Ankara’s conundrum in a potential Israel-Iran conflict

Ankara’s conundrum in a potential Israel-Iran conflict

As the talks on Iran’s nuclear program have all but failed, and sanctions have not persuaded Tehran to back down, the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities looms larger on the global agenda. While the rumors of an attack have been circulating for several years, recent statements by Israeli officials and the current geopolitical climate are early-warning signs that an attack might be more likely than ever. Amid the Syrian crisis, the global economic outlook and the upcoming U.S. elections, such an action would have severe repercussions around the world.

Israel seems convinced that the only way to contain Iran is a serious threat of using force. Even though such an attack might not terminate the Iranian nuclear program, it would postpone the acquisition of nuclear weapons, probably for another five years. Surely, Israel would prefer to have U.S. support in launching a strike, but President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disagree at this point on whether it is necessary. Although still trying to lobby Washington for military support, Israeli officials seem resigned to the fact, supported by recent Obama administration statements, that the United States will not give them a green light.

While experts estimate Iran would need at least two years to develop a warhead that could be used with a missile, Iran has been expanding its nuclear complex near Qom to put key facilities deeper underground, making it difficult for Israeli forces to pinpoint targets. Within a few months, it is believed, Israeli military capabilities will not be sufficient to destroy the facilities; at that point, Israel would need the assistance of the US military to successfully carry out the intended mission. If the attack were to take place today, Iran’s reaction would likely be limited. It does not have adequate military capability to hit Israeli cities, and its decreasing economic powers suggest that using proxies will be more difficult. Embroiled in civil war, Syria would not be able to come to its ally’s aid. While Iran’s response will certainly be asymmetrical through the use of Hezbollah and Hamas, those groups have limited military capability.

Also, the current tide of events in the Middle East and further abroad has removed geopolitical barriers to an Israeli strike. Regional powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia are deeply involved in the Syrian crisis, and they don’t have enough political capital to oppose or intervene. The level of self-confidence reflected in the statements of Turkish officials does not match the country’s actual political leverage in the region, as has been demonstrated time and time again in the past couple of months. A few years ago, Turkey had the great potential to broker a deal, but it lost its chance as its relations with Israel became strained. Turkey is now a polarizing force in Syria and beyond, and has been facing serious national security risks, including a rise in domestic terrorism. Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors policy” has continued to crumble, as its relations with Iran and Syria are even worse than they were 10 years ago. As it intervenes in the Syrian conflict and supports Sunni groups, Turkey has seen an increasing level of terrorism at home and threats coming both from Tehran and Damascus. If an attack happens, Turkish officials will have to work with Israel, since other options are not on the table. Also, Turkey is hosting a NATO radar system that could potentially be put to use if Israel launches a strike. An Israeli attack on Iran would put the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in a difficult position since it has politically benefited from its anti-Israel rhetoric. Israel may even see it as an opportunity to warm up relations, as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would be forced to take Israel’s side in such a conflict.

The international community must keep its cool and continue to insist on a diplomatic solution, as the alternative would be far too costly for all the parties concerned. The last thing that the Middle East needs today is a major military conflict. With the regional and global powers preoccupied and the P5+1 talks having largely failed, averting the use of force will be a difficult task.