Iran’s nuclear program has been a cause of concern for the international community after the existence of undeclared nuclear facilities was revealed in 2002 and 2003. Since then, suspicions mounted about Tehran’s intentions with its civilian nuclear program: Tehran signed but did not ratify the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Safeguards Agreements; hence the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) cannot carry out enhanced verification inspections to verify Iran’s compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). This creates concerns with transparency. The most serious issue is Iran’s uranium enrichment program, which could allow Iran to develop highly enriched uranium to manufacture a nuclear weapon, should a political decision be made in that regard. Tehran argues that uranium enrichment is an “inalienable right,” so it will not halt its program. Coupled with lack of transparency, this insistence only fuels worries and suspicions over Iran’s real intentions.
Turkey, an actively involved country in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, has a different perception: Although it has endorsed that proliferation is a threat to security mostly for the Turkish public and the government, but Iran’s nuclear program is not a serious threat, and concerns for proliferation are exaggerated. The Turkish Prime Minister goes further by arguing that “those who speak to this issue should eliminate nuclear weapons from their own country.” The political and economic élite think that Turkey should not sever ties with its neighbors with whom it has several trade relations. Iran is the second main supplier of natural gas, on which Turkey is highly dependent, thus good neighborly relations are essential for economic and regional stability.
On the other hand, Turkey is a NATO ally, and has strategic relations with the United States, so it would not be able to remain outside of an undertaking against Iran even if it abhors a military option. What is more worrisome is that in case of a military operation against Iran, Turkey would be a likely target of retaliation. Therefore, it is vital for Ankara to keep Iran on track through diplomacy, and to prevent the “escalation of the conflict” to an extent that may require military action.
The absence of war between Turkey and Iran for several centuries is owed largely to the rough strategic balance between the two, which would be dramatically changed should Iran acquire nuclear capability. However, Ankara is committed to the international nuclear nonproliferation regime and its non-nuclear-weapon status. In fact, it has its own plans for nuclear energy generation, but these plans have already been an item in the broader the debate on regional proliferation due to the security dilemma which can be triggered by a nuclear Iran.
Turkey is convinced that the issue can indeed be addressed through diplomacy alone: Ankara has recently set a new direction in foreign policy which foresees “zero problems” with neighbors” and a greater role in regional affairs. These policies emphasize dialogue and cooperation as the basis of security. Therefore, Ankara avoids confrontational discourse with Tehran. It is aware that if diplomacy fails, Turkey will be the country which will be affected the worst from the outcomes. In May 2010, Turkey and Brazil managed to convince Iran of a nuclear swap deal, by which it would have its uranium enriched out of its borders. However, around the same time, the United States took the support of Russia and China for sanctions on Iran. Turkey reacted strongly to sanctions by casting a “No” vote in the Security Council, particularly because it undermined the swap agreement. The most important consequence was that it underlined the gap between the two countries regarding their threat perceptions from Iran’s nuclear program. It seems that neither Turkey nor the United States are fully aware that their perceptions differ as such. It is important to bridge that gap, especially because of its possible implications on other endeavors concerning regional security.
The analysis of Iran’s nuclear program in Ankara takes little note of the politics and technology of proliferation. Security issues, particularly nonproliferation, are understudied topics in the Turkish academia except a few experts. There is little coverage in the media, too, since traditionally these issues have been tackled by the security elite. The public, politicians, journalists and most academics are unfamiliar with the technological processes towards the acquisition of nuclear weapons. They also seem to have understudied Iran’s threat perceptions, interest in regional supremacy and the history of its nuclear program that could give an idea on Tehran’s motivations. The perception in Turkey is that the international community, particularly the United States, is applying excessive pressure on Iran, and accuses Tehran for something it has not committed. Ankara is also upset that the nuclear swap deal for which the Turkish Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister spent great effort, was left aside and instead sanctions were passed.
On the other side of the coin, the United States seems to have little grasp of Turkey’s concerns, its ties with Iran, and its vital national interest to keep Iran in the diplomatic table. The difference in threat perceptions and the lack of mutual awareness of this gap are likely to create problems throughout efforts towards the resolution of the Iran issue. Turkey’s refusal to name Iran as the threat in the missile defense deployment talks was also an extension of this difference in perceptions.
All in all, bridging this perception gap is not impossible. A helpful strategy would be to provide a forum to Turkish and US experts, academics and officials to learn and discuss the technological and political aspects of proliferation, and to understand each other. The United States underlines the significance of Turkey for its interests in the region. Indeed, Turkey “speaks the same language” with Iran regarding regional issues, and used this as an advantage during the talks. Hence, increased US-Turkish interaction would also be invaluable for mutual understanding and to harmonize the allies’ interests.
Dr. Sebnem Udum teaches at Hacettepe University's International Relations Department. Her areas of focus are Turkish foreign and security policy, nonproliferation, nuclear energy, Europe and the Middle East.
This article was submitted for the atlantic-community.org's competition: "Empowering Women in International Relations." It coincides with the 10th Anniversary of UN resolution 1325 calling for an increased influence of women in all aspects of peace and security. The contest is sponsored by the U.S. Mission to NATO and the NATO Public Diplomacy Division.
You can read more submissions from the competition here.