societies. The two countries even share strategic goals with the United States: a desire to see Iraq and Afghanistan stabilized and radical Sunni movements such as al Qaeda suppressed.
CARROTS ARE FOR DONKEYS
Still, Kinzer’s power triangle could not emerge in today’s world. Iran, he writes, “would have to change dramatically” and turn into a democracy before such an alliance could be formed. How that would happen — a truly daunting question — is unclear, but in the meantime, Kinzer proposes a twofold strategy: engage with the current regime as effectively as possible and wait for the day when the country’s democratically minded (and, as he calls them, “reliably pro-American”) masses make their way to power.
Engagement, of course, is already the Obama administration’s stated policy, but Kinzer urges Washington to be bolder, that is, to launch “direct, bilateral, comprehensive, and unconditional negotiations” with Tehran. Nixon’s diplomatic breakthrough with communist China, he reminds readers, came at a time when Beijing was supplying weapons to North Vietnamese soldiers, who were using them to kill Americans. “Nixon did not make good behavior a condition of negotiation,” Kinzer notes. “He recognized that diplomacy works in precisely the opposite way. Agreement comes first; changes in behavior follow.”
Kinzer also criticizes the tone of current U.S. diplomacy, which does not give the Iranians what he thinks they are really looking for: “respect, dignity, a restoration of lost pride.” This makes a so-called carrot-and-stick approach to Tehran counterproductive. That “may be appropriate for donkeys,” Kinzer writes, “but not for dealing with a nation ten times older than [the United States].” The key to turning Iran from foe to friend is not to make Iran’s regime feel more threatened; it is to make it feel more secure.
Even then, there are many imponderables about Iran, and the current regime may be unwilling to partner with the United States no matter the tone of U.S. overtures. Kinzer’s only advice here is for the United States to avoid being emotional, “do nothing that will make that partnership more difficult to achieve when conditions are right,” and, if negotiations do begin, make “no concessions to Iran’s regime that weaken Iranians who are persecuted for defending democratic values.” Yet Kinzer leaves unclear how that delicate balance could be maintained and offers little guidance for policymakers looking for a more practical road map.
CLASH WITHIN A CIVILIZATION
The other leg of Kinzer’s proposed triangle, the U.S.-Turkish partnership, is much more realistic, having already been institutionalized by decades of cooperation between the two countries, and deserves closer attention. Although Turkey’s supposed shift away from secularism toward Islamism has raised eyebrows in the West, it should not. In fact, Turkey’s new path may actually increase the benefits of the U.S.-Turkish relationship, as Kinzer passionately argues.
To understand why, one must abandon the standard narrative about Turkey’s recent history. According to that story, Turkey was once the sick man of Europe, trapped in religious obscurantism. Then, Kemal Atatürk came along with westernizing reforms and took the nation on a great secular leap forward. Unfortunately, however, the forces of darkness survived underground and have recently reemerged in the guise of the quasi-religious Justice and Development Party (AKP).
At the heart of this story is a battle between Western enlightenment and obscurantism. But in fact, Turkey’s real dichotomy has always been between its westernizers and its modernizers. Whereas the westernizers, led by Atatürk, sought to remodel Turkey into a fully European nation, emphasizing cultural westernization and secularization, the modernizers called for political and economic reform but insisted on preserving the traditional culture and religion at the same time.
After winning control of the country after World War I, the westernizers imposed a top-down cultural revolution and used their tight grip on power to transform Turkey, in the words of their own witty dictum, “for the people, in spite of the people.” They ordered citizens to wear Western clothing, such as the brimmed hat, and listen to Western music, such as opera, and they disbanded almost all religious institutions. But only a small part of the population embraced these radical changes, convincing the revolutionaries that democracy had to be abandoned in favor of benevolent authoritarianism.
The modernizers, on the other hand, championed democracy and favored reforming Turkey through economic development, calling for free trade and private enterprise. Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, who came to power in 1950 in the country’s first free elections, soon became their icon. He halted the cultural revolution, eased the repression of religion, and presided over an economic boom — affording him three electoral victories in a row.
But his efforts ran afoul of the westernizers, and he was executed in 1961 by a pro-Atatürk junta. In the 1980s, the modernizers’ torch was picked up by Prime Minister (and later President) Turgut Özal, and more recently, it was picked up by the AKP, which has been in power since 2002.
