In one of the most heated debates of this past weekend’s İstanbul World Political Forum, leading Iran experts called for a new tack by world powers to stem Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and prevent an ill-advised Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
Opinions on just what move should be taken varied greatly, from a call for more comprehensive sanctions by former US Undersecretary of Defense Dov Zakheim, to an appeal for an international about-face and new dialogue by veteran Middle East correspondent Stephen Kinzer. Despite disagreements between Kinzer and Zakheim on the way forward with Iran, however, both acknowledged that as the crisis deepens, a Turkish go-between mission might be more needed that ever. “This crisis is getting worse, and it deserves a determined effort at mediation,” Kinzer stated in an interview with Today’s Zaman. “That hasn’t been something that either Iran or the US have shown much willingness to start on their own, and renewed Turkish efforts to get the two sides talking would certainly be welcome.”
Amidst Washington and Tehran’s relationship of acrimony and perpetual recriminations, Turkey has long provided a channel for the two powers to talk. Turkey also took its own steps towards curbing Iran’s nuclear program in 2010, when it and Brazil penned a deal with Iran to trade its stockpile of low-enriched uranium for fuel rods that would have been used in a research reactor. The deal, which surprised Western powers and came in the wake of a fruitless, five-year slog by the EU to reach an agreement with Iran, was praised by Ankara as proof that third parties could break the stalemate between Iran and nations which have struggled to negotiate with the pariah state for years. But the deal was eventually rejected by the UN and skeptics in Washington, who said that the swap would leave Iran with too much low-enriched uranium while stalling talks and softening pressure for sanctions.
The incident, says Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University Stephen Walt, shows that any Turkish efforts are certain to come up against a “highly institutionalized” relationship between the West and Iran which has developed over the last three decades. “I’m skeptical about an increased role by Turkey. Both sides have become so entrenched that it’s hard to see an outside power redefine their relationship significantly. It’s a bit late in the game,” he said to Today’s Zaman over the weekend.
Kinzer, meanwhile, argues that although that deal eventually collapsed, “there was a lot of potential for a breakthrough, and now I think there’s a lot of regret that the US didn’t give it a lot of support.” Saying that a “single blow” approach to ending Iran’s nuclear program should be swapped out for a “realistic policy of drawing down the program” over several years, Kinzer said of the deal: “Skepticism wasn’t the right response. The right thing would be encouraging the deal and maybe pushing for more concrete terms. It was focused on building a little bit of trust and dialogue with Iran, which is the only way we’re going to understand what they want.”
The necessity of reengaging Iran was further echoed by former US Undersecretary of Defense Zakheim, who told Today’s Zaman in an interview: “There is absolutely a role for Turkey right now in getting Iran talking. The 2009 deal showed that they can broker some of these issues and that they can act as a leader in the Middle East.” But the former high-level statesman said that the most successful engagement would come with a twist -- if Turkey wants to bring stability to the crisis it must help normalize the most bitter Middle Eastern relationship of them all, opening a channel between Tehran and Tel Aviv. “It is more complex than simply getting Iran to ‘talk.’ I think the fundamental issue here is actually, how do you bring Israel and Iran to a point where they can start having dialogue? The only power that could really do that is Turkey,” Zakheim stated.
Performing that role, says Zakheim, has been complicated by the freefall in Israeli-Turkish relations which accompanied the 2010 killing of eight Turks and one Turkish-American during Israeli’s 2010 raid on the aid ship Mavi Marmara.
“So there are hurdles, but it is in everyone in the region’s interest to see at least an informal channel of communication established between these two powers,” said Zakheim. “That’s going to be a major component in the long-tem problem of Israel-Iranian relations … This is an extremely bitter relationship. The Iranian government is opposed to the very existence of Israel. But I think that given the chance, they would both want a way to better assess the other’s intentions.”
As pressure for another round of sanctions grows and fists remain clenched in Tehran, Tel Aviv and Washington, it would be easy to balk at calls for outreach. “But that’s why we need an outside power to act as a hotline, to help turn this deadlock around,” says Kinzer.