Turkey’s unique position as a NATO member and a Middle Eastern, Muslim nation with close ties to Iran would seem to make the country an ideal candidate to help solve the simmering conflict surrounding the Islamic Republic’s controversial nuclear energy program.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made this argument himself last week, when he suggested that his government mediate negotiations between the new Obama administration and Iran.
The Bush administration has been broadly supportive of Turkey playing such a role. Prime Minister Erdogan’s government helped facilitate talks this past summer among the United States, Europe, and Iran and has hosted negotiations between Israel and Syria at Washington’s request.
However, Washington’s support requires that Ankara be committed to working toward an actionable solution that can satisfy all parties.
At the Brookings Institution during the G-20 summit in Washington, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cast significant doubt upon this premise. In response to a question about Iran’s nuclear program the Prime Minister argued that, “We are against the possession of nuclear weapons in our region…but those who ask Iran not to produce nuclear weapons should themselves give up their nuclear weapons first.”
Erdogan has been roundly criticized for these remarks, which have been interpreted as a pro-Iranian position. However, the notion that the United States must commit itself to eliminating its nuclear weapons arsenal is not a novel concept, and enjoys serious support in Washington, including among foreign policy luminaries George Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn. Most recently, Ivo Daalder and Jan Lodal provide a clear and compelling case for “The Logic of Zero.”
Therefore, it is not Erdogan’s remark in and of itself that is troubling, but rather the Prime Minister’s failure to articulate this position within the context of a compromise that can suit all parties.
For Turkey to provide real problem-solving value to this issue, it needs to do more than call the United States hypocritical, while reaffirming that Iran should not build a nuclear weapon. This is a no-risk, no-reward position that does nothing other than allow the Prime Minister to hear himself speak.
Instead, Erdogan’s government must utilize the trust that it enjoys with both the United States and Iran and its understanding of both sides’ perspectives and national interests to develop a practical, achievable solution – and to articulate that solution loudly, clearly and consistently in Ankara, Washington, and Tehran.
I think that Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett’s realist proposal for a grand bargain would be a good place to begin.