Opinion: Uranium swap declaration improved Turkey’s hand

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The World

ISTANBUL, Turkey — The joint declaration of the ministers of foreign affairs of Turkey, Iran and Brazil signed on Monday came as a surprise to the international community. But the United States’ reaction to the uranium swap agreement, and the Turkish interpretation of this reaction, once more highlighted the gap between the U.S. and Turkey in their approaches to what is one of the most important issues on the transatlantic agenda.

Turkey agrees with its transatlantic allies that Iran should be dissuaded from building nuclear military capacity. On the other hand, there is a gap between Turkey and its Western partners on the utility of sanctions toward this end. Turkish decision makers oppose sanctions because in addition to hurting Iran they would harm the Turkish economy. They also think that supporting sanctions against Iran, a neighboring country, would be contrary to Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy. Last but not the least, Turkish society hasn’t been prepared for sanctions and public opinion opposes them.

So when Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu addressed journalists at a press conference here a day after the joint declaration, he exuded a sense of achievement, optimism and relief. Davutoglu defined the agreement as a big success and was optimistic that sanctions against Iran would not be necessary, thereby relieving Turkey from having to make tough choices at the United Nations Security Council.

Foreign policy circles in Turkey, including those who have been critical of the government’s Iran policy, generally acknowledged that the joint declaration was a success. However, there was also some skepticism over whether Iran would fulfill the conditions of the declaration and whether the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany would endorse it. Behind closed doors many people agreed that Iran’s motivation in this move was to buy time for its nuclear program because it felt that a sanctions package was approaching.

Indeed, a few hours after Davutoglu’s triumphant press conference ended came the official response from the U.S.: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told U.S. lawmakers that the agreement between Turkey, Brazil and Iran was not satisfactory and that “major world powers had agreed on a draft sanctions resolution against Iran and would circulate it to the full U.N. Security Council on Tuesday.”

The U.S. response was not what Turkey hoped for. However, during a TV interview the same night, Davutoglu’s mood had not changed. With the same sense of achievement and optimism, he said that "while history is flowing Turkey is not only in the river, but is also setting the course of the river.” Davutoglu downplayed the U.S. response by saying that as it is not easy for countries to change their position, it is understandable for some to continue working on sanctions.

On the other hand, he also claimed that there was no longer a basis for sanctions and that sanctions in this case would be both illegitimate and unethical. He said he didn’t expect the U.N. Security Council to pass a sanctions package in the short run and said that Turkey would not support such a resolution anyway.

The joint declaration of of Turkey, Iran and Brazil has made it easier for Turkey, Brazil and possibly some other rotating members of the U.N. Security Council to oppose a sanctions package toward Iran. However, for the time being it has not had the effect of bridging the gap between Turkey and other western countries about their respective Iran policies. Still, Turkish decision makers don’t expect a major crisis between Turkey and the U.S. because of differences over Iran.

In weighing a sanctions package before the U.N. Security Council, Turkey would need to make a tough choice between its “zero problems with neighbors policy” and its relations with Western allies. The agreement between Turkey, Brazil and Iran came perhaps just a few weeks before such a scenario materializes.

Ozgur Unluhisarcikli is the director of the Ankara office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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