As the momentum gathers for tougher action against Iran's nuclear programme, arguably one of the biggest obstacles is now Turkey - in theory a strategic US ally.
Ankara currently holds a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Outright opposition to a new sanctions package would be seriously damaging to Turkey's relationship with the West. However in light of Turkey's current policy and public statements on the issue, a ‘no' vote may not be overly surprising.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly made it clear that he believes Iran's nuclear program is - as Tehran claims - solely for civilian use.
Some observers have attributed Mr Erdogan's declarations to his mercurial, populist personality rather than genuine strategy. However, the substance if not the style of his comments appears to be official government policy.
Turkish officials have repeatedly made it clear that they oppose sanctions, and doubt the West's insistence that Tehran wants the bomb. The only dissenting voice has been President Abdullah Gul, who in an unscripted series of comments revealed that he (at least) believes that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons.
To be sure, neither Mr Gul nor any other Turkish official has welcomed the prospect of an Iranian bomb. Turkish policy is simply based on different tactics. The West believes that Iran's nuclear ambitions must be stopped through sanctions (with the threat of military force looming in the background); Turkey argues that diplomacy is the only road to a solution. In theory this is grounded in a genuine belief that dialogue does work. But Ankara has been blunt in admitting that commercial stakes in Iran play a key role in its decision.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has candidly stated that economics - particularly energy concerns - drive Turkey's opposition to sanctions. Maintaining good commercial links with its neighbours is one of the central pillars of Turkey's "zero problems with neighbours" approach. Turkey is attempting to utilise its regional links, and Mr Erdogan seems to think that by publicly supporting Iran, he can benefit the West by maintaining a channel of communication which no other country has.
Playing a double game cannot be sustained forever, and neither Iran nor the West will be pleased if Turkey appears to be misleading them. At some point Ankara will have to choose between harming its commercial interests in Iran and damaging its relationship with Brussels, Washington, and Tel Aviv.
This point looks to be arriving soon, as the Security Council moves towards a vote on sanctions. Voting "no" would cause disappointment if not anger in the Obama Administration, and could be a further blow to Turkey's EU membership ambitions. Voting "yes" would cause a rupture with Tehran, with all the related political and economic implications. Abstention, the most likely course, would be a diplomatic fudge.
It would test the limitations of the ‘zero problems' policy. Does Ankara even have the leverage to persuade Iran to accept a deal? Foreign Minister Davutoglu seems assured - in recent weeks he has confidently stated that concrete progress has been made on the topic, presumably regarding a proposal to enrich uranium outside of Iran. However to date he has offered no concrete indicators of success.
In addition, Tehran has responded politely to Turkey's offers of mediation, but it may simply be stalling for time. No other friendly states - including Russia and China - have been able to negotiate a deal. Ankara's enthusiasm and confidence may be seriously misplaced, especially if Mr Gul's comments are seen in Iran as proof that Turkey's public and private positions are different.
The issue goes to the heart of Turkey's foreign policy vision. If Ankara cannot persuade its neighbour, with whom it has "very special" relations, to change its behaviour, then its claims to regional influence will look decidedly weaker to the West, as well as neighbouring states. Its economic, political, and cultural links with Iran will come to be seen not as assets, but as liabilities. By proclaiming its support of Iran so loudly, and by insisting on its unique ability to mediate in the dispute, Turkey may be setting itself up for a fall.
Alex Jackson is Senior Editor at the Caucasian Review of International Affairs. A version of this article first appeared as a weekly Caucasus Update at www.cria-online.org
Related Material from Atlantic-Community.org
- Memo 21: Seizing Opportunities from Turkey's Growing Influence
- Brian Katulis: The US Needs Turkey for its Middle East Agenda
- Stefanie Jennifer Tetenburg:Turkey's Holistic Approach