From Tehran Declaration to Geneva Deal

From Tehran Declaration to Geneva Deal

Tolga Demiryol
Turkey, like the majority of the international community, enthusiastically endorsed the interim nuclear deal reached in Geneva on Nov. 24. The Turkish government spent a great deal of political capital towards a diplomatic solution for the Iran nuclear issue. Over the years, Turkey supported Iran’s right to develop nuclear power for civilian purposes. In a speech at the Brookings Institute In November 2008, PM Erdoğan proposed Turkey act as a mediator between the new Obama administration and Iran, to which the U.S. officials responded positively.

Ankara considered its role as a mediator in the Iran nuclear crisis both a source and an indication of Turkey’s growing soft power. By playing an active role in the resolution of regional conflicts, Ankara has hoped to raise its image as a responsible and impartial leader that solves problems by developing initiatives and forming broad coalitions with all relevant actors. To that end, Turkish officials sought to directly engage their Iranian counterparts, rather than partaking in coercive diplomacy via harsher economic sanctions. 

Ankara’s diplomatic efforts eventually paved the way for the May 2010 nuclear swap deal. According to the deal brokered by Turkey and Brazil, Iran would exchange 1200 kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU) in return for 120 kg of reactor fuel. The U.S. dismissed the deal as a negotiating ploy by Tehran. When the remaining members of the UNSC pressed for more sanctions, Turkey had little choice but to veto UNSC Resolution 1929, as not doing so would have damaged its credibility.

Since the mediation efforts reached their peak at the ill-fated Tehran Declaration, Turkey has been sidelined from the nuclear negotiations. Turkey’s role has been effectively downgraded from a key mediator during the Tehran Declaration in 2010 to an outside observer during the Geneva talks in 2013. Why? 

It is primarily the change in Tehran’s attitude towards Ankara that pushed Turkey to the fringes of the diplomatic process. At the core of the growing rift between Tehran and Ankara is their opposite stances vis-à-vis the Arab Spring. The uprisings forced Turkey to take sides in the emerging conflicts, which in turn undermined the legitimacy of Ankara’s claim that it is an impartial player.

The critical point of departure was the Syrian civil war. Turkey’s hardliner policy towards the al-Assad regime− Iran’s main regional ally− diminished Ankara’s capacity to mediate nuclear negations. Iranian officials were forthcoming about their discontent with Turkey’s policy towards Syria. In January 2011, Turkey hosted diplomatic meetings on Iran in Istanbul. In March 2012, Alaaddin Burucerdi, the President of the External Relations Commission of Iran, said the next round of nuclear talks, which were also scheduled to take place in Istanbul in April, should be moved to Baghdad, Damascus or Beijing. He declared that due to Turkey’s position on Syria, Ankara had lost its credibility as an impartial actor to host the talks. Turkey was not directly involved in the subsequent talks in Baghdad (May 2012) and Almaty (April 2013). Turkey also played no apparent role in the process leading up to the Geneva talks in November. 

The interim real reached in Geneva is a victory for Turkey, as much as it is a victory for the region (except for Israel and Saudi Arabia). Ankara will benefit from the deal if it is finalized. The easing of sanctions will have a positive impact on Turkey-Iran trade. The deal will also ease the minds of Turkish officials regarding the restrictions Turkey might face in developing its own nuclear program. However, the fact that Iran sidelined Turkey in the critical stages of the diplomatic process reveals the limits of the ambitious Turkish foreign policy. 

Turkey’s claim to be an impartial actor in regional issues has lost a great deal of legitimacy in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. This failure could eventually turn out to be a positive force if it urges Turkish foreign policy makers to recalibrate their priorities and instruments. Impartiality might be a noble idealist aspiration but it has proved to be an ineffective guide for realist foreign policy, particularly in the unforgiving geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. 

Asst. Prof. Tolga Demiryol, Department of Political Science and Public Administration School of Economics and Administrative Sciences, Istanbul Kemerburgaz University