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Turkey’s regional ambitions and the Iranian nuclear deal

Ankara welcomed the Iranian nuclear deal, calling it a “major step forward”

Mahir Zeynalov

Published: Updated:

In a historic diplomatic breakthrough, Iran agreed to scale back its nuclear activities for at least six months, while world powers seek ways to find a lasting solution to a perennial nuclear standoff. The deal in Geneva also comes with about $7 billion in sanctions relief, an important incentive for Iran’s ailing economy.

Ankara welcomed the nuclear deal, calling it a “major step forward.” The interim nuclear agreement is a glimmer of hope for Turkey to boost its economic ties with Iran while Ankara is struggling to cope with ballooning current account deficit.

Israel, however, described the agreement as a “historic mistake” while Gulf nations downplayed the effectiveness of the deal. The question remains on why Turkey, which has troubled relations with Tehran, welcomed the agreement that will most likely make it much easier for Iran to march to regional dominance.

Turkey’s mind set

The answer to this question lies in understanding Turkey’s regional ambitions as well as the ideology of its decision-makers. For over a decade, Turkish leaders sought regional dominance through using its most effective weapon – soft power. It included TV soap operas, its vibrant economy and functioning democracy and most importantly, its moderate position in almost every challenge it faced.

The Turkish leaders had a belief that Arab Muslim masses will readily embrace Turkey and its leadership in the region. To make this far-fetching goal a reality, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu fought tooth and nail for years to abolish visa requirements with its neighbors, cultivated political relationships and tried to establish free economic zones. In addition, American pullout of troops from Iraq and its overall withdrawal from the region provided a window of opportunity for Turkey to seek a regional leadership role.

Ankara always wanted the U.S. out

Despite being a close NATO ally, Turkey has never wanted strong U.S. presence in the region. Ankara’s desire to push the U.S. out of the region has started on March 1, 2003, when the Turkish Parliament refused to grant the U.S. army to use its territory to invade Iraq. It continued with Ankara’s veto at the U.N. Security Council against fourth round of Iran sanctions in 2010. Before that, Turkey continued to work with Brazil in a bid to secure an interim nuclear deal. With a peaceful nuclear deal, Turkish leaders estimated, the U.S. will abandon the region.

Despite a tremendous failure in foreign policy, Ankara has yet to learn from its past mistakes. Davutoğlu still defends his zero problems with neighbors foreign policy strategy while Erdoğan even sharpened his rhetoric against regimes of the regional countries such as Egypt

Mahir Zeynalov

Ankara was aware of the bitter fact that it lacks necessary military and economic power to dominate the region but Turkey’s idealist policy-makers believed that Muslim Arab nations will embrace its comeback thanks to its soft power. The Great Arab Turmoil offered a golden opportunity for Turkey to become the “supporters of the oppressed” and by standing “on the right side of the history,” Ankara would come out of this turbulent process victorious.

A series of grave mistakes, however, wasted this opportunity and significantly isolated Turkey. The biggest mistake Turkey made in this process was downplaying the level of nationalism in these countries. Ankara tried to dictate its own terms without considering circumstances specific to each country.

For Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the only problem its neighbors have are “rogue regimes whose end are too close.” Erdoğan sought Western assistance in getting rid of these tyrants and he had a good working relationship with the U.S. in this regard. This partnership hit a snag because of Washington’s reluctance to describe Egyptian army intervention on July 3 a coup and its last-minute decision to avoid punitive strikes on Syrian targets. This development deeply disappointed Turkey, who concluded that it is now on its own in tackling its adversaries.

Turkey insists on mistakes

Despite a tremendous failure in foreign policy, Ankara has yet to learn from its past mistakes. Davutoğlu still defends his zero problems with neighbors foreign policy strategy while Erdoğan even sharpened his rhetoric against regimes of the regional countries such as Egypt. In his speeches, Erdoğan frequently refers to the glorious Ottoman Empire, which kept the Middle East at peace. Unlike Ottoman times, however, nationalism today runs deep through every veinsof Middle Eastern societies and an arrogant behavior is a sure path to a room of full trouble. This basic and simple fact, sadly, is largely ignored by Turkish diplomats.

Despite all the visible signs of failure in its regional policies, Turkey is still making the same mistakes that ate away its soft power. Turkish leaders believe that their rhetoric will gain them friends in Arab streets, while ignoring many enemies they created in just only one year.

Ankara constantly highlights the idea that regional problems should have “regional solutions,” an obvious signal to Western nations that they should not be involved in the Middle Eastern crises, including Iranian nuclear standoff. Turkey views the nuclear agreement with Iran as a beginning of an end for the U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

Instead of pushing the U.S. out of the region, Ankara must closely work with its chief NATO ally in securing itself from the threat of regional countries, particularly Iran. Despite all the bellicose rhetoric, Erdoğan even cannot bring down the regime of its much smaller southern neighbor – Syria, much less looking for more dangerous adventures abroad. Turkey must understand that mistrust is sometimes an important weapon and that not every Muslim nation is a friend of Ankara.

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Mahir Zeynalov is an Istanbul-based journalist with English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.