Of course, the AKPs founders, including the current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, originally arose from a third force in Turkish politics — Islamism. But over time, they reformed, both out of a sense pragmatism and because of the increasingly liberal outlook of their base, the growing Islamic middle class. And despite their leftover religious rhetoric, the AKP rejects true Islamists’ most basic goal — the creation of an Islamic state.
The differences between the westernizers and the modernizers have influenced Turkish foreign policy. The modernizers have never shared the westernizers’ ideological distaste for the East and began opening up to it after the Cold War. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union dominated the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Middle East, leaving Turkey feeling isolated and surrounded by enemies. When the Soviet Union fell, then President Özal began to visit many Arab and Central Asian capitals and set up business exchanges. At the same time, he maintained close ties with the United States and other NATO allies.
After Özal’s death, in 1993, Turkey suffered a “lost decade” of unstable coalition governments; an indirect coup, when the prime minister resigned due to military pressure; and two terrible economic crises. The country was left with very little capacity for, or interest in, independent activity abroad. That changed in 2002, when the AKP came to power and immediately faced a fateful decision: whether to allow U.S. troops to use Turkish territory to invade Iraq. Caught between a crucial ally and an unpopular war, the AKP government somewhat hesitantly favored opening Turkish borders to the troops. But Turkey’s AKP-majority parliament, to the surprise of the United States and many others, said no.
Although Ankara was at first unsure whether it had done the right thing, an almost nationwide consensus soon emerged that the war in Iraq was disastrous and Turkey had done well to stay out of it. For its refusal to support the invasion of Iraq, Turkey enjoyed rising popularity across the Middle East, boosting not only the prestige of Turkey’s diplomats there but also the economic fortunes of its businesspeople, who were suddenly much more attractive partners to those in the Middle East.
The country’s recent vote against UN sanctions on Iran should be seen in this context. The Turks have learned that they can gain — both in standing and economically — by declining to join the United States when it acts in ways that seem needlessly aggressive. Although Turkey has many of the same foreign policy goals as the United States, it prefers to achieve them through the kind of soft power it displayed recently in its dealings with Iran. In May, Brazil and Turkey convinced Iran to sign a nuclear-exchange deal similar to the ultimately unsuccessful one the United States had helped broker six months before. Rather than praising the deal, Washington balked and pressed for sanctions anyway. This move surprised Erdogan, who believed that U.S. President Barack Obama had written him and Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in April to ask them to negotiate just such an agreement. Although the Obama administration claims that the Turks misinterpreted the letter, many in Turkey nonetheless believe that whereas Ankara has remained true to Obama’s initial calls for peaceful engagement, Obama has given in to the U.S. Congress’ more hawkish tone.
BAD NEWS, GOOD NEWS
Far from being a fleeting creation of the AKP, as some assume, this new, independent-minded Turkey is here to stay. For the rise of the AKP is much more a result of changes in Turkish society than their cause. The new Muslim entrepreneurial middle class, which emerged thanks to Özal’s free-market revolution of the 1980s, already outnumbers and economically outperforms the staunchly secular old elite. It is this class that makes up the modernizers’ base, and its vision is likely to guide Turkey in the years to come.
These Turkish modernizers are neither socialists like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, who wants to put an end to the capitalist system, nor radical Islamists in the same vein as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who wants to destroy Israel. In fact, for several years, Erdogan tried to enhance Turkey’s diplomatic ties with Israel, denouncing anti-Semitism, visiting Tel Aviv, welcoming Israeli companies to do business in Turkey, hosting Israeli President Shimon Peres, and initiating indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria. The rift came only at the end of 2008, when Israel launched catastrophic strikes against Gaza — which was seen as an insult to Erdogan, who had hosted then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for peace talks only four days before the attack. The rift widened in June after Israel’s lethal raid on a Gaza-bound Turkish aid ship.
As Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has often articulated, what the AKP seeks is a peaceful and prosperous Middle East integrated through trade and investment. These goals are very much in line with those of the United States. The difference is one of style, and Turkey will continue to diverge from the United States if Washington tries to realize its vision with hard power instead of the soft power that Ankara wields.
