Alon Ben-Meir

Tensions between Turkey and Israel have been growing, and at the core of their tensions lies their disagreement over foreign policies in Iran.

Whereas Israel sees Iran as a major existential threat, Turkey, although purporting to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons, does not view a nuclear Iran as a direct threat to itself or even to the Middle East. From the Israeli perspective, Turkey's equating of Iran's nuclear ambitions with Israel's latent programme, its seeming embrace of the Islamic organisation Hamas, its efforts to broker agreements that serve to diffuse pressure on Tehran, and its opposition to international sanctions all demonstrate that Ankara has made a strategic shift toward Israel's avowed enemy.

The Israelis are convinced that Turkey has paid no heed to their country's national security concerns in fostering close ties with Iran and its proxies. Turkey's economic and energy ties with Iran are well-known. Many Israelis insist that had Turkey decided to play a constructive role in addressing Iran's nuclear ambitions in order to safeguard these interests, as well as regional stability and peace, its efforts would have been viewed positively by Israel and the global community. However, its embrace of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hamas, and its characterisation of Israel as the greatest threat to the Middle East, have convinced Israelis that Turkey's shift toward the east is not merely due to Turkey's economic and energy needs. To support peace and stability in the region requires rejecting the radical and violent rhetoric and actions of extremist states and groups. Israel insists that one can't be a friend of Iran and an enemy of Hamas and Hezbollah. For Israel, all three represent an existential threat.

As the Israelis see it, Turkey's reluctance to sufficiently recognise and address the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon is deeply distressing. The recent WikiLeaks release of thousands of American diplomatic cables paint a clear picture: the global community, and particularly the leaders of the Arab world, recognise - and are threatened by - Iran's dogged pursuit of nuclear weapons. According to leaked cables, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir said that Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz told Barack Obama's administration 'to cut off the head of the snake,' while Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak called Iran's nuclear pursuit, 'the biggest threat to non-proliferation efforts since the Cuban missile crisis.' Also reflected in numerous cables is the clear scepticism of American diplomats that Turkey fully understands the terrifying ramifications of a nuclear-armed Iran, be that in the form of nuclear arms race or the potential of nuclear regional conflagration.

Shift Right

The result of the perceived Turkish shift toward Iran further undermines Ankara's ability to serve as a mediator in the region. Rather than being seen as playing a useful role in curbing Iran's nuclear pursuit based on its ability to serve as a bridge between Iran and the west, Turkey is instead viewed by many Israelis as an enabler of Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions. This perception, Israeli officials argue, was made more acute with the Turkish-Brazilian deal with Iran to swap nuclear fuel last spring. The deal largely mirrored the arrangement that the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5 + 1) had offered Iran in the autumn of 2009, in which Tehran was to send four-fifths of its low-enriched uranium, about 1,200 kilograms, to Russia to be converted into fuel rods to be used for medical purposes. But by the time the Turkish-Brazilian deal was reached, Iran had nearly doubled its enriched nuclear stockpile. Sending the same amount or even half of Iran's low-enriched uranium out of the country at that juncture would have left a sufficient amount - more than 1200 kilograms - inside Iran to enable further enrichment toward a nuclear weapon.

Even worse, Iran was essentially given the option to end the arrangement at any time it wished. For Israel, the deal was nothing less than an effort by Turkey to cast a shadow over Iran's nuclear programme and present Iran as a nation focused only on peaceful use of nuclear technology, rather than for nefarious purposes. Of course, the plan was subsequently rejected by the international community.

