Laura Rozen has a fun behind the scenes recap of the P5+1 Istanbul talks, but the best nugget is the reporting that Davutoğlu tried to set up a number of bilateral meetings between Iran and other states, and that Iran rebuffed him because it does not want to give Davutoğlu and Turkey a diplomatic victory in light of the newfound tension between Turkey and Iran. If this is indeed the reason why Iran would not agree to any bilateral meetings aside from one with China, then it suggests a high degree of Iranian naivete and miscalculation. Recall that as of only a couple of weeks ago, Erdoğan was describing Iran’s nuclear program as peaceful and as a purely civilian project, and criticizing reporters for focusing on Iranian nuclear efforts but not calling out Israel on its nuclear arsenal. Since then, Iran has angered Turkey by waffling on holding the talks in Istanbul which prompted Erdoğan to question Iran’s sincerity and truthfulness, and then after seemingly smoothing things over, has now decided to put playing childish games ahead of securing Turkish support. For a country that is increasingly isolated and facing devastating oil sanctions from the EU in a few months, this is a puzzling move in the extreme. It either means that Iran is very confident that it has managed to avoid a strike on its nuclear facilities, or that Iran is the little boy in a room full of grown men. There is no good reason to annoy the Turks, who will be critical in convincing the U.S. to sit tight and give negotiations a chance, or who will be valuable from a logistics and supply chain perspective should the U.S. decide to attack. Making Davutoğlu look impotent in front of a powerful international audience is only going to backfire, and it is a strange move for a state with few powerful friends left to purposely offend an influential potential supporter.
This incident also underscores the changing environment that Ankara will have to navigate going forward as it rethinks its global role and adjusts accordingly. Turkey has made a big deal under its current government of being a valuable bridge between the West and its own neighbors farther east. Part of the zero problems with neighbors strategy was to establish Turkish credibility in the region so that it could serve as a go-between and become more influential with the U.S. and Europe. That Davutoğlu would be running around trying to set up bilateral meetings is completely in character with this strategy, and the fact that he was not able to deliver is not a knock on him but an indicator of how Turkey needs to shift course. Becoming a regional power means less neutrality and more forcefulness. Turkey is now demonstrating that with regard to Syria, as it has over the past months moved away from trying to gently influence Assad to organizing efforts with an eye toward forcing him to leave. It might mean a loss of credibility as an arbiter or mediator, but the flip side is a more muscular role for Turkish power in the region. The same thing is true with Iran. Turkey may now find it more difficult to act as the middle man that brings Iran and the West together, but having a stronger independent voice and taking sides will bring with it a different array of benefits. Just as Turkey shifted course with Syria, I expect the same thing to eventually happen with Iran, since Davutoğlu is too smart to stick with an outdated policy that no longer matches Turkey’s reach or its geopolitical circumstances. The fiction that Turkey could somehow remain neutral on all issues and be friends with everybody has been exposed by the Arab Spring, the chaos in Syria, and now by Iran. It’s time for Ankara to drop the charade, acknowledge that it is not going to be able to rewrite the rules of international politics all by itself, and come up with a new grand strategy and slogan that recognizes that being a regional power means having to act like a bully sometimes.