MK Bhadrakumar responds to David Goldman

M.K. Bhadrakumar July 17, 2015 9:27 AM (UTC+8)
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David, I am afraid Turkey already welcomed the Iran deal a day before you posted your “take” on the relations between the two countries, calling Iran “an important neighbor to us and an important trade partner.”

True, Turkey (along with Brazil) tried to mediate between the US and Iran, but if the initiative failed to take off, it was because Washington gave it short shrift — although Iran was keen on the Turkish mediation and openly welcomed it. Indeed, Turkey felt snubbed and that in turn found reflection subsequently in Ankara keeping a studious distance from the US’ pressure tactic vis-a-vis Iran.

In fact, Turkey never really became party to the US’ containment strategy against Iran and Tehran deeply appreciated that Recep Erdogan kept up steady high-level visits, while on the other hand freezing Turkey’s relations with Israel.

Turkey and Iran have been locked in a curious tango over Syria, with the two countries differing on the future of the Syrian regime. (This is about to change, given the recent shift in Turkish policies toward an active involvement in the fight against the IS and the emergence of a new coalition government in Ankara.)

Turkey realizes that the “regime change” is not really on the cards in Syria and understands that the West wants Bashar al-Assad to be around as bulwark against the Islamist groups.

But on the other hand, it is in the core interests of both Iran and Turkey that no Kurdish entity takes shape in Syria. Arguably, Turkey and Iran share the unease over Israeli intelligence’s presence in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq and its unfriendly intentions. Ankara and Tehran have an intelligence-sharing arrangement to monitor the activities of the Kurdish militants.

The prognosis that the Iran nuclear deal will fuel Turkish-Iranian “rivalry” is a bit far-fetched. Turkey might have a grouse that the US came down like a ton of bricks on its own nuclear program, while the present deal allows Iran’s program to continue. Turkey is embarking on a program to build nuclear reactors. Russia won the first tender.

On the other hand, Edogan pays attention to the Islamic affinity with the countries of the region, especially Iran. (Turkey and Iran have similar views on the “secular” military dictatorship in Egypt and a broad empathy toward “Arab Spring”.) The point is, Turkey also has a complicated Ottoman legacy vis-a-vis the Muslim Middle East.

It is unlikely that Turkey’s relations with Israel will be restored as before, so long as Erdogan is around. He’s a smart politician who knows that his insulting behavior toward Israel endears him to the “Arab Street”. Besides, Israel’s atrocities against the Palestinians will remain an emotive issue in the Turkish opinion and that constituency matters to the AKP.

Turkey has no threat perceptions vis-a-vis Iran as such, being a NATO power. Turkey also does not see Iran as an expansionist power. On its part, Iran is careful not to get involved in the politics of Islamism in Turkish politics.

In fact, Turkish perception is generally that Iran is a weak power beset with so many internal problems and Rouhani would do well to follow Turkey’s footsteps as a flourishing market economy and modern society.

It is more a condescending attitude, given the fact that Turkey is a prosperous country while the Iranian economy is in difficulty, and Turkey’s “soft power” is considerable.

Thus, it is possible to anticipate that on the whole, the independent policies that Turkey has pursued toward Iran, based on pragmatism, will continue.

The focus will be on how to tap into the Iran nuclear deal. Turkey takes itself seriously as a trading nation, and it is sure to explore how to transform itself as a hub for the pipelines carrying Iranian gas to the European market. (Despite the sanctions, Turkey operated its own pipeline connecting Iran.)

Iran’s entry into the energy market is advantageous for Turkey insofar as it reduces its heavy dependence on Russian supplies and, secondly, it enables it to bargain more optimal prices with Russia.

Equally, Turkey will jump into the Iranian market with glee. Turkish consumer products will swarm the Iranian market, its powerful construction industry will do exactly as it did when the Soviet Union collapsed and new markets opened up, and its enterprising businessmen will be crawling all over the place. Given the Erdogan government’s nexus with the Anatolian tigers, I anticipate that trade and economic ties will be the leitmotif of the Turkish policies toward Iran in the months ahead.

It is improbable that anyone in Turkey loses sleep over the far-fetched scenario of an Israeli military strike on Iran. At any rate, Turkish air space has been slammed shut for Israeli aircraft, which only works to Iran’s advantage.

The Iran-Pakistan ties is another separate issue you have touched. Make no mistake, Pakistan’s top most priority will be that Iran does not buy into India’s regional strategies. Countering Indian influence will be the principal motivation behind Pakistan’s policies toward Iran. And, to that end, Pakistan will tenaciously pursue the recent course of building trust and cooperation (and content) in the relations with Iran.

Iran has not interfered in the sectarian politics in Pakistan the manner in which the Israeli scholar has estimated. Far from it. The Shias in Pakistan have been at the receiving end of the attacks by the Sunni fundamentalist groups funded by Saudi Arabia and Iran has been rather helpless about it.

It is useful to take note that Pakistan has warmly reacted to the Iran nuclear deal. In immediate terms, the door opens for the Iran gas pipeline (which has already been built up to the Pakistani border by the Iranians), which has the potential to be made into a Iran-Pakistan-China gas pipeline that has the potential to bring about a new regional axis.

The US sanctions had come in the way so far, but the deck is clear now. The Russian and Chinese companies have shown interest in the project and it dovetails with the Sino-Russian approach to co-opt Pakistan (and Iran by the next year) as SCO member countries.

In geopolitical terms, too, Iran and Pakistan are on the same page in opposing the US military presence in Afghanistan; they give wide berth to the US’ “pivot” strategy; they are equally enthusiastic about China’s Belt and Road projects and Russia’s assertive role on the world stage. In sum, I do not understand the basis of the optimism that Iran-Pakistan relations are about to become tense. The opposite seems to be the case.

M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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