“As pressures increase on Iran, Tehran tries many tactics. For example, it threatens to respond to Western sanctions by closing the Strait of Hormuz. Tehran may also be planning to divide Iraq,” said retired Ambassador Temel İskit, evaluating Turkey's foreign policy challenges in 2012.
“Iraq's division would support Iran's claim to be the regional power. We cannot think of an Iraq independent of Iran. Iran has a great influence on Shiites,” he also said.
Ankara and Tehran have recently had meetings in the face of the United States' latest sanctions on Iran targeting Tehran's ability to sell crude oil. The European Union and Japan are also drawing up sanctions on Iran.
On that and more, İskit addressed the most challenging foreign policy questions of this year, answering our questions.
What do you expect to happen in the Middle East and North Africa in 2012, especially with regard to Turkey as the country in this region where hot developments have been taking place?
I don't have a crystal ball. But we can look at the present picture and discuss what Turkey can do in that environment. There are great instabilities in the countries of the region. The closest ones to Turkey are in Iraq and Syria. Contrary to the rest of the region, northern Iraq has become a place of stability. Even though Turkey still does not call that region “Iraqi Kurdistan,” the Kurdish administration has become an entity, a semi-state that Turkey cooperates with.
But the rest of Iraq is in turmoil.
The presence of American troops in Iraq was helping to keep a balance between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq, but with the departure of the American troops, the balance has gone. Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's attempt to arrest one of the country's top Sunni politicians, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, accusing him of running a hit squad targeting government officials, ignited the long-lasting Shiite-Sunni division. [Hashemi denies the allegations. He is staying as a guest of Iraqi Kurdish President Jalal Talabani, out of reach of security forces under Baghdad's control.] We don't know how this issue is going to evolve. Turkey supports Iraq's unity, but its influence is quite limited with regard to developments in Iraq. Turkey does not have influence when it comes to Shiites, and Maliki has not refrained from confronting Turkey. He is supported by Iran. For Sunnis, the benefits of siding with Turkey are not clear since this might strengthen the divisive forces in Iraq.
There are comments suggesting a possible Turkish-Kurdish-Sunni axis.
There are, but what is it going to lead to? Such a grouping would be against Maliki, the Shiites, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. Turkey wouldn't be able to afford being in that position; it would be harmful for Turkey to take such a biased stance. Turkey should be able to protect its objectivity as much as it can. Yes, there is a possibility that Iraq will be divided, and the United States would probably not have the power to interfere since US troops have left the country.
‘Moscow might provide refuge to Assad'
How does Iran play a role in that picture?
As pressures increase on Iran, Tehran tries many tactics. For example, it threatens to respond to Western sanctions by closing the Strait of Hormuz [a transit route for a fifth of the world's oil]. Tehran may also be planning to divide Iraq. Iraq's division would support Iran's claim to be the regional power. We cannot think of an Iraq independent of Iran. Iran has a great influence on Shiites.
What would you say about Iran's relations with Syria?
Iran does not have as direct of an influence on Syria as on Iraq, but Iran and Syria are traditional allies. Tehran would not like to see [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad fall. Moscow has more influence over Syria than Tehran. Russia has maintained support for the increasingly isolated Assad, whose nation has been one of Moscow's closest strategic partners in the Middle East and a big purchaser of its weapons. Russian warships recently docked at a Russian naval maintenance and supply facility in the Syrian port of Tartus to display support for the Assad government.
There were news reports that Assad may soon call Russia home.
It is likely that Moscow will provide Assad refuge, if that means the figurehead is gone, but the Assad regime is well and alive. Look at what happened in Egypt; Mubarak is gone but the military has the ropes now. What will happen in Syria is of utmost importance for Turkey. The first concern for Turkey is with regard to the flow of refugees from Syria, if growing instability leads to a refugee crisis. Turkey better continue to do what it is already doing: support dissidents of that country. However, supporting armed opposition groups would be a mistake; a military intervention would be unacceptable. Some Western writers, especially a number of American commentators, tend to suggest the idea that since a non-Muslim power's intervention in Syria would not be received well in the region, Turkey should do it because it has a claim to regional power status against Iran. This idea carries with it the air of provocation. Turkey's recent overconfidence makes it exposed to such calls with ulterior motives.
‘Time to be cautious for Turkey in foreign policy'
Opponents of the Syrian regime have suggested creating a buffer zone along the country's borders that would protect civilians and enable the army's soldiers to defect. Do you think Turkey can take this responsibility on?
For Turkey to do it, there needs to be a civil war in Syria leading to a flow of refugees. Until that happens, Turkey cannot do it, because if it does, this buffer zone will be a safe haven for Syria's armed opposition. But if thousands of refugees are fleeing Syria, then a buffer zone could be established on the Syrian side of the border. Even that would be risky because if Syrian armed forces try to attack those refugees, Turkey would have to send its fighter jets to the area. Back to Turkey's overconfidence, those changes and the situation of instability in the region are likely to teach Ankara its limits.
One incident that tested Ankara's limits was with regard to its policy toward Israel. Turkish foreign policy has unnecessarily been taken hostage by the situation in Gaza. Another incident involved Iran. Ankara's previous policy toward Iran made Turkey a guarantor for Tehran, though the situation changed recently as Ankara agreed to host NATO's early warning radar as part of a NATO missile defense system which is capable of countering ballistic missile threats from Iran.
With so much instability in its neighborhood, it is time Turkey becomes cautious in its foreign policy. It is better for Turkey to observe the situation around it carefully. No one knows how the events will evolve since there is currently a process of transition. And in a transition, being cautious is the most important virtue.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu visited Tehran last week and said Turkey was ready to host further talks with world powers and Iran over its nuclear program. In addition, Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani said after meeting with Turkish leaders in Ankara that Tehran supports the idea. What is happening?
