Besides the high-level visits from a number of countries from Kyrgyzstan to Norway, intense diplomatic traffic involving top figures from Palestine, Iran and the US dominated Ankara in January. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu visited Tehran on Jan. 4 and held a series of talks with Iranian officials, followed by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salihi’s visit to Turkey on Jan. 10, and Speaker of the Iranian Parliament Ali Larijani on Jan. 12. Very interestingly, some US officials also came to Turkey almost simultaneously, firstly a delegation headed by US House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and later by US Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns.
Neither the officials who made these visits nor the timing of their arrival were coincidental or ordinary. Contrary to what the officials cited as the purpose of these visits, to further improve bilateral relations, the real aim of these visits had a different purpose, which was to prevent the recently heightened Iranian-Iraqi-Syrian and Persian Gulf-based tensions from spilling over into a hot confrontation.
We can say the sources of these conflicts are not due to a single element, but three interwoven, complex problems, each of which is more important than the other. The first is the years-long, unresolved nuclear problem of Iran, which is again topping the international agenda; the second is the possibility and danger of domestic strife turning into a Sunni-Shiite sectarian war in Iraq and Syria; and the third is the ongoing problem of Syria and whether a military intervention is one of the likely solutions to end the violence there.
Although these conflicts seem to have originated from regional conditions and causes, that is not completely true. The whole world, the actors of the Western world in particular, are very interested in these conflicts to the extent that some are in favor of militarily stepping in. Can Iran’s nuclear program be understood without the initiatives of the US and Western countries? Is it possible to ignore the American invasion of Iraq and the vacuum of power it created in trying to understand the possibility of the Sunni-Shiite conflict assuming alarming dimensions? Can we say there are no Western-supported opposition groups in the internal strife in Syria? Our answer to all these questions is, unfortunately, no. In other words, the influence of external or international actors in the Middle Eastern conflicts, no matter what their regional or national causes may be, cannot be put aside.
The settling of these problems, owing to their nature, require actors who will take into consideration both the internal and external factors, are well aware of the sensitivities and concerns of the Middle Eastern countries and can understand the language and perspective of international powers. Speaking openly, we are describing Turkey with such a definition. And the primary purpose of the Turkey-based diplomacy traffic is to eliminate the sources of confrontation and find a solution to the problems.Making a contribution to the establishment of regional peace and stability has been Turkey’s primary foreign policy target for a long time. It is not possible for Turkey to pull it off on its own. The solution can be devised only with the support of the sides that have the potential for regional confrontation. What Turkey has been trying to do is to play a role to which some refer as “mediation” and create a common ground for the sides concerned. Even if this is a role Turkey has resigned itself to play of its own accord, it is something, as far as the media is concerned at least, which has the backing of Iran, the US and the other Western countries. The solid evidence of this support is the visits paid to Turkey simultaneously by Salihi, Larijani and Burns.
The aim of the role of mediator Turkey has assumed politically, if not officially, has been expressed openly by Turkish authorities. First, Turkey wants to make a contribution to help resolve the problem of Iran’s nuclear program as it did in the past and has even offered to host the talks between Iran and the five-plus-one group. Although we do not know as yet if Turkey’s offer will be accepted, the first signs indicate, provided they are sincere, Turkey can fulfill that role.
Turkey has also expressed its view clearly regarding how Sunni-Shiite tensions can be eased. Foreign Minister Davutoğlu told the press last week Turkey had been making overtures to prevent a Sunni-Shiite confrontation. Davutoğlu’s visit to Tehran and the visits to Ankara by Salihi and Larijani should be seen within this context. A strengthening dialogue between a Turkey considered Sunni, though not officially declared, and a Shiite Iran is a concrete barrier against the possibility of a hot confrontation. We cannot say for sure Turkey and Iran represent Sunni and Shiite segments or they have such missions, but Turkey-Iran cooperation is at least a significant message in terms of breaking prejudices of that kind in the world. Turkey’s peaceful role in these two matters also concerns Syria. Turkey and Iran are known to have completely different views regarding the developments in Syria. There are even speculations these differences may lead the two countries to war. However, the latest developments show that neither Turkey nor Iran want to confront one another over Syria and are even thinking of cooperating to find a solution to the Syria problem. Whether these talks between the two can pay off is contingent partly on the direction the developments in Syria will follow from now on and partly on the attitude such actors as the US and Russia will assume. The developments in the Middle East are closely linked to international politics. What is important is that Turkey and Iran should not leave their national and regional interests to the mercy of global powers.
*Professor Ramazan Gözen is an instructor at Abant İzzet Baysal University.