Why Turkey should be tough on Iran
Turkish decision makers should simulate the first day of Iran’s nuclear breakthrough, and count down to the present day.
Iran FM Salehi with Turkish counterpart Salehi Photo: REUTERS/Umit Bektas
Anuclear Iran will be tantamount to the collapse of the over five centuryold
balance of power between Turkey and Iran which was first created by the Battle
of Chaldiran between the Ottoman and Safavid empires in 1514.
Selim the 1st (or Yavuz Sultan Selim Khan – the first Sultan of the empire who
claimed the caliphate) overcame the Safavid Empire of Persia was Istanbul able
to exert full control and authority over eastern Anatolia and Northern Iraq.
However, for some time now Ankara’s sovereignty in eastern Anatolia and vital
national security interests in Northern Iraq have been under significant Iranian
threat via proxy war, subversive activities, and political and military
machinations. Iran also stands in the way of Turkey’s regional hegemonic agenda,
especially in Syria, and in a greater sense in the Levant
Throughout history, this corridor has always been a natural route
for Turkish expansions into the region we call Greater Middle East today. As a
matter of fact, just a couple of years after Sultan Selim Khan vanquished the
Safavid Empire in Chaldiran he fought another regional power, the Mamluk
Sultanate, at the Battle of Merj Dabik, and conquered Syria, Lebanon and
Palestine, or in other words a large portion of the Levant.
juncture, understanding the geopolitical mentality of the Ottoman expansion and
its correlation with Iran is of crucial importance. In order to project power in
the Levant, Turkey has to be safe from the Iranian threat. And vice versa: Iran,
whether the Safavids or the contemporary Islamic Republic, must keep Turkey
under constant threat to secure the Levant and/or avert Turkish expansion. Thus,
Turkish decision-makers should well understand the geopolitical logic of Selim
Khan’s perception of Iran as the rock separating between Turkey being caged into
Anatolia or being a real regional power (which is definitely not same thing as
being popular in the region).
Iran’s desire to keep Turkey constantly
under threat resurfaced in the 1990s and 2000s via Tehran’s proxy war attempts.
Be it the Kurdish Hezbollah or PKK terrorism, Tehran will do its utmost to keep
Ankara in trouble with constant low-intensity conflicts.
Put simply, if
the whole Turkish 2nd Army, which is responsible for the Iraqi, Syrian and
Iranian borders, was not dealing with the terrorism threat, it would probably be
occupied with power projection activities beyond its field of
Iranian strategists are aware of this fact. Turkey
overcame Damascus when it was harboring PKK in the 1990s through an escalation
strategy and gunboat diplomacy.
Can those measures be taken against a
nuclear Iran? This is just a hypothetical question for now, however, in the near
future it could be a very real scenario facing the Turkish security
TO COUNTERBALANCE a nuclear threat from Iran, Turkish
leaders will have only two options. The first is to pursue mass conventional
military modernization and procurement, and an aggressive shift in military
doctrine. This means an additional burden on Turkish taxpayers and a great cost
in terms of investments in social improvement and economic
The second option is to pursue its own military nuclear
program. Technically, however, this would be almost impossible to accomplish due
to Turkey’s ties with the Western security system and commitment to the NPT
The only other thing Turkey could do is depend on NATO guarantees
(Article 5), or the US nuclear umbrella.
However, initiation of Article 5
necessitates a unanimous decision of all member countries.
words, it would be tantamount to pledging Turkey’s national security, at the
existential level, to a consensus in which even Estonian or Lithuanian refusal
could prevent a joint move.
When it comes to the American nuclear
umbrella, the situation might be complicated.
After the Cold War, there
is no US tactical nuclear capability left on Turkish soil. It is known that
there are nuclear warheads at the Incirlik base, but Turkey does not hold the
Briefly, a nuclear Iran cannot be, or only at a very
steep cost, deterred by Ankara. This reality probably spells the end for
Turkey’s historical imperial character. Besides, a completely secure Islamic
regime cannot tolerate both Turkey’s secular constitution and the AK Party’s
democratic conservatism, which is at peace with liberalism and an open
Moreover, within the sectarian fragmentation of the region, a
nuclear Iran will most likely spearhead the Shi’ite bloc against Turkey more
Thus, Ankara either gets tough with Iran now, or lets a
nuclear Iran go tough with Turkey in the near future.
IN SUMMARY, Turkish
decision makers should simulate the first day of Iran’s nuclear breakthrough,
and count down to the present day. Then they can clearly see that every single
day counts, and that Tehran’s nuclear breakthrough has to be prevented at all
Turkish mass media keeps voicing the opinion that the military
option would be a nightmare for the region, and defends muddle-through efforts
that can do nothing but buy time for Iranian President Mahmoud
They are correct in saying that the military option would be
a nightmare – but on the other hand, it would also be a nightmare to allow a
tyranny which is also Turkey’s historical geopolitical rival in the region to
arm itself with nuclear weapons.
We will soon see whether anyone in
Turkey today clearly perceives the Iranian threat as did Sultan Selim Khan, or
whether “sober and wise” intellectuals, seeing the mushroom cloud over Istanbul,
keep repeating that “the military option against Iran would be a nightmare for
the region” – probably from the safety of an NBC shelter.
The author, who
served as a post-doctoral fellow for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic
Studies at Bar-Ilan University, holds a PhD from the Turkish War College, and a
Master’s degree from the Turkish Military Academy.