Iran has attracted close scrutiny for its nuclear program and is now also receiving attention because of its strong support for the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Through rhythmic diplomacy, zero-problem policy and a maximum cooperation approach, Turkey has been concentrating its efforts on improving its bilateral political and economic ties and relations with Iran, which attracts attention owing to its rich energy resources. Ankara has bridged the gap between Western countries and Iran, which has been isolated by the West because of its nuclear program. Ankara even dared to side with Iran at a UN Security Council voting session in June,2010. Despite these strong relations, Turkey and Iran have conflicting interests and policies on regional issues. Syria, which is currently addressing the popular uprising, Iraq, which is still struggling with sectarian disagreements, and Lebanon appear to be the new spheres of the traditional bilateral rivalry and contention. Dr. Bülent Keneş, editor-in-chief of the Today’s Zaman daily, who has outlined the anatomy of Turkish-Iranian relations of the last three decades in his recently published book titled “İran: Tehdit mi, Fırsat mı? (Iran: A Threat or an Opportunity?)” has given an interview on Turkey-Iran relations and Iranian activities in Turkey and its controversial nuclear program.
Let us start with the title of the book. You are asking whether Iran is an opportunity or a threat. Will the readers find an answer to this question in the book?
This is an academic-based book that has been compiled from the relevant chapters of my doctoral dissertation. The book does not state any claims as to whether Iran is an opportunity or a threat for Turkey; the phenomena and developments are presented empirically. The readers will decide for themselves whether Iran is an opportunity or a threat. There are supporting arguments for both conclusions in the book. But unlike propagandist publications, the book never asserts that Iran is either only a threat or only an opportunity. I personally believe that Iran offers significant opportunities for Turkish interests. However, I also think that bilateral relations should be repositioned in a way to maintain some relevant distance. While it is constructive, the visible improvement in the relations with Iran since 2005 may be problematic.
What are the downsides of the rapprochement?
In recent years, we have been observing how Shiite expansionism has been concentrating its efforts on penetrating Turkish society. This is not covered in the book and it is my subjective view. With the emphasis on threat, we have to note that this threat is different from others. Unlike the threats of American imperialism or Israeli influence, this is a threat that is sneaky, uncertain, amorphous and the pretense of a friendship. There is also an inability to be alert to this expansionism. The influence of the threat is extensive because the threat is not perceived as a threat by the people. For instance, you attract unexpected criticism or reaction from certain segments of Turkish society if you adopt a critical approach towards Iran. And when you criticize the position of Iran on Syria, because of the Iranian influence within civil society a pro-Assad stance is raised and promoted in this country, and these people prefer to omit the fact that Iran has extended its full support to the ongoing brutality in Syria.
Where do these criticisms come from?
These circles include some radical Islamists. More interestingly, some neo-nationalist circles with a left-wing orientation also raise similar criticisms. In recent times, they have all adopted a pro-Iranian stance. This actually stems from Euroasianism, which is essentially based on a pro-Iranian approach. You may know that Alexander Dugin, the theoretician of Euroasianism, in his book on Russian geopolitics depicts Iran as a partner and Turkey as a threat. To me, what is graver about the threat is that it is concealed and that our people are not alarmed by it despite all of Iran’s efforts at penetration and attempts to expand its sphere of influence in Turkey.
In the book, you underline that the Turkish Alevis are not under the influence of Iran. Why is that? Do the Turkish Alevis place secondary importance upon their sectarian identity?
This matter has an intricate historical background, but in modern times, the Turkish Alevism, as can be seen by all, has aligned itself with secular-Kemalist circles. Therefore, contrary to some expectations that they should have been influenced by the Iranian revolution because of their sectarian closeness to Iranian Shii identity, the Alevis have expressed the strongest opposition to the outcomes of the revolution. But there are also Sunni Islamists who have an affinity with Iran and endorse its actions no matter what -- even if it means support for the massacres in Syria. On the other hand, it is impossible that the Turkish Alevis support the Iranian regime. The dominant element in the Alevi identity in this country has been secularism rather than Alevism.
Do you think that the makers of foreign policy in Turkey are aware of this threat?
Of course, all this does not necessarily mean that Turkey should dissolve its relations with Iran. Iran is one of our neighbors that we need to get along with. But I think it is legitimate to ask this. If you receive hundreds of emails when you are being critical of Iran and adopting an anti-Iran stance, I think it tells you something. I do not think that any column or comment critical of Turkey would receive such a strong response and reaction from people of different backgrounds in Iran. This means that Turkey has not permeated into the social layers in Iran, whereas Iran has expanded its sphere of influence far within Turkish society. What makes me concerned is not the natural interaction process between the nations; but I am concerned about the deliberate efforts to infiltrate. And I think foreign policy makers in this country are not aware of the problem with its all dimensions.