This summer, with the Turkish-Brazilian deal rejected and engagement efforts stalled, Turkey's rejection of international sanctions against Iran at the United Nations solidified concerns in Israel that Ankara has become an obstacle to peace and stability in the region, rather than a conduit. The UN vote was not just about economic sanctions; it was about mobilising the international community against a nuclear Iran. Turkey's opposition, which has enraged the Israelis, was not only in defiance of the American-led international campaign, but also a blatant attempt by Ankara to paint an image of Iran as a peace-seeking country that is not consistent with the evidence or global consensus to the contrary. The explanation given by Turkey - that they wanted to leave the door open to diplomacy - left much to be desired. As one high Israeli official put it, by ignoring the growing Iranian nuclear threat, and even serving as an impediment to international efforts to halt its nuclear pursuit, Turkey has shown that it is operating in a short-sighted manner that leaves the door open not to diplomacy, but to greater conflict in the region. Meanwhile, today, Iran continues to refuse to answer critical questions from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and refuses to allow unfettered and full inspections of its nuclear sites. It has reported that it now has thirty kilograms of twenty percent enriched uranium - a sufficient amount to bring Iran much closer to developing crude nuclear weapons.

Finally, Turkey's linking of Iran's nuclear pursuit to Israel's nuclear programme has further discredited Turkey in the eyes of Israelis. From the Israeli perspective, the prospects for a nuclear free Middle east, as adopted by a UN resolution last May with support from the United States - much to Israel's dismay - creates a false equivalence between Israel, who has never threatened any country, and Iran, who has repeatedly threatened Israel existentially. As the concerns illuminated by WikiLeaks demonstrate, it is Iran and not Israel that poses a threat to global and regional peace and stability. Turkey's championing the notion of a nuclear free Middle East therefore further undercuts its once long-held relationship with Israelis. As the Israelis see it, whereas Turkey could have continued to serve as a mediator between Israel and Syria and to use its influence to moderate Hamas' behaviour, Turkey has discredited itself in the eyes of the Israelis and given up its potential to again become an intermediary between the two sides.

Communicating Incentives

Despite these developments, Turkey still has an opportunity to play a constructive role in joining the international community's effort to halt Iran's nuclear weapons programme. The global concerns made public by WikiLeaks documents makes Iran's weapons pursuit impossible to ignore. This fact, coupled with renewed efforts by the P5+1 to engage Iran as they have in November and plan to again in Istanbul on January 21-22, offer Turkey a chance to revise its posture. In this sense, these developments could serve as face-saving opportunities for Turkey. As the P5+1 revisits the notion of a nuclear fuel swap that would fill the gaps and provide the assurances that the Turkish-Brazilian deal is not completely ignored, Turkey should stand in support of these efforts. As one of the few countries that speak directly with Iran, and has established trust with its leadership, Turkey can play an essential role in communicating incentives and potential consequences to Tehran. In so doing, Turkey would also indirectly ease its tensions with Israel. Supporting international efforts to halt Iran's nuclear programme, while disabusing itself of the notion of a nuclear free Middle East in which Iran and Israel are to be equated, would be a significant step toward reestablishing trust with Israel. Ankara, top Israeli officials insisted, must accept the fact that Israel will not under any circumstances discuss its nuclear posture before a comprehensive regional peace is established that will include Iran. Furthermore, some Arab diplomats suggested that while Turkey might be under the impression that it has been gaining influence and esteem on the Arab Street, its embrace of Tehran is diminishing its credibility in Arab capitals. If Turkey wants to exhibit regional leadership, it must demonstrate that it stands completely opposed to an Iran with nuclear weapons.

Even more than the heated rhetoric that has been exchanged between Israel and Turkey, or the fatal flotilla incident, Turkey's posture regarding Iran has left no doubt among Israelis that Turkey can no longer be trusted. That is why Turkey needs to publicly recognise the importance of reaching an agreement acceptable to all parties concerned about Iran's nuclear programme, while actively joining and assisting international efforts to that end.

Such a change of posture would have meaningful benefits for both Israeli- Turkish relations, and help reduce the prospect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, which Turkey wants to thwart just as much as Israel does. Doing so would also demonstrate that Turkey's regional leadership will neither be short-sighted nor short-lived.

(Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of International Relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on International Negotiation and Middle Eastern Studies.)


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