Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Turkey on August 14 in the latest in a series of high level contacts between the two countries against a backdrop of growing international pressure on Tehran over its nuclear program. Both the United States and Israel have expressed their concern over the visit.
Since it first came into power in November 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has vigorously sought to improve Turkey’s ties with the rest of the Muslim world. Professor Ahmet Davutoglu, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s chief foreign policy advisor, has described the shift in emphasis in terms of redressing a previous imbalance in Turkish foreign policy by creating what he calls “strategic depth” and strengthening ties with countries that previous Turkish governments had tended to neglect.
Davutoglu undoubtedly has a point. Prior to the AKP taking office, the emphasis given to maintaining strong ties with the West had resulted not only in Ankara neglecting its relations with the countries of the Middle East but also in a dearth of expertise on the region both in the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and in academia. Very few Turkish diplomats speak Arabic, for example, and at least until relatively recently any academic who bothered to learn the language was vulnerable to accusations of being a closet Islamist.
For religious reasons, Arabic-speakers are much more common among the ranks of the AKP, but the AKP’s emotional enthusiasm for closer ties with the rest of the Muslim world has frequently been accompanied by an intellectual naivety, particularly in the party’s failure to understand how some of its initiatives appear to its Western allies. In February 2006, Davutoglu was the architect of a visit to Ankara by Hamas leader Khaled Mashal. Davutoglu appears to have calculated that Turkey would gain international kudos by persuading Mashal to moderate his attitude toward Israel. Yet Mashal did no such thing, merely using the visit to try to boost Hamas’s claim to international legitimacy. In January 2008, the AKP literally rolled out the red carpet for another international pariah, Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, who paid a three-day official visit to Ankara (see EDM, January 22).
A similar naivety can be seen in Erdogan’s recent peace initiative in the Caucasus. On August 8, Erdogan issued a statement proposing the creation of a “Caucasus Pact,” including Turkey, Russia, and other Caucasus countries and backed by the EU and the United States (CNNTurk, NTV, August 9). On August 13, Erdogan flew to Moscow where he met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. On the following day, the perennially insecure Turkish media basked in the contrast between what they claimed was the perfunctory welcome given by the Russians to French President Nicholas Sarkozy and the hospitality lavished on Erdogan. “Russia gives green light to Caucasus Pact,” the website of the daily Hurriyet proclaimed excitedly (www.hurriyet.com.tr). Neither the newspaper nor Erdogan appeared to realize that while all efforts to end the bloodshed were welcome, the whole point of Moscow’s fierce military response to Georgia’s attempt to regain control of South Ossetia was to demonstrate Russia’s hegemony in its “near abroad.” Moscow is unlikely to have any desire to dilute its authority through a pact, particularly one that brings the United States and the EU into the region.
Nor did Erdogan appear to be aware that if the AKP were serious about Turkey acceding to the EU, he needed to try to ensure that Turkey’s foreign policies were coordinated with, or at least complementary to, those of the EU.
The same naivety can also be seen in the AKP’s decision to push ahead with Ahmadinejad’s visit. There is no reason to doubt that AKP officials genuinely believe that the visit offers an opportunity for Turkey to boost its international standing by acting as an intermediary in the long-running standoff between Tehran and the international community over its nuclear program. What they do not appear to understand is how Ahmadinejad will use the visit to demonstrate both to the international community and to the public in Iran that the country is not alone.
Speaking to Turkish journalists on the eve of his visit to Turkey, Ahmadinejad was effusive in his praise for the “great Turkish people,” the “great friendship between Turkey and Iran,” and his pleasure about the “ever-growing political ties” (CNNTurk, NTV, August 13). He also took the opportunity of the interview being broadcast at prime time on Turkish television to launch one of his characteristic tirades against Israel and repeat his support for the Palestinian opposition to what he described as the “occupying Zionist forces” (CNNTurk, NTV, August 13).
In its eagerness to host Ahmadinejad, the AKP also acceded to his refusal to visit Anitkabir, the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), the militant secularist who founded the modern Turkish Republic in 1923. Anitkabir is an essential part of a visit by any head of state to Turkey. Even al-Bashir visited Anitkabir to pay his respects, but the Iranians have consistently refused to do so.
When it became clear that Ahmadinejad would not visit Anitkabir, his planned “official visit” was quickly downgraded to a “working visit”; and it was agreed that he would meet with both Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul not in Ankara, the capital of the modern republic, but in Istanbul, the old Ottoman capital (Hurriyet, Milliyet, August 5).
In his interview on Turkish television, Ahmadinejad disingenuously claimed that he was traveling to Istanbul because that was where Gul and Erdogan were going to be anyway. This is not true; but when asked whether this meant that he would have visited Anitkabir if Gul and Erdogan had agreed to meet him in Ankara, Ahmadinejad prevaricated. “Turkey is a very large country and has a large population. There are a lot of places in Turkey. Of course, that means that there are many places for the president to go to,” he said (CNNTurk, NTV, August 13).
In the run-up to Ahmadinejad’s visit, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan attacked the Turkish media for its coverage of his refusal to visit Anitkabir. “I consider these discussions about the details of the visit irrelevant,” declared Babacan (Zaman, Hurriyet, Milliyet, Radikal, August 5).
But, as so often, the devil is in the details.