Trade may not be the only goal of Iranian companies in Turkey. Are there any objective indicators of this threat?
According to data from the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges (TOBB), Iran launched 590 companies in Turkey in 2011 alone. This represents a 41 percent increase in the number of companies so far (which is currently 2,140). You might say that the volume of bilateral trade between Turkey and Iran has expanded. Trade has grown from $11 billion to $15 billion. But this is mostly due to oil, and natural gas we import from Iran, and for this, Iran does not need to establish so many companies in Turkey. Because I do not have the exact details, I cannot speculate on the goals or orientation of these companies. However, it is evident that the strongest actors in the Iranian economy are the Revolutionary Guards and the corporations affiliated with the Bonyads (foundations which are aligned with the regime). Most of the privatization that has taken place in Iran since the period of Rafsanjani has been carried out in favor of the corporations controlled by the Revolutionary Guards. Forty percent of privatization in the fields of communication, transportation and energy has not been done properly; the relevant corporations in such privatizations have not really been privatized; instead, they have been transferred to the control of the Revolutionary Guards and companies subordinate to the Bonyads. If this is the reality in the Iranian economy, imagine the corporations that are active in Turkey. I don’t accuse all of them, but there are a lot of reasons for us to have suspicions that the Iranian corporations that shut down in the Gulf states in connection with the most recent sanctions have moved to Turkey and that they are not involved solely in ordinary commercial activities. Their activities are not just limited to commerce. In the first half of the 1980s, a number of books and magazines were published. Books in Persian were translated into Turkish. Maybe 70 percent of these translated works were Iranian propaganda and were marketed at low prices. It is obvious that Iran expanded its sphere of influence with these books and magazines. These constitute the grounds for the reactions against the critics of Iran I have just referred to.
What are the benefits for Turkey in the partnership between Turkey and Iran?
In this matter, a comparison between the price of natural gas Turkey buys from Iran and the price fixed by other countries might give us an idea. Even at times when bilateral ties were at their best between Turkey and Iran, the price of Iranian natural gas was higher than the Russian price. Up until last week, we used to purchase natural gas from Iran at $423 per thousand cubic meters, whereas Russia charged $418 for the same amount. The friendship we assume that Iran has for us is actually just the opposite. Not only this, Iran last week raised this rate to over $500 per thousand cubic meters. Of course, we cannot separate this rise from the disagreement between Turkey and Iran over Syria. If we are strategic partners, why is a slight disagreement on price taken to international arbitration? We see a real friendship is with Azerbaijan in this matter. The price of Azerbaijani natural gas is $280 per thousand cubic meters.
Does this process affect Turkey’s role as a broker in the Iranian nuclear crisis?
The negotiations did not start with Turkey, and they will not end with Turkey. This process has been at the top of the international community’s agenda since the 1990s. Turkey’s role in the talks is understandable considering that it has to develop its interests in the region; but this is not something it can get concrete results in. In the Shatt-al Arab (Ervendrud) crisis in the 1970s, Turkey hosted the relevant talks. Iranian and Iraqi officials traveled to Istanbul many times. But the deal was brokered in Algeria in 1975. Back then, Iran made sure that Turkey did not reap the rewards of its diplomatic activism. And last week Iran again played the same tricky game and tried to move negotiations venue to Baghdad or Damascus. Let’s remember that Turkey and Brazil voted against the UN Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Iran in 2010. However, in the aftermath of the vote, Ahmedinejad, in a political rally, relying on humiliating discourse, said: “Do you think that the international community is opposed to our nuclear program? No, they took this decision to punish Turkey and Brazil.” This is diplomacy and politics a la Iranian.
The goal is not nuclear energy
In the first chapter of the book, you extensively cover the impact of taqiyyah (deception) and kitman (concealing) principles of the Shiite doctrine on Iranian foreign policy. One of the most discussed and controversial issues in the world currently is whether the Iranian nuclear program will culminate in the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Is Iran concealing its true goals on the nuclear issue?
