International Peace Studies Centre - IPSC

Turkey’ New Activist Foreign Policy: Challenges and Opportunities for Iran


Shireen Tahmasseb (Hunter)

IPSC, Washington, USA                                                 



In the last three years, Turkish foreign policy has been very active  in areas such as the Middle East and South Asia which since the establishment of the Turkish Republic have not been a focus of Turkish policy. As part of this new activist policy, Turkey has engaged in mediation between Syria and Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran and the West. Turkey has also focused on improving relations with old enemies and rivals such as Syria and Iran in the context of a policy that it calls “Zero Problem” diplomacy. Turkey’s new foreign policy will inevitably affect other regional actors, including Iran. Potentially Turkey’s new foreign policy posture could be beneficial to Iran. It could also improve the prospects for regional economic development and stability. However, this new Turkish activism also poses a number of challenges for Iran , especially that the country is facing significant political and economic pressures form major international actors and is in a relatively disadvantaged position vis a vis Turkey. This situation means that Iran, while welcoming Turkey’s efforts to expand its regional ties, including those with Iran, should be mindful of possible complications that a greater Turkish profile in its vicinity and within Iran itself could create for the country.

Keywords: Turkish foreign policy, Iran, Middle East, south Asia, the West, “Zero Problem”.

            In the last three years, Turkey’s foreign policy has experienced a new found activism focused in particular on the Middle East and South Asia, areas which hitherto had not been a major focus of the foreign policy of the Turkish Republic.

In fact, in the last three years, the pace of Turkey’s activities in the Middle East and South Asia has been nothing short of breathtaking. Meanwhile Turkey has not neglected the areas traditionally important to it such as Central Asia and the Caucasus. The following partial list of Turkey’s activities in the Middle East and South Asia illustrate the extent of the new found activism of Turkish foreign policy.

  Turkish Diplomatic Activities in the Middle East and South Asia

            It is not the purpose of this article to provide a detailed account of Turkey’s diplomatic initiatives and activities in the Middle East and South Asia in the last three years. Suffice it to mention a few examples of this activism. During this time:

Turkey hosted conferences on Afghanistan; tried to mediate between Pakistan and the Karzai government; [1]offered to host a representation bureau on its territory for the Taliban;[2]  established military relations with both Pakistan and Afghanistan ;[3] made significant inroads in Lebanon and Syria as illustrated by the visit of its prime minister recap Tayyip Erdogan to Lebanon; [4]became an important economic and political player in Iraq;[5] looked to expanding ties with Syria[6] and the [P] GCC and ;[7] even entered the foray in the Arab-Israeli conflict and established ties with HAMAS.

Additionally, as part of this strategy of reaching audiences thus far remote from Turkey, such as the Shias of Iraq and Lebanon , Turkey  also reached out to its own small Shi’a minority , which incidentally are still called “ kafir “ (unbeliever) as illustrated by Erdogan’s participation in Shia mourning ceremonies in Turkey in December 2010.[8] Turkish Diyanat is also considering the teaching of the Jafari Fiqh in Turkish religious schools partly in order to prevent Turks from going to Iranian or Iraqi Shia learning centers.

Turkey also indicated that it wanted to form a league of Turkic speaking countries similar to the Arab League in order to shore up and institutionalize its relations with the Central Asian states, while also strengthening its presence in Central Asia’s only Persian speaking country, Tajikistan.

Yet, significantly, at least so far, Turkey has succeeded in making these foreign policy moves in uncharted territories, without doing irreparable damage to its relations either with Israel or its Western partners. Nor has Turkey abandoned its long cherished goal of joining the European Union either as a full member or in some other form such as association or a similar formula.[9]

 True, Turkish –Israeli relations have somewhat cooled in the last two years because of a number of incidents such as the spat between Erdogan and Simon Peres in Davos in 2009[10] and the Mavi Marmara incident. However, there has been no rupture in Turkish-Israeli military and other ties. There are obvious reasons why this has not happened. First, Turkey realizes that its relations with the West will suffer if its Israeli ties became too frayed. Second, relations with Israel have had significant advantages for Turkey, including shielding it from Western, especially American criticism on a variety of issues, including its human rights performance.[11] Third, the Turkish military, although somewhat weakened, still wields tremendous influence in Turkey and would not want to jeopardize the country’s Israeli ties. Last, but not least, Turkey is aware, that its relations with Israel renders it more attractive to the Arabs, including potentially HAMAS, as a viable mediator.

