Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1183, (6 - 12 February 2014)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1183, (6 - 12 February 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Erdogan flirts with Iran

Under intense fire at home, Turkey reaches out to Tehran on Syria, though arguably the real goal is to bolster its teetering economy, writes Sayed Abdel-Maguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

Assailed by mounting pressures from all sides, the powers-that-be in Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) have barely a free moment to scramble for solutions or alternatives. Municipal elections are just around the corner, in only a few weeks. The stakes are high, and this time the party cannot expect the comfortable ride through the polls to which it has grown accustomed during its decade in power. The deepening fissures within the party and the successive waves of resignations from the JDP “paradise” are coming at precisely the wrong time.

Nor is this all the JDP has to worry about. The Turkish economy, which had often been described as the “emergent giant”, is trembling. Despite the central bank’s massive hikes in key interest rates last week, the Turkish lira has refused to halt its dangerous slide that began after the “corruption scandal” broke in mid-December. On top of this, there is a nearly $100 billion trade deficit — up 18 per cent from the previous year — that needs to be balanced.

Government officials are desperate to find a way out of the whirlpool. But it is clear that there are no easy or fast solutions. Local horizons appear to be closed until further notice while foreign policy has stumbled on some rocky shoals. Observers are agreed that the government must acknowledge the hard truth, which is that the “zero problems” foreign policy masterminded by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has yielded a thousand problems, with the result that the Turkish public is wringing its hands at a foreign policy performance that has hit its worst level since 2005.

The government’s handling of the Syrian question is a prime example of drastic miscalculation that dragged Turkey into the Syrian quagmire, when this could have been avoided. The failure of Turkish diplomacy on that front has compounded the woes of the JDP, which for the past month and a half has been beleaguered by a crisis that has shaken the foundations of the party and threatens its prospects of continued rule.

Still, JDP leaders feel it still worthwhile to knock on the doors of Turkey’s neighbours. Syria, of course, is out and, to a lesser degree, so are other countries of the Fertile Crescent. This leaves only the venerable Persian neighbour. In a last ditch attempt to curb Ankara’s declining influence on the stakeholders in the Syrian conflict, or what some might describe as a smokescreen to disguise this declining influence, Turkish President Abdullah Gül invited Tehran to coordinate with Ankara in their efforts to reach a solution to the Syrian crisis.

It was not Ankara’s first tacit acknowledgement of the sway of the government of the Mullahs, in spite of its frequent posturing that was meant to convey the notion that Tehran did not have the weight it pretended to carry. When Gül met with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, on the fringes of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York four months ago, he also stressed the need for Ankara and Tehran to work together to resolve the Syrian dilemma. He also took the occasion to praise the newly elected Iranian president’s resolve to depart from his predecessor’s policy and to pursue dialogue and a peaceful solution to the Iranian nuclear programme question.

In brief, the JDP government has discovered, albeit rather late in the day, that Iran holds the keys — or at least some important keys — to a solution to the problem of Damascus under Bashar Al-Assad. Tehran, for its part, was quick to pick up on this. The Iranian news agency quoted Gül as saying, “Iran believes that there are more opportunities to resolve the raging Syrian crisis.”

Decision-makers in Ankara had little choice but to live up to these expectations and to avoid all “conspiracies” to undermine them. So, in Davos, Foreign Minister Davutoglu was careful not to let himself be lured into a dramatic outburst in the same place and on the same “One Minute” show in which, several years ago, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stormed off the set in a fit of fury over something Israeli President Shimon Peres had said. Davutoglu remained unflustered as the moderator taunted him with remarks about Sunni-Shia sectarian differences while, in Ankara, Erdogan was packing his bags for his visit to the political-spiritual leaders in Tehran. At least the display of cool was rewarded in Tehran, where the Turkish prime minister was received with extraordinary warmth and where Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei, no less, extolled the outstanding relations between Iran and Turkey.

In spite of appearances, tensions still run deep between Ankara and Tehran, especially with respect to the Syrian question. But Erdogan is determined to promote stronger bilateral relations on this front, despite US “advice” to take things slowly. It is not a good idea to further cooperation links with Tehran at this time, cautioned US Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen during a visit to Turkey on the eve of Erdogan’s trip to Iran.

But the Turkish leader had made up his mind that the Islamic Republic was the main power to be reckoned with when it came to Syria, and there was little point in trying to convince him otherwise. And what a coup it would be for both Ankara and Tehran if they could resolve the thorny Syrian question.

True, the two sides admit to “the large gap between their positions”. However, they have agreed to the policy of “neutralising the issues” so as to give priority to solving the humanitarian plight of the Syrian people in an impartial and independent way. The intention is lofty and worthy, indeed. Yet, one notes that, in his statements following his meetings with the Iranian leaders, Erdogan denied that the two sides had come up with any joint initiatives on the Syria and stressed that they had agreed to approach the question constructively and to work to develop common ground between them.

As for that common ground, it appears to be situated in the neighbourhood of the “dialogue and communications which have entered a new phase that serves the interests of the two countries”, as Erdogan put. To the Turkish public, this translates as closer economic and trade cooperation, especially once sanctions against Iran are lifted, or at least partially lifted, in tandem with progress made on the nuclear programme question.

In fact, five deals have been signed and Erdogan is looking forward to these being put into effect as soon as possible so that the volume of bilateral trade between the two countries can jump to $30 billion next year.

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