Turkey's worrisome approach to Iran, Israel

Ankara must be careful that its "zero problems" policy on its borders doesn't create new problems that alienate old friends.

Who knows what Turkey's prime minister may have said in private to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about Iran's nuclear program this week. But on a visit to Tehran, the powerful and confident Turkish leader – he's offered to negotiate between Iran and the West – publicly defended his "friend" Iran.

Iran's nuclear energy program is "peaceful and humanitarian," insisted Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country is a member of NATO. President Ahmadinejad returned the favor. He expressed appreciation for Mr. Erdogan's sustained and sharp criticism of Israel, which "undoubtedly made all nations happy."

Erdogan flew to Tehran to further Turkey's foreign policy of "zero problems" on its borders – and in search of business (a gas deal) that largely drives Ankara's good-neighbor policy. As an increasingly powerful nation at the strategic crossroads of Europe and Asia, democratic and Muslim Turkey sees itself as a peacemaker in the region.

Yet it must be careful that its zealous pursuit of zero problems doesn't actually create problems – particularly with its non-Muslim friends and allies.

Concerns about Turkey's allegiance to Western values and allies began to simmer when the mostly Muslim population of this secular state elected an Islamic party, the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, to power in 2002. Turkey's refusal to let the US use a military base in Turkey to invade Iraq in 2003 strained ties with Washington.

Still, Erdogan pushed economic reform that led to significant growth. And he continued with other reforms that eventually allowed Turkey to enter formal negotiations to join the European Union.

Meanwhile, Turkey's regional outreach has yielded so many results that they stand out like minarets in Istanbul. In recent years, Ankara has seriously improved relations with Greece, Syria, Iraq, Russia, Bulgaria, and the latest – Armenia – with which it shares a century-old dispute. Turkey has also acted as negotiator between Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as with Israel and Syria.

But worries abound that Turkey is now shifting too far away from Europe and to Muslim despots specifically. After the disputed Iranian election in June, Erdogan and the Turkish president were among the first foreign leaders to call with congratulations for Mr. Ahmadinejad.

Earlier this month Turkey disinvited Israel from a joint NATO exercise that it has participated in for years. Israel is a "persecutor," Erdogan explained. The next day it invited Syria to joint military exercises.

During the cold war, Turkey viewed Israel as a democratic ally in a hostile region. Indeed, a country such as Iran saw Turkey as a sell-out to the West. Syria supported terrorist separatists who wanted to carve out part of Turkey for their own.

But different dynamic forces are at work. Islamic intensity is growing in Turkey, along with an alarming increase in anti-Semitism. Israel's bombardment of Gaza nearly a year ago fanned these flames, and Erdogan has blown on them.

Israel no longer trusts Turkey as an honest broker, says Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Indeed, with Israel's concern having shifted to Iran, and with Erdogan's untempered remarks about Israel, why should he?

At the same time, Europe is pushing Turkey away. France and Germany strongly object to Turkish membership in the EU (a mistake that they should reconsider). And the great recession has also forced Turkey to look further afield for export markets.

Ankara counters that the worry that it's shifting away from the West is overblown. Turkey's actually in harmony with the new talk-to-your-enemies foreign policy of President Barack Obama, who in an April speech in Turkey praised its role as a "bridge" between East and West.

Turkish officials argue that they're simply strengthening the bridge support that's planted on the Asian side of the Bosporus Strait. They have a point with this and also the mend-fences argument.

What grates here is largely the tone – an unusually warm cozying up to wily, autocratic Iran and an emotional, populist condemning of Israel. Turkey, like everyone else in the Middle East neighborhood, doesn't want a nuclear-armed Iran. And it knows that there will be no Middle East peace and no Palestinian state without Israel's cooperation.

Turkey works against its own goal as regional peacemaker and power broker when it appears to favor one side over another.

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