The world’s richest energy resources are to be found in Iran and its surrounding regions. Its great oil and natural gas resources constitute 85-90 percent of Iranian exports. But it imports a substantial amount of fuel/gasoline from China and some other countries. It is interesting that it imports the energy it needs when it is a natural gas and oil-rich country. I think the answer to this question is why a country which possesses the technology needed to create nuclear facilities does not pay attention to the construction of refineries. In his lifetime, Ayatollah Khomeini adopted a strong stance on this matter. Whereas Iraq employed weapons of mass destruction in the Iran-Iraq War, Khomeini banned the use of chemical weapons that cause mass destruction. In the aftermath of the revolution, he also ceased the nuclear program. If the nuclear program had been aimed solely at energy generation, Khomeini would not have halted the program, which was started by the shah, just after the 1979 revolution. Since Khomeini was against any kind of weapons of mass destruction, he put a stop to the nuclear program. However, subsequent to the death of Khomeini, Ali Khamenei, who was promoted to a higher position as religious guide and given the title ayatollah despite not being eligible for this post because of his position in the religious hierarchy, allowed the nuclear program to be resumed.
One of the controversies between Turkey and Iran in the 1990s was the Iranian support for radical organizations and groups. It was argued that Iran was responsible for the political assassinations of secular intellectuals including Uğur Mumcu and Ahmet Taner Kışlalı.
There is factual reality and artificial reality in regards to the radical terror organizations supported by Tehran regime. It is a reality that Iran has been supporting pro-Kurdish and some radical Islamist organizations and groups since the 1980s. But this does not necessarily mean that Iran is responsible for all the unresolved murders of the past. The secret state organizations and groups, relying on psychological warfare techniques, committed such crimes to consolidate the ultra-secularist system and the Kemalist order; in the meantime, it tried to cover up these acts by making reference to the anti-secular Iranian regime. Hezbollah in Turkey was created under the auspices of JİTEM (a gendarmerie intelligence service). But this does not mean that this organization does not work to promote Iranian interests. There are strong reports indicating that Hüseyin Velioğlu, who was the leader of Turkish Hezbollah and who was allegedly affiliated with JİTEM, has been staying in Tehran.
In the conclusion of the book, you argue that Iranian foreign policy was designed to protect Iranian national interests rather than the interests of Muslims.
The Iranian revolution was a full-fledged national revolution. Islamism was used to polish it. Iran did nothing to address the problems of Muslims in the Soviet Union after 1979 revolution. No steps were taken in respect to exporting revolution to Syria. However, Iran did everyhing to export its revolutiobn to distant countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. On the other hand, strong efforts were visible to export the revolution to the Gulf states. They did their best to destabilize the regime in Turkey. In the aftermath of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Iran did not care about the situation over there after the achieving of security for the Hazara people there. In the post-Soviet period, it has maintained strong cooperation with Russia in the region. Its stance and position pertaining to the situation in Chechnya is well known. The best it has done, at least at a rhetorical level, in the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is to adopt a neutral stance in the disagreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan.However, in reality, it supports Armenians; is this the proper course of action for a country that argues it is acting to protect the Islamic geography?
Tehran’s hypocrisy deepens the Shiite-Sunni schism
How would you comment on the inconsistent stance of Iran vis-à-vis the Arab Spring?
Iran, which has suppressed the democratic demands of its own people, sided with the people in Egypt and Tunisia. It remained reluctant to take a position on Libya, whereas it has sided with the regime’s oppression and atrocities in Syria. In Yemen and Bahrain, it supported the groups that rioted against the central government. This hypocritical stance of Tehran allowed Muslims to see the real face of Iran. But this also promotes its image among the Shiite elements in the region. As a result, the gap between the Sunnis and Shiites has widened. This inconsistent and hypocritical stance has also played a role in the strong emergence of the Sunni radicals -- e.g., the Salafis in Egypt -- onto the political stage.
The dissertation not completed because of Feb. 28 coup process
The story as well as the content of the book “İran: Tehdit mi, Fırsat mı? (Iran: A Threat or an Opportunity?) is interesting. Bülent Keneş had to interrupt his doctoral study at the Marmara University’s Institute of Middle East and Islamic Countries, where he also received his master’s degree after successful completion of a thesis titled “Image of Islam in Western Press,” which was published as a book in 1998, because of the Feb. 28 post-modern coup. Keneş decided to resume his work in 2009 after a pardon was issued for those students who had previously dropped out. This allowed him to complete his dissertation, “Change and Continuity in Iranian Foreign Policy (1979-2011),” which was initially supervised by current Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, in 2011. Just a few months later, he published part of his doctoral dissertation for general readers.
Who is Bülent Keneş?
Born in Malatya in 1969, Keneş studied political science and international relations at Bosporus University; he started working for the Zaman daily in 1994. Keneş, who served as director of the foreign news service for Zaman, has also worked as news coordinator at the Turkish Daily News, New York bureau chief of the Anatolia news agency and editor-in-chief of the Bugün daily. Dr. Bülent Keneş, who currently serves as the founding editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman, also teaches international relations, political science and communication at Fatih University.