Those sanctions would make Iran even more cornered as its ability to sell oil would be seriously harmed. Iran is already uneasy because its main ally in the region, Assad, is in a bad situation, and now comes more Western pressure. As I mentioned, to fight its isolation, Iran would try to use its influence on the Shiites of Iraq. It is unlikely that Iran will close the Strait of Hormuz as this will hurt Iran the most. Under the circumstances, Iran has another card, the card of negotiations. But Iran has to convince the West that it is sincere. It is also highly unlikely that the United States and Israel will resort to military measures against Iran since this would lead to a deepening of the world economic crisis. Therefore, it is likely that disagreements between Iran and the West will be long-lasting. In that environment, it is good that Turkey has the ability to talk with Iran, but that does not mean that Turkey does not have any problems with Iran, which may pose a constant threat [once it obtains] nuclear arms. Also Iran does not trust Turkey because of our Syria policy and because we agreed to host the NATO radar. All in all, relations between Turkey and Iran are not very bright, but both Ankara and Tehran will avoid serious conflict with each other. In this vein, Iran will not actively support the PKK [outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party].
‘2012 to be another lost year with regard to Turkey-EU relations'
What is your evaluation of Turkish-French relations in light of the recent developments with regard to the French parliament's vote on a bill that could penalize denial of the ‘Armenian genocide.'
It was another example of the emotional reactions of the prime minister [Recep Tayyip Erdoğan] with regard to some foreign policy issues. He chose to attack personally French President Nicolas Sarkozy -- who we all know had purely political aims in bringing the issue of the “Armenian genocide” to the French Parliament as he faces elections and is trying to capture the votes of ethnic Armenians living in France. He also chose to make comparisons with French atrocities in Algeria, which was negated by that country's prime minister. He has taken a clear nationalistic, not to say populist, attitude in this affair. Prime Minister Erdoğan could instead have attacked more pertinently the restriction of freedom of speech in France which that bill's passage implies. In other instances Prime Minister Erdoğan reflects a religious bias in foreign policy issues. He has made some remarkable statements, including that “Muslims do not commit genocide.” Another example is the issue of the Gaza blockade, where he overreacted and took a clearly partial stance.
Do you think Turkish-French relations could be negatively affected in the long term? And do you think there will be significant changes in both countries' relations if Sarkozy does not win the election? There is news that Sarkozy is narrowing the lead of his Socialist rival, François Hollande, ahead of this year's presidential elections.
I don't think there will be much change in relations whether Sarkozy or Hollande win. This year Europe will be more embroiled in its financial problems. And before Greek Cyprus' EU presidential term ends and even before elections are held in Greek Cyprus in 2013, there will be no progress in Turkey-EU relations. This is not only because of France's stance against Turkey's inclusion in the EU but also Germany's stance, as well as the general financial crisis in Europe. We are likely to see an introverted Europe in 2012.
Ankara keeps saying that it favors a united Cyprus before next July, when the Greek Cypriot administration takes over the rotating helm of the EU. Are Turkey's relations going to be cut with the EU during the Greek Cypriot presidency?
It is possible that Turkey will not have any contacts with the term president but continue our current relations with other EU institutions. We have close contacts and cooperation with many European Union institutions, and especially with the European Commission. On the other hand, as long as the political climate is the same between Turkey and the EU and as long as Turkey refuses to open its ports and airports to traffic from Greek Cyprus, we should not expect the opening of new chapters in Turkey's accession negotiations with the EU. Paradoxically, both sides seem content with the status quo.
‘Cyprus problem will be extended'
Do you expect any developments with regard to the long-lasting Cyprus problem?
There will be no crisis; ties will not be cut off between the Turkish and the Greek Cypriot leaders. But the time period to find a solution to the Cyprus problem will be prolonged. There is one sensitive issue: The Turkish side has said that unless the Cyprus problem is resolved by the time Greek Cypriots take over the EU term presidency, the two-state solution to the problem will be implemented. This is a big statement, almost an ultimatum. We will see if Turkey is going to pursue that approach.
If Turkey pursues a two-state solution, is it going to leave the gas reserves to the Greek Cypriots off the island of Cyprus in the south?
This is a question that needs an answer. Does Turkey have a right to tell the Turkish Cypriots to renounce their claims to the gas? Those gas sources also belong to the Turkish Cypriots. Unless Turkey takes bold steps, the Cyprus problem will linger on.
Turkey could, for example, open Turkish air and sea ports to Greek Cypriot traffic. I believe Turkey may take some initiatives to solve the problem. Otherwise we will have to go back to square one.
‘Obama likely to win in presidential election'
There are presidential elections in November in the United States. Do you think President Barack Obama is likely to stay president?
Republican candidates are no match for Obama, especially when it comes to foreign policy. And Ankara's relations with Obama are quite good. We have a spring time with Washington, especially after Ankara agreed to host NATO's early warning radar component as part of a NATO missile defense system. Maintaining good relations with the United States will be beneficial for Turkey as Ankara will not be able to afford to run counter to both Europe and the United States at the same time.
Retired Ambassador Temel İskit
He joined the Foreign Ministry in 1963. During his 40-year diplomatic career, he served at various Turkish foreign missions and held different posts at the Foreign Ministry, including that of director general for EU affairs and deputy undersecretary for economic affairs. He was also Turkey's first director general of free trade zones. As ambassador, he served as Turkey's permanent representative to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and as ambassador to the Czech Republic and to Belgium. After serving as Turkey's permanent representative to the Western European Union in Brussels from 1999 to 2002, he retired due to the age limit. After retiring, Ambassador İskit lectured for five years at Sabancı University and Bilgi University. He is presently a columnist at the Taraf daily. He has also written a book on diplomacy.