Opportunist Erdogan backpedals on Yemen

Developing Just Leadership

Ahmet Aslan

Rajab 12, 1436 2015-05-01

News & Analysis

by Ahmet Aslan (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 44, No. 3, Rajab, 1436)

Before his visit, Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan lashed out at Iran for its alleged meddling in Yemen. Once in Tehran and having witnessed the trade opportunities, Erdogan’s tune changed showing his opportunistic side.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has yet again succumbed to his temper and made a preposterous remark regarding the illegal Saudi assault on Yemen. Instead of condemning the Saudi-led offensive he placed the blame on the Islamic Republic, “Iran is trying to dominate the region. This [attempt] has been annoying us, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. It is not possible to cope with this. [Iran] must withdraw whatever forces it has, from Yemen, Syria and Iraq. We may provide logistical support to the operation [in Yemen].”

The remarks understandably upset Tehran and led to strong reaction from several senior Iranian officials. Iran’s Foreign Minister Dr. Javad Zarif said Turkey was making a “strategic mistake.” Further, in an unusual move that perhaps more accurately reflected Tehran’s irritation, Iran summoned Turkey’s charge d’affaires to demand an explanation of Erdogan’s remarks.

There are several reasons for Turkey to be prudent in dealing with the Islamic Republic. Iran with its independent technology, vast natural resources, large population and most importantly unwavering leadership has survived all kinds of plots, attacks and sanctions for almost four decades. Even the US could not handle the long struggle with Iran and realized that there was no option but to negotiate with Tehran.

Thus, Turkish President Erdogan’s imprudent remarks confused many. In this regard veteran Turkish journalist Cengiz Candar in his Al-Monitor piece (April 8) stated that Erdogan’s statement “may be the most imprudent statement ever heard from a Turkish official on Iran… Irrespective of whoever holds office in Ankara and Tehran, they have generally refrained from making statements that could be seen as offensive to the other side.”

Thanks to his unchallenged authority in Turkey, Erdogan has become intoxicated by power, making foolish and offensive remarks pertaining to domestic opponents. His undiplomatic comments may lead to undesirable consequences especially in politics and it will take time for Erdogan to learn his lesson. Iran’s unstoppable rise in world politics has been increasingly frustrating Erdogan and in turn in a moment of anger, he could not help himself but express his real feelings toward Iran.

Nevertheless, Erdogan soon understood the gravity of the situation caused by his blunder and did not respond to the Iranian officials’ harsh rebukes. Yet, despite Erdogan’s non-reaction, before his visit to Tehran, pro-AKP media had reported that Erdogan would issue a warning against so-called “Shi‘i expansionism.” Further, the media speculated that Erdogan would pass the Saudis’ message to Tehran as he received Saudi Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayef in his palace just a day before his visit to Iran on April 7.

However, the alleged warning was not issued. During the visit, Erdogan appeared to reverse his position on the issue. There was no mention of “Iranian exit” from Yemen (Iran has no forces in Yemen!) or the Saudi message delivered to Tehran. Instead Erdogan tried hard to give a non-sectarian impression by stating, “I don’t care about Shi‘i or Sunni, I am concerned about the blood spilled in Iraq.” He further stated, “We should become united with each other and negotiate and prevent this bloodshed…” In the end the two countries reached an agreement to launch an initiative that would bring peace and stability to Yemen.

It was obvious that Erdogan was worried that Turkey’s relations with Iran would be harmed due to his blunder. Fehim Tastekin, a respected columnist of the Turkish daily Radikal Newspaper explained why Erdogan is keen not to harm relations between the two countries. For him the reasons are purely economic, “Both parties in the meetings held in Tehran have mentioned the situations in Syria, Iraq and Yemen from their perspectives but these differences did not shadow inking eight different economic agreements, and it will never happen.”

He further stated that Turkey is heavily dependent on Iranian natural gas and petrol imports and due to Turkey’s problems with Syria, Iraq and recently with Egypt, Iran presented itself to be an important alternative to transport Turkish goods to the Muslim East market. Especially considering the anticipated US-Iran nuclear agreement, Turkey will find a great opportunity to reach the Iranian market and export its goods. Therefore, Turkey cannot afford to upset Iran any further.

