Despite apparent Iran setback, Turkey expands its reach

ISTANBUL — Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu reached far when praising the nuclear fuel swap deal that Turkey helped broker with Iran on Monday.

He said the agreement, which also involved Brazil, would avert new United Nations sanctions against Iran and was part of the "global and regional vision of Turkey."

Within hours, though, the deal was in doubt. The U.S. said it had the support of all the permanent members of the United Nation's Security Council for a fourth round of sanctions on Iran over the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. It was a diplomatic slap at Turkey.

Davutoglu said talk of sanctions was premature because the deal with Iran had created an "important psychological threshold" of trust. "Negotiations with Iran are tough. In fact, chess is a game that was invented in Iran," he stated. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said there was "no chance" new sanctions would pass.

But whatever the outcome, Turkey's high-profile role in Iran nuclear negotiations is in keeping with an increasingly robust foreign policy that stretches from Congo to Russia to Latin America and seeks to include everything in between. Davutoglu is a key architect of NATO ally Turkey's broadening influence, which includes a "zero problems with neighbors" policy.

"This is a beautiful symptom of Turkey's overall foreign policy: build as many networks as possible and put themselves in the middle," said Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

"History is flowing, and we are trying not only to be a country in the river, but also one that steers that river," Davutoglu told Turkey's NTV channel. Over the weekend, the foreign minister hosted a five-star conference in Istanbul about Turkish foreign policy and the "global order" in the 21st century, at which Davutoglu spelled out Turkey's ambitions for 90 minutes.


Turkey's increasing diplomatic clout is partly due to the opportunity of its location - a crossroads for centuries between East and West, and North and South, for people, ideas, trade, and now energy routes.

Another impetus might be Turkey's repeatedly rebuffed attempts to join the European Union, says Fen Osler Hampson, an international affairs specialist at Carleton University in Ottawa.

"It's a way to show the public there are other things this government can do to stand tall," said Hampson. With years of expanding economic growth, Turkey is the "new tiger of Europe. It underscores a sense of dynamism and confidence.... They are looking beyond the region."

Hampson noted that when President Abdullah Gul traveled in March to Cameroon and Congo, he took with him an entourage of some 140 businessmen, exemplars of how Turkey-Africa trade has jumped from $1.5 billion in 2001 to more than $10 billion last year.

"Nature abhors a vacuum, and we're seeing a real vacuum in world politics, and countries like Turkey can do it," added Hampson.


Davutoglu is a tireless proponent of what he calls Turkey's "higher standards" of foreign policy.

The pace of Turkey's diplomatic engagement is frenetic. The Iran nuclear deal came after a week which saw a visit to Turkey by Syrian President Bashir al-Assad. Then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was in town to agree on a number of big-ticket energy deals, including the purchase of Turkey's first nuclear power reactor.

After that, a host of top Turkish leaders were in Greece - a traditional regional rival - signing 21 separate agreements between nations that had inked just 35 agreements between them since the 1920s.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took along 10 ministers and 100 businessmen, held a joint cabinet meeting in Athens, and declared a turning point in Greece-Turkey relations.

Turkey has also been deeply engaged with Bosnia and Serbia, keeps pushing for EU membership, and later this week will host UN meetings on Somalia and on supporting Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon will be in Turkey. There will be a Turkish-Arabic forum.

Davutoglu told last weekend's diplomatic conference that Turkey is "running, because history is running," adding that Turkey had jumped from the 26th to the 16th biggest economy in the world, giving it extra clout.


Still, there are limits to what Turkey can achieve at the moment, said Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at Chatham House in London.

"It's ambitions vs. capacities," said Hakura. "The ambitions are big; no question Turkey has regional and global ambitions - it has opened or plans 12 new embassies in Africa. But there is not sufficient capacity."

"China and India are both able to play bigger roles because of economic capacity," said Hakura. But Turkey also needs an "intensification of political reforms, then it would be able the play the role it deserves."

Turkey is not alone in trying to extend its influence.

In the Mideast alone - where Turkey says it came "within one word" of brokering a Syria-Israel peace deal before Israel attacked Gaza in late 2008 - Qatar is also playing a greater role - it has hosted countless Sudan peace talks, for example. Russia is a player, and offers state-run Russia TV in Arabic, with Mideast-specific programming. Brazil is a player as well. And Iran has sought in recent years to extend its reach, too, with diplomacy, proxy forces, and its own Arabic and English news channels.

"There is talk of Turkey and a neo-Ottoman foreign policy," said Hakura. "But in the future there must be a link between capacity and ambitions, and that requires reforms."

On the Iran nuclear deal, Davutoglu dismissed criticism from some skeptics in Washington, Europe, and Israel that Turkey was "being used" and "is naive," or that "I am a dreamer." The former academic said: "I was optimistic in the past, and I am more optimistic for the future."

"Turkey is looking beyond its borders" and is finding a "new common sense, a new realism for a globalized world," said Richard Falk, a Princeton University professor and UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories.

"Turkey already plays a very important independent role, exploring the path for solutions and nonviolent geopolitics. This foreign minister understands that ... solving conflicts peacefully is indispensable."