Also, despite a degree of alarm expressed by some observers in the West about Turkey’s Eastern drift, Turkey has continued to emphasize the centrality of its relations with the US within its overall foreign policy framework. This is because Turkish leaders are fully aware that Turkey’s continued links to the West are essential for the success of its new regional ambitions.[12] To illustrate, it was through its membership in NATO that Turkey was able to deploy its military forces in Afghanistan and thus deal itself into Post-Taliban Afghan politics, since Turkey not since the 1930s had any significant ties with Afghanistan. Similarly, the fact that the West, and some Arab states, sees Turkey as a counterweight to Iran in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria and potentially in the Persian Gulf certainly helps its goals. Furthermore, for some Central Asian and Caucasian countries Turkey’s relations with the European Union have been one reason for their attraction to Turkey; these countries have seen Turkey as a conduit to the EU.

Turkey as the Super Mediator

In the last three years, Turkey has also pursued an active international diplomacy by casting itself as a potential mediator in many regional and international disputes. Turkey’s efforts to mediate between Pakistan and Afghanistan and between Taliban and the Karzai government were noted earlier.  Turkey even tried its hand in mediating between Syria and Israel.[13] But more importantly, Turkey took upon itself to mediate between Iran and the West in the Iran-West nuclear standoff. Although this role caused some difficulty for Turkey in relations with the West when the latter refused to accept the compromise reached among Turkey, Brazil and Iran regarding the latter’s nuclear program, nevertheless, this mediating role has enhanced Turkey’s diplomatic profile.

In order to play this mediating role, Turkey has changed its approach towards Iran emphasizing economic cooperation, especially in the Turkic speaking regions of Iran notably Azerbaijan provinces. Considering the fact that since the Ottoman times Turkey has been keenly interested in this part of Iran this new presence has significance beyond trade and economics.

Implications of Turkish Activism on

Iran’s national and Regional Interests

Iran has enthusiastically welcomed the new Turkish policy of focusing more on the Middle East and South Asia and has interpreted it as a significant shift in Turkish orientation from one focused exclusively on the West and in line with western priorities to a more independent posture. According to Iran, if continued this shift in Turkey’s positions could potentially change the balance of regional power against the West and in its own favor, and even perhaps lead to the creation of a new Islamic bloc.

Meanwhile, at least based on the statements of its officials, Iran has been largely oblivious to seriously competitive dimensions of this Turkish policy[14]. Yet, given Iran’s current problems with the West and the Arab states, and even its eastern neighbors, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, coupled with Turkey’s strong economy, Turkey’s new eastern focus could undermine Iran’s  regional position and eventually even cause security problems for it.

The reason for this diagnosis is that the ambitions of the AKP (Adalat va Kalkinma Partisi)  government go far beyond those of the Generals and even Turgut Özal as far as Turkey’s regional role is concerned.

 In order to fully understand the current Turkish thinking on foreign policy, it is important to review the foreign policy debate that Turkey underwent in the late 1980s and 1990s as a result of the geopolitical changes triggered by developments in the USSR and its eventual demise.

Soviet Demise and Turkey’s Evolving Foreign Policy Outlook

            As a country in the close neighborhood of the USSR who focused on Europe and Central Asia, Turkey was deeply affected by the systemic changes triggered by the Soviet demise and had to rethink its foreign policy priorities. In doing so Turkey went through several phases and stages.

The first stage which lasted a short period between 1987-90 covering the period between the start of Gorbachev’s reforms and when the process of Soviet disintegration accelerated, can best be called as the “Period of Anxiety”.

The reason for Turkey’s anxiety was that the end of the Cold War would inevitably undermine the strategic significance of Turkey and reduce its importance for its Western allies. This Turkish anxiety was exacerbated by statements by some US Senators that the US should reduce its military and economic aid to countries like Turkey now that the USSR was posing no threat to Western interests. Turkey’s strategy at this time was to intensify efforts to gain full membership of the European Community, and that is why Turgut Özal who was then prime Minister in 1987 applied for full membership of EC, despite advice by EC members not to do so.

The second phase of Turkish foreign policy thinking is best described as that of “Euphoria” , covering the period between  1990-93. A number of developments at this time enhanced Turkey’s strategic importance and value for its traditional allies and opened opportunities for its diplomacy in the newly independent republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus. For example, Turkey became the West’s chosen partner in regard to dealing with Central Asia and the Caucasus and an antidote to what they perceived as the threat of Iranian style Islamic revolutionary ideas. Turkey skillfully exploited these western concerns and enhanced its position, among other things, by marketing itself as the main transit hub for the Central Asian and Caspian energy resources.[15]

The Iraqi attack on Kuwait in August 1990 and the war that followed also enhanced Turkey’s position and enabled its leader Özal to deal Turkey into the Persian Gulf strategic and political equation.