Whether this is good or bad news for the United States depends on how one envisions U.S. foreign policy objectives. Should the United States seek as many loyal, unquestioning allies as possible in a perpetual hard-power game? Or can it rely on independent, diplomatically inclined partners to promote security and prosperity in an increasingly complex world?
If it seeks the latter, this new Turkey will be an asset, as Kinzer notes. The fact that Turkey “has escaped from America’s orbit,” he writes, has given Turkey prestige that will be beneficial to both it and the United States. Now, “Turkey can go places, engage partners, and make deals that America cannot.”
FROM ZERO TO HERO
Beyond diplomacy, Turkey’s most valuable contribution to the troubled region might well be its synthesis of Islam, democracy, and capitalism. For years, the West assumed that westernizer-ruled Turkey offered just that model. But as Kinzer explains, “For most of Turkey’s modern history, the Muslim world has seen [the country] as an apostate,” having “no religious legitimacy” and acting “as Washington’s lackey.” Now, by becoming more Muslim, modern, and independent, Turkey has finally become appealing to Arabs. Indeed, a staggering 75 percent of those surveyed in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, and Syria named Turkey as a model for the synthesis of Islam and democracy in a recent survey by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, a liberal Turkish think tank.
No wonder Turkish products have become popular in the Middle East in recent years and Arab tourists have flooded Istanbul. Although they are banned by some conservative clerics, Turkish soap operas are hits on Arab television stations, and they promote a more flexible and individualistic form of Muslim culture. Turkish entrepreneurs, meanwhile, have invested billions in Middle Eastern countries. And the Sufi-inspired Gülen Movement, led by Fethullah Gülen, a popular Turkish cleric, has opened over 1,000 schools from Asia to Africa, with the goal of creating a generation of students well versed in the secular sciences and a distinctively Turkish form of Islam.
All this should be refreshing, not alarming. Turkish Islam has always been more flexible than other forms of the faith, such as Saudi Wahhabism. In the past few decades, moreover, it has become even more liberal as the Turkish middle class has grown more individualistic and welcoming of reformist theology. One Turkish commentator recently observed in his column in the Islamic daily newspaper Yeni Safak that the young generation wants to hear about “the Qur’an and freedom,” rather than “the Qur’an and obedience.”
Of course, Turkey is far from perfect. The country’s two-century-long struggle to become a modern, democratic nation is hardly complete. The AKP has contributed notably to the effort, through economic and political reforms that serve not only conservative Muslims but also non-Muslim minorities, but there is still much to do. Erdogan faces an election next year and will need to show himself to be more tolerant of dissent to win it. He needs to be careful to avoid appearing too close to Iran, Hamas, or other Islamists at the risk of damaging Turkey’s credibility in the West — a balance that President Abdullah Gül, a former AKP foreign minister, has been more diligent in tending to. Meanwhile, the whole country must work to solve its most fatal domestic problem: the 25-year-long armed conflict with Kurdish nationalists. Since a military solution has proved unsuccessful, engagement along the lines of the British with the Irish Republican Army may now be the only option, but so far, the AKP’s initiatives have been too timid and the opposition’s stance too unhelpful.
In his book, Kinzer points to such domestic problems and reminds the reader that Turkey needs to develop further before it can become an influential global actor. But he says that the United States also needs to change by becoming more modest on the global stage. Americans, he suggests, need to realize that “they lack some of the historical and cultural tools necessary to navigate effectively through the Middle East and surrounding regions.” If they accept this truth and admit they need help, “Turkey becomes America’s next best friend.”
Turkey is ready to play that role, so this part of Kinzer’s power triangle is quite feasible. But the potential for Iran to complete it is, for now, constrained by powerful political obstacles. For, as Kinzer puts it, “the flame of freedom still burns in Iran — although, unlike in Turkey, it is not allowed to burn in public.”
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Vision 21 is Pakistan based non-profit, non- party Socio-Political organisation. We work through research and advocacy for developing and improving Human Capital, by focusing on Poverty and Misery Alleviation, Rights Awareness, Human Dignity, Women empowerment and Justice as a right and obligation. We act to promote and actively seek Human well-being and happiness by working side by side with the deprived and have-nots.

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