At the core of the Turkish-Israeli rift is Iran

Turkey might think it has been gaining influence on the Arab street, its embrace of Teheran has diminished its credibility in Arab capitals.

saeed jalili_521 (photo credit: Associated Press)
saeed jalili_521
(photo credit: Associated Press)
At the core of the tensions between Turkey and Israel is their disagreement over Iran. Whereas Israel sees Iran as a major existential threat, Turkey, although purporting to prevent Teheran from acquiring nuclear weapons, does not view a nuclear Iran as a direct threat. From the Israeli perspective, Turkey’s equating Iran’s nuclear ambitions with Israel’s latent program, its seeming embrace of Hamas, its efforts to broker agreements that serve to diffuse pressure on Teheran and its opposition to international sanctions all demonstrate that Ankara has made a strategic shift toward Israel’s avowed enemy.
The Israelis are convinced that Turkey has paid no heed to their country’s national security concerns in fostering close ties with Iran and its proxies. Turkey’s economic and energy ties with Iran are well-known. Had Turkey decided to play a constructive role in addressing Iran’s nuclear ambitions to safeguard these interests, as well as regional stability and peace, it would have been viewed positively.
However, its embrace of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hamas, and its characterization of Israel as the greatest threat to the Middle East, has convinced Israelis that Turkey’s shift toward the east is not merely due to its economic and energy needs. To support peace and stability requires rejecting the radical and violent rhetoric and actions of extremist states and groups. Israel insists that one can’t be a friend of Iran and an enemy of Hamas and Hizbullah. For Israel, all three represent an existential threat.
And as the Israelis see it, Turkey’s reluctance to sufficiently recognize and address the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon is deeply distressing.
The recent WikiLeaks release of thousands of US diplomatic cables paint a clear picture: the global community, and particularly the leaders of the Arab world, recognize – and are threatened by – Iran’s dogged pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Also reflected in numerous cables is the clear skepticism of American diplomats that Turkey fully understands the terrifying ramifications of a nucleararmed Iran, be that in the form of nuclear arms race or the potential of nuclear regional conflagration.
THE RESULT of the perceived Turkish shift toward Iran further undermines Ankara’s ability to serve as a mediator in the region. Rather than being seen as contributing to playing a useful role in curbing Iran’s nuclear pursuit based on its ability to serve as a bridge between Iran and the West, it is instead viewed as an enabler of Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions. This perception, many Israeli officials argue, was made more acute with the Turkish-Brazilian deal with Iran to swap nuclear fuel last spring. The deal largely mirrored the arrangement that the P5+1 had offered Iran in the fall of 2009, in which Teheran was to send fourfifths of its low-enriched uranium, about 1,200 kilograms, to Russia to be converted to fuel rods to be used for medical purposes.
But by the time the Turkish-Brazilian deal was reached, Iran had nearly doubled its enriched nuclear stockpile. Sending the same amount or even half of Iran’s low-enriched uranium out of the country at that juncture would have left a sufficient amount (more than 1,200 kilograms) to enable further enrichment toward a nuclear weapon. Even worse, Iran was essentially given the option to end the arrangement at any time it wished. For Israel, the deal was nothing less than an effort by Turkey to cast a shadow over Iran’s nuclear program and present it as a nation focused only on peaceful use of nuclear technology. Of course, the plan was subsequently rejected by the international community.
This summer, with the Turkish-Brazilian deal rejected and engagement efforts stalled, Turkey’s rejection of international sanctions at the UN solidified concerns that it has become an obstacle to peace and stability. The UN vote was not just about economic sanctions; it was about mobilizing the international community against a nuclear Iran. Turkey’s opposition was not only in defiance of the American-led international campaign, but also a blatant attempt to paint an image of an Iran as a peace-seeking country. The explanation – that Turkey wanted to leave the door open to diplomacy – left much to be desired.
As one high-ranking Israeli official put it, by ignoring the growing Iranian nuclear threat, and even serving as an impediment to international efforts to halt its nuclear pursuit, Turkey has shown that it is operating in a short-sighted manner that leaves the door open not to diplomacy, but to greater conflict.
Finally, Turkey’s linking of Iran’s nuclear pursuit to Israel’s nuclear program has further discredited it. From the Israeli perspective, the prospects for a nuclear free Mideast, as adopted by a UN resolution last May with support from the US, creates a false equivalence between Israel, which has never threatened any country, and Iran which has repeatedly threatened its existence. As the concerns illuminated by WikiLeaks demonstrate, it is Iran that poses a threat to global and regional peace and stability.
Turkey’s championing the notion of a nuclear free Middle East, therefore, further undercuts its once long-held relationship with Israel. Whereas it could have continued to serve as a mediator between Israel and Syria and to use its influence to moderate Hamas’s behavior, it has given up its potential to again become an intermediary.
DESPITE THESE developments, Turkey still has an opportunity to play a constructive role. The global concerns made public by WikiLeaks documents makes Iran’s weapons pursuit impossible to ignore. This fact, coupled with renewed efforts by the P5+1 to engage Iran, offer Turkey a chance to revise its posture. As the P5+1 revisits the notion of a nuclear fuel swap that would fill the gaps and provide the assurances that the Turkish-Brazilian deal ignored, Turkey should stand in support of these efforts. As one of the few countries that speaks directly with Iran, it can play an essential role in communicating incentives and potential consequences. In so doing, Turkey could also take steps that would ease its tensions with Israel.
Supporting international efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program, while disabusing itself of the notion of a nuclear free Middle East, would be a significant step toward reestablishing trust. It would also improve the prospects of reaching a rapprochement regarding the flotilla episode.
Furthermore, while Turkey might be under the impression that it has been gaining influence on the Arab street, its embrace of Teheran has diminished its credibility in Arab capitals. If Turkey wants to exhibit regional leadership, it must demonstrate that it stands completely opposed to an Iran with nuclear weapons.
Even more than the heated rhetoric or the fatal flotilla incident, Turkey’s posture regarding Iran has left no doubt among Israelis that it can no longer be trusted. That is why it needs to publicly recognize the importance of reaching an agreement acceptable to all parties concerned about Iran nuclear program, while actively joining and assisting international efforts to that end. Such a change of posture would have meaningful benefits for both Israeli- Turkish relations, and help in reducing the prospect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Doing so would also demonstrate that Turkey’s regional leadership will neither be short-sighted nor short-lived.

The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.