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The U.S., Turkey, and Iran

There were a few things I read while I was on my trip last week that still are worth addressing now. First, Greg Scoblete referred to an earlier Stephen Kinzer article in The American Prospect in which Kinzer made an intriguing proposal:

Improbable as it may seem right now, given the current regime in Iran, a partnership that unites Turkey, Iran, and the United States is the future and makes sense for two reasons: The three countries share strategic interests, and their people share values. Our evolving relationship with a changing Turkey offers a model for the kind of relationship we might one day–not necessarily tomorrow–have with a changing Iran. This is the tantalizing possibility of a new way for the U.S. to engage with the Middle East in the 21st century.

I am quite skeptical whenever someone tries to justify a present or future alliance even in part by invoking shared “values.” This is usually added to the mix when supporters of the alliance cannot point to any tangible or significant benefit from the alliance for the U.S. For example, pro-Georgian enthusiasts here in the U.S. have to lean heavily on Georgian democracy and Georgia’s market-oriented economic reforms to make sense of U.S. support for Georgia, which is in almost every other respect a stategic liability. There may be no American interest served in sending aid or selling weapons to Georgia, and it does complicate and sometimes damage relations with Russia to do these things, but if Georgians share our “values” then that makes everything all right. This doesn’t apply in the cases of Turkey and Iran, whose strategic importance is obvious but whose respective “values” are not entirely ours.

That said, I find Kinzer’s proposal interesting. Over the last few years, I have made it pretty clear that I think rapprochement with Iran is the obvious and wise course to pursue, and in the last month I have been emphasizing the value of the Turkish alliance at a time when many Americans seem to have decided that Turkey is no longer an ally. The trouble for Kinzer’s proposal and for my arguments is that much of the political class has been turning against Turkey partly because Turkey has become too accommodating with Iran. As Kinzer will have noticed, “our evolving relationship with a changing Turkey” has meant a deteriorating relationship with an increasingly alienated Turkey, and the relationship has deteriorated in no small part because Turkey has already started improving ties with Iran right now. Ankara isn’t waiting for the far-off day when the Iranian opposition becomes organized and effective enough to force some internal political change in Iran, in part because its “zero problems” approach does not require that Turkey’s neighbors share “values” with the Turks.

Kinzer is not quite so bold as to argue that this triple alliance will exist anytime soon:

A new triangular relationship involving the United States, Turkey, and Iran cannot emerge overnight. In order to become a reliable American partner, Iran would have to change dramatically. Turkey would also have to change, although not nearly as much. So would the United States. Our world, how-ever, advances only as a result of strategic vision. First must come a grand concept, a destination; once the destination is clear, all parties can concentrate on finding the way to reach it.

Unfortunately, leaving it to Iran to “change dramatically” before this realignment or new “triangle” of relationships could be established guarantees that it will not happen for decades. If we are going to wait until Iran dramatically changes, it may never happen at all. While the U.S. waits for Iran to undergo this transformation, Turkey will continue its own regional ambitions and pursue its desire to foster good relations with all of its neighbors. If the last few months are any indication, Washington will respond to this dismissively, contemptuously and angrily. Davutoglu has spoken of a “multi-dimensional” element to Turkish foreign policy in which good Turkish relations with Russia, for example, do not jeopardize good relations with the U.S. Davutoglu has argued that Turkey’s relationships are complementary to one another, but no other state seems to see it this way.

At one point, Kinzer writes:

No other nation is respected by Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Taliban while also maintaining good ties with the Israeli, Lebanese, and Afghan governments.

What’s wrong with this sentence? I don’t dispute the last two, but surely Kinzer sees that in practice Hamas’ respect for Turkey and good ties with Israel are inversely related. As one has increased, the other has almost vanished. We can go through the arguments why Israel needs Turkey more and can’t afford to be as petulant and short-sighted as it has been, but the reality is that Turkey’s ability to serve as a mediator depends very much on the willingness of both sides in any given dispute to continue to trust and accept Turkish help. As of right now, Israel doesn’t trust Turkey, and as everyone knows their relations are a wreck.

The U.S. has publicly sided against Turkey twice in the last month precisely because it has been engaged in pursuing its regional ambitions and mediation efforts. Kinzer is rigt that Washington ought to pursue sustained engagement with Iran, but the administration made it clear long ago that their engagement policy was another means to the same dead end of limiting or ending Iran’s nuclear program. More than anything else, what has to change to make rapprochement with Iran and rebuilding the alliance with Turkey successful is the attitudes toward both countries’ goals of regional influence. Turkey is already in a position to help facilitate the early stages of reconciliation between the U.S. and Iran, but our political class continues to be held hostage by the idea that Turkish accommodation of Iran equals Turkish betrayal of the U.S. Until we get rid of that absurd idea, Kinzer’s arguments will unfortunately fall on deaf ears.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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