US needs to get talking on Iran, Syria and Cyprus

US needs to get talking on Iran, Syria and Cyprus

Even at times when Turkey and Iran have been at a low ebb in their relations, stopping the regime in Tehran from procuring nuclear weapon has never been a priority for Ankara. 

According to polls conducted during the tenure of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), public opinion in Turkey does not seem to be concerned by a neighbor with nuclear arms. But this has nothing to do with Turkish decision makers and their policy platform on Iran’s controversial nuclear program. 

Turkish political elites are well aware of the possible negative consequences of such a prospect coming to fruition and subsequently they do not desire it do so. One could question this discrepancy between public opinion and political elites since public opinion is shaped largely by political elites; furthermore, given that part of Turkish society is prone to listen to and be guided by a strong leadership, this questioning is justified. The reasoning is that in the case involving the Iranians, despite maintaining their concerns, the Turkish leadership adopts rhetoric that is low key in reference to Iran’s nuclear policies. 

Turkey’s priority is first and fore most to prevent a military intervention in Iran, which would be the worst case scenario, according to Turkish decision makers.

For the U.S., however, stopping a nuclear-armed Iran is a priority. U.S.’s unwillingness to become more actively involved in the Syrian crisis is also due to U.S. decision makers' fear that getting entangled in the Syrian quagmire would distract them from the essential target – that being Iran. 

Today, Syria is a burning priority for Turkey. If the present-day were the overture to the Syrian crisis, one would expect Turkey to rejoice in seeing the commencement of a U.S. – Iran dialogue. Today, however, it should not be surprising to discern a certain anxiety among Turks over the possibility that the U.S. – Iran dialogue might come as bad news for Turkey’s Syria policies. Although the Syrian issue is not officially on the table between Tehran and Washington, Turks might fear the possibility that the U.S. could give to Iran what Ankara would consider as concessions on Syria, in exchange for a deal on the nuclear program.

The timing of the U.S. journalist David Ignatius's article on allegations of Turkey’s transfer of sensitive information to Iran coincided with the opening of communication lines between the U.S. and Iran. Whether these allegations are right or wrong, the U.S. should not leave Turkey in the dark regarding its dialogue with Iran. 

As it was stated in the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center’s report, which addressed U.S. policy makers, “keeping Ankara informed of progress in diplomatic negotiations could avoid the sort of miscommunication that led to the 2010 failed Turkish-Brazilian-Iranian agreement, contribute to increased Turkish adherence to sanctions, and engender goodwill.”

Another way for the U.S. to engender “goodwill” and minimize divergences on critical problems where there is potential to disagree is by delivering on issues that are of crucial importance for Turkey but way below in the U.S.’ list of priorities. The Cyprus affair is one of them. The report equally urges policy makers in Washington to reopen dialogue on Cyprus with the right advice, in order for the U.S. to be able to create a new high-level envoy to work with both sides.

In contrast to the past when U.S. was frustrated by the Greek lobby, the current warm relations between Ankara and Athens will make Washington’s life much easier. As UN efforts have intensified for the purposes of restarting negotiations on the island again, giving a push for a solution on Cyprus would be low cost and in fact come as an important item in Barack Obama’s foreign policy success list, which so far stands at nil.