Erdogan’s businessman-like agenda strongly supported Tastekin’s arguments. During his visit Erdogan proposed that the two countries should use national currencies in their trade instead of relying on dollars or euros. He also complained that the natural gas that Turkey purchases from Iran is the most expensive and pleaded with Tehran to consider reducing the price. He pledged increased gas imports if there was a price reduction.

Cengiz Candar also emphasised the US-Iran nuclear agreement’s role in forcing Erdogan to retreat, “The nuclear framework deal reached might be a game changer in Turkey’s — meaning Erdogan’s — attitude toward Iran. It sent signals to Turks that Iran will escape its international isolation, with even greater weight in regional and international affairs. Turkey, which already has problems with its Western allies on Middle East issues, particularly Syria, cannot afford to be at loggerheads with Iran.”

Further, Graham Fuller, former vice chairman, CIA’s National Intelligence Council and CIA’s Turkey station chief, pointed out that Turkey’s changing attitude toward Yemen is an indication of Iran’s rising influence in the Muslim East and the diminishing influence of the Saudis, “Perhaps Erdogan’s early decision was best understood as opportunism — an initial concern not to be left out of what might become a ‘new Arab force.’ Yet, during a relatively tense visit to Tehran in early April, Erdogan backed away from further criticism of Iran and from participation in the Saudi campaign against Yemen — a notable slap in the face to Riyadh. Iran is still the most important country to Turkey in the Middle East in economic, energy and geopolitical terms. And Ankara must be mindful of its own large Alevi (quasi-Shiite) minority. How much did Iran influence this sudden change of heart?”

In terms of the Iranian position, Fehim Tastekin in the same article mentioned that in order to gain insight about Iran’s reaction to Erdogan’s remarks he spoke to sources in Tehran; one is a journalist and the other is a diplomat in the Foreign Ministry. Based on his discussions with the sources Tastekin wrote, “From Tehran front this is the picture: as it is known some Iranian MPs has confronted Erdogan to either apologise [for the remarks that he made against Iran] or not come to Iran and 65 MPs wrote a letter to Rouhani to demand that ‘he must pressure [Erdogan] for an apology.’ Despite this [tension], Erdogan’s visit to Tehran and his remarks in the joint press conference appeared to indicate that he ‘backpedalled’ on Yemen and this was perceived by Iranians as a tacit apology.”

Erdogan has since been really trying hard to repair the damage caused by his remarks, especially the sectarian undertone that he used to support the Saudi-led offensive. According to Hurriyet Daily News columnist Verda Ozer who accompanied Erdogan on his visit, on his way back from Tehran Erdogan strongly emphasised that Turkey does not pursue a sectarian policy, “Erdogan repeated five times on the plane that Ankara stands at equal distance to all sects, through the use of very strong expressions. ‘My biggest fear is sectarianism. Some people might be Shiite. My country might be predominantly Sunni. However the main thing for us is neither Sunni, nor Shiite. It is Islam itself,’ he said.”

Despite his effort to clear the mess, the episode is yet another indication of Erdogan’s opportunist foreign policy. While he tries to create the impression that under his leadership Turkey pursues a “moral” foreign policy, when it comes to choosing between “moral” and “interest,” Erdogan does not hesitate to choose what is in the interest of his political future (and not necessarily that of Turkey). In this ironic example, Erdogan and his sycophants have always boasted of pursuing a “moral” foreign policy when they defended Turkey’s support for the Egyptian Ikhwan and Turkey’s uncompromising stance against the rule of General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi. Yet they felt no embarrassment at Erdogan extending his unreserved support for the Saudi-led attack on Yemen. The Saudis singlehandedly plotted and funded el-Sisi’s military coup against President Mohamed Mursi but Erdogan has not uttered a word against Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the coup.

More ironically, Erdogan has abstained from even appearing in the same frame with el-Sisi, let alone making peace with him, but he showed a strong interest in joining the anti-Yemini alliance alongside el-Sisi’s soldiers. Erdogan’s politics are strange indeed!

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