This was also the time of the official death of the Kemalist theory of Turkish foreign policy, which was essentially based on not becoming too involved in regional politics. The fact that Turkey was not accepted into the EC also contributed to this shift by making it necessary for Turkey to find alternative partners.[16]

One consequence of this situation was the emergence of new doctrines about Turkey’s foreign policy. Some of these ideas were novel such as Ozal’s vision of Eurasianism with Turkey as the center instead of Russia. Others were a resurrection of old ideas such as new interpretations of Pan-Turkism and what was called NeoOttomanism.[17]

 For example, according to Cengiz Candar a prominent Turkish journalist writing in this period “Turkey must develop an imperial vision”. [Emphasis added] [18]However, he denied that this meant “expansionism or adventurism”. Rather he said that this meant “free movement of peoples, ideas and goods in the lands of the Ottoman empire”.[19] Interestingly he included lands in this vision which never were part of the Ottoman Empire such as Central Asia.

What is important to note here is that  the ideas regarding a more activist Turkish foreign policy encompassing both east and the west had the support of all political groups, including the Islamists, although some of them, notably the late Necemettin Erbekan believed in greater cooperation among Muslim states.  However, he had no doubts about Turkish leadership in this context. In fact his party , in its various incarnations, had always mixed Islam and Turkish nationalism thus developing what they call Islamic Nationalism ( Islam Miliyetciligi.)[20]. Meanwhile, various Islamist movements, including the Gullen movement , began extremely active in the former Soviet Union among other things by establishing schools.

The next phase of Turkish foreign policy could be described as “Disenchantment with the East and refocusing on the West”. This phase began around 1995-6 and continued until approximately 2005. This is the period of renewed efforts to bolster relations with the European Union and the signing of the Custom’s Agreement with the EU as well as the forging of close Turkish –Israeli relations.

            What is important from Iran’s perspective is that throughout the entire post-Soviet period, until the improvement in relations in the last few years, Turkish –Iranian relations worsened.[21] This was for several reasons notably the fact that, in achieving any of Turkey’s ambitions visions be it Ozalian Eurasianism , Pan-Turkism, or neo-Ottomanism, Iran both geographically and culturally is an obstacle and a rival. Second, Turkey consistently has used Iran’s estrangement with the West to enhance its position as a barrier to Iran’s influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus and as an alternative to Iran’s Islamic ideology and system. Tansu Ciller the Turkish Prime Minister was especially fond of comparing Turkey and Iran and warning Europe that if it  did not accept Turkey it would  face many more Irans.

The AKP Foreign Policy : Challenges for Iran

            As illustrated in the course of this article , so far the AKP and its foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu have succeeded in implementing various foreign policy visions for a more Turko- centric regional order better than their predecessors.

The Turkish strategy of so-called “Zero Problem” foreign policy and trying to make Turkey the mediator acceptable to all parties has succeeded more than previous efforts. In this effort,  Turkey has been aided by the fact that its economy is much stronger now, as well as by the either isolation of its regional rivals, such as Iran, or their crisis of irrelevancy as has been the case with Egypt for a long time.

The AKP’s policy  although called Zero Problem  is in fact  Neo-Ottomanism with a smiling face, namely the face of  Davutoglu. The AKP is the inheritor of other Islamist parties and subscribes to their mixture of Islam and Turkish nationalism noted earlier. Because of its Islamic credentials, the AKP is in much better position to translate this neo-Ottomanist vision into reality than previous Turkish administrations. The AKP’s Islamic credentials  enable  it to reach the Arab and other Muslim audiences. At the same time, Turkish Islam is seen by many in the Muslim World and by the West as more progressive than that practiced in other Muslim majority countries, including Iran,  and hence non-threatening. Meanwhile the nationalist dimensions of the AKP are well suited to ideas of Turkic cooperation in a kind of mild pan-Turkism. This combination makes Turkey under AKP a far more formidable rival for Iran than the Turkey of the Generals ever was, although for the time being less of a security threat.

