Turkish and US national interests are more aligned now than ever before in history. However, their tactics to pursue these interests are different. Let’s start with the Iran issue. The last thing Turkey wants to see in its region is a nuclear Iran, as it wants to ensure stability in its own backyard. Having the largest economy in the area between the EU and India, south of Russia and including Africa, Turkey is aware of the fact that nobody will benefit more from the preservation of stability within in that zone than itself. However, having seen the results of the Iraq war and the futility of past sanctions on Iran, Turkey does not want another war, especially one that has the risk of spreading throughout the whole of the Middle East. Therefore, the Turkish government wants to push for a diplomatic solution and avoid any military confrontation at all costs.
Having said that, and contrary to what many pundits on the American right have warned, Turkey does not intend to form any kind of “axis” with Iran against the West. Anybody who claims that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, run by devout Muslims, wants to form a religious alliance with Iran either does not know a thing about the difference between the Iranian version of Shiite Islam and Turkish Islam or simply has ill will. No such alliance was formed even during the Ottoman Empire, when the empire was ruled by Islamic law.
Iran and Turkey are unofficial rivals in the region. When Turkey’s power increases, Iran’s influence is necessarily reduced. A self-confident Turkey, with its democratic institutions, is filling the power vacuum in the Middle East that would otherwise be filled by Iran. Hence, when the American right and the Jewish lobby unconditionally support the Netanyahu-led government’s aggressive actions in the region and attack Turkey reflexively in an effort to protect Israel, they are playing straight into the hands of Iran. In fact, these interest groups would be protecting Israel’s long-term interests more by pressuring the Netanyahu administration to abide by international laws than by encouraging it to repeatedly and publicly defy them. The pundits’ blind support of Israeli policies at any cost, rather than acting as a pragmatic, balancing force, also jeopardizes US national interests by further isolating the US and Israel. By way of analogy, a loving parent who does everything his child asks without question to show his love is not acting in a way that will ultimately benefit the child in the long run.
One thing that has changed in Turkey in the last decade is that the Turkish public is increasingly aware of what is happening around them in the region and it is not just the AKP’s base that supports Turkey’s new assertive foreign policy. The fact that no other nation has ever killed civilian Turkish nationals in the history of the Turkish Republic turned the flotilla incident into a national issue. There is clearly a deep national need for the Turkish public to receive an apology for the killings on the Mavi Marmara. Now that Israel has made it personal to Turks, it’s no longer the AKP that is driving the ship of public opinion. Accordingly, it will not be surprising to see this public outrage setting the threshold for future government policies in the region even after the AKP’s leadership ends. Therefore, if Israel wants to keep an old friend and reverse its isolation in the region, it needs to acknowledge its responsibility in the deadly flotilla attack and work to normalize its relations with Turkey again before it is too late.
The world is no longer the same world that some in America think of. Turkey, in this changing world, is not simply a regional power but a rising global actor that has a position on every major global issue. It has a great deal of respect and influence in the Middle East, a region where Western actors have noticeably lost credibility. It is now time for the West to accept this new reality in the region and to not lose Turkey as a friend and an ally. Turkey and the US currently share more mutual interests than ever before and Turkey’s cooperation in major US national security matters is crucial.
*Avni Doğru is an independent researcher and a freelance writer based in New York.