Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, attending the Arab League Summit in Sirte, Libya, expressed support for a proposal for a regional dialogue forum, which among other issues will seek to engage Iran.
On March 27, the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, proposed a broad platform to foster regional cooperation and develop conflict mechanism tools, which would involve the two non-Arab major powers in the region, Turkey and Iran. Moussa recognized the severity of the challenges presented by Iran’s rising power in the Middle East and the ongoing standoff over its controversial nuclear program. He added that the best way to allay Arab countries’ concern would be through engagement with Iran (Anadolu Ajansi, March 27).
Turkey’s growing involvement in the activities of the Arab League has been one of the vindications of the Justice and Development Party government’s recent efforts to normalize relations with Middle Eastern countries. While Turkey was condemned in many Arab League meetings in the 1990’s for its policies toward Syria and other Arab countries, it is now common to see it represented at the highest levels in these meetings. Erdogan, attending as a special guest, stressed that Ankara would fully support the proposal for a regional dialogue mechanism (Zaman, March 27).
The exact reasons as to why the Arab League is now seriously considering engaging Iran and how far it might develop closer ties with Tehran is difficult to ascertain. It is also unclear how major Arab powers in the Middle East will seek to reconcile this decision with US efforts to mount a stronger response to Iran’s nuclear program.
However, another theme that was highlighted throughout the summit provides important clues concerning their motivations. The lack of progress toward the resolution of the Palestine issue, and Israel’s continuation of building settlements on Palestinian lands has invited condemnation by Arab countries. They expressed frustration with the ineffectiveness of the Middle East peace process and the threat posed by Israel’s nuclear power (Cihan, March 27). Several Arab leaders may not follow the line advocated by Moussa, as was reflected by some declining to attend the summit. Nonetheless, if the current Arab disappointment with Washington’s policies fails to be addressed, regional countries might increasingly come under pressure to sympathize with Iran’s promotion of Palestinian rights –if necessary through confrontation with Western powers– and they may also distance themselves from the US agenda on Iran.
Erdogan expressed similar opinions. He defined the Palestinian problem as the most pressing issue affecting regional and global peace and called for urgent action. Lambasting Israel’s recent policies, Erdogan called for unity and determined action among regional countries as the most effective way to end the current “Israeli aggression” and bring about a lasting peace to the region (Anadolu Ajansi, March 27).
Historically, Palestinians’ sufferings and the Israeli occupation of several sites which are considered as sacred by Muslims have been a major factor in mobilizing Muslim countries around common causes. Joint efforts to solve the Palestinian problem have helped them put aside their political differences and form international organizations. It is, therefore, no surprise that the plea for wider regional dialogue and cooperation are accompanied by calls for an immediate solution to the Palestinian problem.
Moreover, from Ankara’s perspective, Moussa’s proposal complements its earlier efforts on the Iranian nuclear stand-off. Turkey has opposed a stronger Western reaction, arguing that isolation or punitive measures might create more problems than they would solve. Although the US and Israel have maintained that Iran might be pursuing a secret nuclear armaments program, Ankara has adopted the view that Tehran’s uranium enrichment program is driven by peaceful purposes. Moreover, considering Turkey’s flourishing commercial ties with Iran, Ankara is wary of any measures that might curb its commercial interests with the country.
Therefore, Ankara has tried to interject itself as a mediator in this dispute, in an effort to block American policies to isolate Iran, so that it could prevent tensions from escalating (EDM, September 14, 2009). Turkey also offered that as part of a UN-brokered deal, it could host an international program to provide for the exchange of Iran’s low-enriched uranium with enriched uranium from other countries. However, the active role assumed by Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, have failed to illicit any concrete progress.
Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s, harsh statements against the West and launching a new program to enrich uranium to 20 percent has heightened Western concerns. As the stand-off continues, Washington, in a policy partly supported by other Western powers, wants to launch a new round of sanctions on Iran. To date, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has not succeeded in her efforts to mobilize regional powers or the international community in supporting tougher measures.
Against this background, Ankara’s warm welcome for Moussa’s proposal is likely to reignite the debate on its stance on Iran. This issue is also likely to occupy a large part of Erdogan’s agenda when he hosts German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, this week. Turkish-German bilateral relations have been troubled by numerous problems, most notably Merkel’s negative attitude to Turkey’s EU membership drive. Considering Merkel’s recent remarks in support of more robust sanctions against Iran, this issue might emerge as yet another source of tension in Turkey’s relations with Germany.
Speaking to the German press, Erdogan remained defiant, and reiterated his opposition to tougher sanctions, calling for more diplomacy to find a way out of the stalemate (Hurriyet Daily News, March 28). In the coming weeks, the escalating tensions over Iran’s nuclear program is likely to present Ankara with stark choices between its commitment to the West on the one hand, and its recent policy of solving regional problems through dialogue and regional involvement, on the other.