There are several reasons for this. First , Turkey’s Sunni nature makes it a more acceptable actor in the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim World. By contrast, as the experience of the last three decades has shown , no matter how much Iran insists on Islamic unity, it is viewed as alien by the Sunnis because of  its Shia nature. Second , the AKP and its intellectuals, as told to this author by one of them, see Iran as the only viable rival for Turkey and potential hindrance for the achievement of its Neo-Ottomanist ambitions. Nor this is surprising, since as noted here before, Iran’s geographical position plus its religious and cultural links with a number of peoples and countries in the Caucasus , Central Asia and the Persian Gulf, makes it a barrier to linking of all the lands viewed  to be within the confines of the new vision of a Turko-centric regional order. Third, Iran is faced with mounting economic and political pressures and problems and active efforts by many regional and international actors to undermine its regional ties. Moreover, it suffers from some inherent handicaps in its relations with its Arab and non-Arab neighbors, notably sectarian differences and cultural rivalries .For example, other Iranian peoples ,such as those in Afghanistan and even Tajikistan, see themselves as the true inheritors of the ancient Iranian civilization and use freely Iranian symbols and heroes as their own. Consequently , Iran is in a disadvantageous position in comparison with Turkey for regional leadership. Notice, for example that Erdogan’s efforts in regard to the Palestinians were applauded by the Arabs  while Iran’s support for them is called interference in Arab affairs.

 For now, Turkey is mainly preoccupied with preventing the outbreak of another war in the Persian Gulf, this time with Iran which would be disastrous for its neighborhood. It also wants  to check Iran’s military ambitions, and maximize its own economic gains by exploiting Iran’s isolation and gaining cultural and political influence in those regions of Iran closest to it both geographically and linguistically.

Yet, under the right circumstances , a Turkish policy of forming economic and other ties with Middle East and South Asia and developing more extended relations with Iran could be in the interest of all concerned and serve the cause of  regional stability. However, for this positive potential to be realized and Iran’s interests be secured, there must be a better equilibrium in the assets and liabilities of Iran and Turkey respectively. Currently, the balance is against Iran. Consequently , Iran needs to have a more skeptical and cautious view of Turkish activities. Iran, therefore, should not be fooled by the smiling Turkish foreign minister who is the theoretician of Turkey’s new policy of Zero Problems and creating strategic depth for Turkey.[22]

Certainly, Iran need not and should not engage in a competition with Turkey for regional influence, and instead  it should encourage the forging of regional economic links. It should also explore and expand mutually beneficial economic relations with Turkey. In the meantime, however, it should carefully calculate the long term consequences of Turkey’s new found activism for its own interests. For example, Iran should worry about becoming too dependent on Turkish markets for its natural gas because should relations sour again, as they have done so often in the past, Turkey can replace Iran with other sources of supply, notably Russia and Iraq. Turkish competition would also affect Syrian-Iranian ties, as well as relations with Iraq. Certainly, Iraq even under a Shi’a government could and has used Turkey to improve its bargaining position vis a vis Iran. Similarly, as in the past, Turkey remains a formidable rival in Central Asia.

Closer to home, a too prominent Turkish presence in parts of Iran and greater interaction with Turkey could accentuate their differences with the rest of the country and by creating a too close economic connection weaken their ties with the center. In short, Turkey potentially could become a pole of attraction for segments of the Iranian population .In this connection, it is also useful to remember that influential elements in Turkey, including within the Islamist groups, believe that most of Iran since the time of the Saljuqs was part of Turkey, and that since that time until the end of the Qajar dynasty Iran was largely ruled by Turks.

Of course , whether Turkey will succeed in achieving its foreign policy goals of having a more active profile in the east while nurturing and expanding its ties with the west is not clear. What is certain is that this will not be very easy. Certainly,  a more assertive Turkish policy on some sensitive issues could strain its relations with its Western partners beyond what has happened so far.  Moreover, recent developments in the Arab World with the potential of  completely altering the region’s political map could undo some of Turkey’s plans and undermine its chances of emerging as a key player in the Arab Middle East. To note , the return of Egypt to a more independent posture by enhancing its standing among the Arabs would undermine the influence of non-Arab actors such Iran and Turkey in the Arab World.

Yet, note withstanding these uncertainties, the lesson of recent developments , notably Turkish activism, for Iran is that because of its peculiar geographical , sectarian and ethnic traits, it suffers from a degree of existential loneliness, and thus it needs to be on good or reasonable terms with all major regional and international actors, without unduly relying on any of them. Certainly, Iran should refrain from attracting powerful antagonists , and conduct its economic and diplomatic relations in such a way that would provide it with a wide range of options in terms of viable economic and political partners who could help it achieve its development goals rather than be a drain on its resources, and guard it against manipulation by its neighbors both near and far and big and small as has been frequently the case in recent years, or by other players. If Iran manages to observe these guidelines in the conduct of its foreign policy, it would be able to take advantages of the opportunities provided by Turkey’s new policies while guarding against its potential risks for its interests. In this way, Iran could also contribute to the development of a balanced and productive regional economic and political system.

