What does it mean for Turkish foreign policy, that the Obama Administration’s conscious policy of diminishing American power and prestige in Western Asia continues to yield benefits to Russia and Iran?
The Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, looking mainly at Iraq and Syria, last month analyzed what he called the “reordering of the Middle East” where after “40 years [during which] the U.S.-Egypt alliance anchored the region, a Russia-Iran condominium is now dictating events.” This is the result of U.S. President Barack Obama’s evident belief that “calculations of raw realpolitik are 20th-century thinking — primitive, obsolete, the obsession of small minds.”
Turkish foreign policy in the Azerbaijan-Iran-Russia triangle
The fallout effects of this myopia extend beyond the Syria-Iraq nexus into the whole neighborhood of the Greater Middle East. In this complex and evolution situation, the autonomy of the strategically key South Caucasus oil and gas-producer Azerbaijan comes under increasing pressure, as it seeks to adapt to the demands of its neighbors while maintaining some margin of diplomatic maneuver.
A most recent indication of this situation is the trilateral meeting, in Baku, of the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan, Iran and Russia. The tectonic shifts in the region are slowly rumbling but are still under the radar as attention focuses on the Iraq-Syria (and now Turkey) conundrum. At the meeting’s conclusion, Azerbaijan’s foreign minister Elmar Mammadyarov said that the discussions highlighted the energy and transportation sectors.
Iran hopes for the establishment of railroad links to its Bandar Abbas port all the way from St. Petersburg, depending in part on the project of a railway corridor with Azerbaijan (from Rasht to Astara). Electricity swaps are also foreseen, as Azerbaijan now overproduces electrical power and has export capacity for this. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov noted that the three countries have established a permanent institutional framework for coordinating ministerial-level cooperation.
Russia has already significantly increased arms sales to Azerbaijan, and it just compelled Armenia to agree to the establishment of a single Armenian-Russian army. This gives Russia the keys to the resolution, or the irresolution of the territorial conflict over Nagarno-Karabakh, an integral part of Azerbaijan that Armenian armed forces have occupied for over 25 years. At the same time, a general realization is dawning in Armenia that its affiliation with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union brings Yerevan no advantages at all.
Turkish foreign policy in the South Caucasus
With recent changes the constellation of domestic political forces in Georgia, Russian pressure beginning with the 2008 invasion and occupation of South Ossetia is bearing fruit as the U.S. and the EU likewise look in other directions. Iranian energy cooperation with Armenia and Georgia continues to deepen. Where does this leave Turkey?
Turkish foreign policy is not present in this equation, except for its strong ties with Azerbaijan. Russia and Iran are making significant economic and diplomatic inroads in the South Caucasus. This development by itself puts pressure on Turkish foreign policy, which has long counted good relations with Azerbaijan and Georgia as a political advantage. These relations will not change with Azerbaijan, where cooperation on energy and other economic matters is a well established national interest.
Georgia, however, does not have the same stability of diplomatic course that Azerbaijan does. While domestic developments in Tbilisi are also finding it necessary to make political comprises with Russia, the occupation of its territory by Russia (as distinct from the occupation of Azerbaijani territory by Armenia) arguably weakens its resolve more than Baku’s is weakened by foreign forces.
One of Turkey’s greatest concerns should be to prevent Russia and Iran from colluding against it. There are two ways for this. First, Russia and Iran have sometimes divergent interests, for example in Syria, and Turkey can use that to its own advantage if it can play a subtle game. Second, Turkey can try to leverage other parties to increase its own autonomy. Relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia, for example, come in here. If Turkey has recently overcome a threat from within, it should not give Iran undue advantages, because Iran uses the same tactics elsewhere.
Without even mentioning Iraq or Israel, we see Iran trying (and even succeeding) to destroy Lebanon from within by using Hezbollah, trying to destroy the Palestinian Authority from within by using Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad including Al-Quds Brigade, trying to destroy Egypt from within by using Muslim Brotherhood, trying to destroy Saudi Arabia from within using sectarian tensions.
Turkish foreign policy and the evolving international system
Iran is a revisionist power, meaning that it seeks to overturn the regional status quo. Why should Turkey escape this subversion from Tehran when literally no other country in the region escapes?
Russia and Turkey can expand cooperation again, but also Russia will always try to use Iran (insofar as it can) to leverage against Turkish foreign policy. And Iran will use Iraq, where a government is setting up its own “praetorian guard” that will be only a subsidiary of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and directed from Tehran.
Turkey has been expanding relations with China, and seeking sometimes to play off China against Russia, for example in the question of nuclear-industry cooperation. But China is too far away to be of real power-political value to Turkish foreign policy in the regional equation. Europe has become too concerned with its internal problems to be much help. (This involves not just the migrant crisis, but also Brexit and similar domestic developments in the politics of the member-states.) The United States is caught up in its own domestic political and demographic crisis as well.
Turkish foreign policy must rely upon itself, but it cannot rely only upon itself. It must seek and accept tactical and strategic cooperation with third parties. The problem is that only Russia and Iran are offering substantial help in this regard, and each one has its own agenda that seeks to limit the options available to Turkish foreign policy. By process of elimination, Saudi Arabia and Israel are the only countries in the neighborhood that hold the possibility for counterbalance against Russia and Iran and have the means to offer for that purpose.