[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
Turkish diplomacy just had one of its most mind-boggling weeks. First, on Monday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu showed up in Tehran with their Brazilian counterparts, for a “historic” deal with their Iranian hosts. After an 18-hour-long negotiation, they held hands with Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and smiled for the cameras.
The reason for the celebration was that Iran was agreeing to a “swap deal” that the United States and its allies suggested to Tehran some seven months ago. As a “confidence building measure,” 1,200 kilos of enriched Iranian uranium would be transferred to a “third country.” In return, 12 months later, nuclear fuel rods would be given to Iran in order to be used at a medical research institute in its capital.
Since this was almost exactly what the United States and its major allies suggested to Iran last October, Turkey and Brazil presumed that they really did a good job in terms of finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis. But, alas, only a day passed before the “major powers,” as Hillary Clinton calls them, announced that they are not impressed, and would continue to push for sanctions on Iran. The U.S., in particular, acted as if “the sincere efforts of Brazil and Turkey,” a half-hearted praise that came from Washington, had changed nothing at all.
The West’s dismissive attitude has some logic. Iranians announced that they would continue to enrich the uranium that will remain in their hands after the swap deal. (But the earlier U.S.-offered deal did not include a condition about that matter, too.) And as time has passed since October, Iran probably has more uranium now. (But Turkey was recently encouraged by none other than President Obama to push for the 1,200-kilo deal, not more.)
Turkey, and Brazil, therefore, did the right thing, and did their best. They are also right to expect from others to take a notice of this diplomatic success, before rushing for sanctions on Iran.
The view in Washington, apparently, is that Iran is only gaining time through the maneuvers. That is certainly a possibility, especially in the light of the ideological commitments of the Iranian regime and the notorious shrewdness of Persian diplomacy.
But another possibility is that Iran suffers the exact same psychology that drives the West: a total lack of confidence in the other side.
If that is true, then one reason why the “swap deal” failed in October but its new version succeeded last Monday is that this time there was more reason for confidence on the table: namely Turkey, a country in which Iranian leaders seem to have full trust. (In the October offer, Iran was supposed to ship its uranium to Russia and France. In the new deal, the destination is Turkey)
This issue of trust, I believe, is the key to not just the Iranian nuclear crisis, but also other conflicts in the region, including the Arab-Israeli one. On all these issues, America has all the eye-catching instruments that give her full confidence: The world’s most powerful military, the largest diplomatic corps, and the most sophisticated brain power with plentitude of universities, institutes and think-tanks.
Yet, I am sorry to say, she terribly lacks the trust of the peoples of the Middle East. So, it would be only wise for her to rely more on the regional actors that do have that trust – such as the new Turkey of the 21st century.
Giving peace a chance
Of course, Iran’s last-minute compliance must have been driven by not only the trust that Turkey (and Brazil) put on the table, but also the pressure that the U.S. and other “major powers” exerted. But this, too, could have been interpreted more wisely by Washington. In other words, I agree with Roger Cohen of the New York Times that the Obama administration could instead have said:
“Pressure works! Iran blinked on the eve of new U.N. sanctions. It’s come back to our offer. We need to be prudent, given past Iranian duplicity, but this is progress. Isolation serves Iranian hard-liners.”
The administration, however, responded with an overbearing attitude that reminded one of the previous administration from which it had been promising to differ. Therefore Obama, as Cohen adds, “Has just made his own enlightened words look empty.”
I am afraid this is not going to help anybody. If the U.N. Security Council indeed goes for sanctions on Iran, the Iranian leaders will probably say, “Well, we did agree to their plan, but they are interested only in shaking fists, not hands.” This will probably only boost the Iranian effort to enrich more and more uranium – something I am concerned about as well.
I still hope that this won’t be the case. There is still time to “give peace a chance,” as a Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman put it. But if the “major powers” choose not to, then Turkey can at least be proud to have done its best to avoid yet another war in its neighborhood.