Turkey’s patience with Iran appears to be running out. Erdoğan finally voiced the conclusion yesterday that the rest of the world has suspected for some time, namely that Iran is being less than forthright about its nuclear program. Erdoğan accused Tehran of not being being honest and of trying to sabotage the P5+1 nuclear talks before they begin by purposely suggesting venues that it knows will not be acceptable to the countries on the other side of the negotiating table. It seems that the PM received personal assurances from Khameini and Ahmadinejad while meeting with them last week that the Iranian nuclear program is benign and intended only for civilian purposes, and is now infuriated that after talking to Iranian leaders face to face they are refusing to hold talks in Istanbul and trying to delay negotiations. Erdoğan’s anger is reminiscent of what first led to the downgrade in Turkey’s relations with Israel, when Erdoğan felt personally insulted that Israel launched Operation Cast Lead without warning immediately after Erdoğan had met with Olmert to broker a peace deal with Syria. Turkish officials still routinely mention how betrayed and humiliated Erdoğan felt, and this residual anger is contributing as much as anything to the continuing feud between Israel and Turkey.
On the one hand, it is a positive thing that the Iranian leadership has shown its true colors and cost itself Turkey’s support. Turkey stood out as a NATO member and staunch Western ally insisting that Iran’s intentions were peaceful and that it should be given the benefit of the doubt, and if Turkey moves away from a trust-but-verify position regarding Iran, it will put more pressure on the Iranian government and hopefully avert a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. It is not, however, a generally good idea to conduct foreign policy based on Erdoğan’s personal relationship with world leaders. Certainly it is not good for either Israel or Turkey to have downgraded their relationship so rapidly and intensely, and while there are of course many other contributing factors, Erdoğan’s bruised feelings drove the initial tension between the two countries. On Syria, Turkey lagged behind at the beginning and felt that Assad could eventually be brought around, which was due to the friendship between the countries’ leaders. The Turkish 180, culminating in the call for Assad to step down, was again partially the result of Erdoğan feeling betrayed by Assad’s lies to him about his intentions and repeated broken promises to stop killing civilians. Much like with Iran, the end result is a good one, but the delay in getting there resulted from a personal relationship between the PM and another world leader, and only once the personal relationship deteriorated did the policy shift. As Mehmet Ali Birand points out in Hurriyet, Turkey takes Iran’s words at face value, and Davutoğlu returned from Iran convinced that the Iranian leadership was being truthful and forthright. It is thus unsurprising that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu would now feel stabbed in the back, but it shouldn’t have taken a personal betrayal for them to wake up to the fact that Iran is not exactly a blameless actor. As Turkey takes on a greater geopolitical role and unveils its new “virtuous power” defense doctrine, it should take greater care to let objective analysis be the controlling factor at all times rather than passion and personalities.