[1] “ Turkey mediates between Karzai and Musharaf at Ankara meeting” Earth Times,  29 April 2007 at:

[2] Robert Dreyfus, “ Turkey Ready to Host Taliban Talks”  at:

[3] “Turkey , Afghanistan, Pakistan to hold joint military exercise”, Hurriyet Daily News, 24 December 2010, at:

[4] “ Erdogan Visits Lebanon: We Won’t let Lebanon Fall into Civil War”,, 24 November 2010, at:

[5] “ Turkey’s PM to Hold Joint Cabinet meeting With Iraq’s Maliki” World Bulletin, 14 October 2009, at:

[6] “ Turkey , Syria to hold joint cabinet meeting next month” Sabah, 24 November, 2009 available at:

[7] On various aspects of Turkish –GCC relations and its prospects see: Birol Bakcan, “Turkey –GCC Relations : Is There a Future?”,  1 January 2011, available at:

[8] “Erdogan Attends Ashura ceremony in Istanbul, Addresses Mourners” (AhulBayt News Agency,) 17 December, 2010, at: This event is interesting because there are restrictions on Turkey’s Alavi minority who are close to the Shias. See, Mine Yildimir, Turkey: the right to have places of worship- a trapped right” Forum 18, 2 March, 2011, at: In addition some Turkish scholars have attributed anti-Shia sentiments to Fetullah Gullen who is the spiritual guide of the Turkish AKP. See: Bulent Aras, “Turkish Islam’s Modern Face”, The Middle East Journal, Vol.54, no.4, Autumn 1999 These facts show that reaching out to the Shia world is part of Turkey’s foreign policy activism. 

[9]Turkish authorities , however, keep insisting that Turkey will not accept anything short of total membership.

[10] “ Peres, Erdogan in ‘amicable talks’ after Davos spat”, CNN World, 30 January 2009 at:

[11] In fact one reason Turkey established close relations with Israel in the 1990s was precisely to use the pro-Israel lobby in the US in order to secure Turkish interests. For details see: Shireen T. Hunter, Turkey at the Crossroads: Islamic Past or European Future? , Brussels: Centre For European Policy Studies, 1995, pp.100-103

[12] For an example of Western anxieties about Turkey’s new policy see: Michael Werz, “Turkish Tango: Foreign Policy Dance in Ankara Requires Attention” Center For American Progress, 22 November , 2010 at:

[13] “ Syria’s Assad Meets Erdogan as Turkey Mediates for Mideast Peace”, The Journal of Turkish Weekly, 6 August 2008, at: http://www.turkishweeklyinet/news/5831/Syria-assad-meets-erdogan-as-turkey-mediates

[14] Some Iranian commentators however, have noticed the competitive dimensions of Turkey’s new policy.

[15] For details see:  Shireen T. Hunter, Turkey at the Crossroads : Islamic Past of European Future, pp.88-90

[16] See: Duygu  Bazoglu Sezer, “ Turkey’s Grand Strategy Facing a Dilemma”, The International Spectator, vol .XXVII, no.1, January-March 1992, pp.17-46

[17] Shireen T. Hunter., Turkey at the Crossroads: Islamic Past or European Future ,pp 90-93

[18] Quoted in Sami Cohen, “ Contacts With central Asian States Foundation for Pan-Turkism”, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August/September 1992.                                                           

[19] Ibid

[20] See Ibid , pp34-38, also on the origins of the Erbekan’s  party see: Jacob Landau, Radical Politics in Modern Turkey, Leiden:, E. J. Brill, 1974, pp, 188-193

[21] For a detailed analysis of Turkish –Iranian relations in the Post-Soviet period see: Shireen T. Hunter, Iran’s Foreign Policy in the Post-Soviet Era: Resisting the New International Order, Santa Barbara, California: Praeger, 2010, pp. 156-167

[22] Ahmet Davutoglu is the author of StrateJik Derinlik, 2001 (Strategic Depth) which reportedly has been very influential in shaping Turkey’s new foreign policy, as well as books on Ottoman civilization. 

مطالب مرتبط