HomeTennisWhere Turkiye figures in the Iran-Israel standoff

Where Turkiye figures in the Iran-Israel standoff


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Where Turkiye figures in the Iran-Israel standoff

Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system intercepts missiles fired from Iran. (AP)

Amid the intensifying tension between Iran and Israel, Turkiye finds itself in a tough but important position given its long border with Iran. Ankara’s response to the escalating conflict, its potential role, and how it might respond require significant attention.

Ankara, known for its swift responses to international developments, reacted unusually to Iran’s airstrikes against Israel last weekend: it was late and cautious. Neither President Recep Tayyip Erdogan nor Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan responded immediately. The first official response came from the Foreign Ministry, which neither condemned nor criticized Iran’s strike. While Turkiye had condemned Israel’s April 1 attack on the Iranian Embassy in Damascus as a violation of international law, it described Iran’s attack as retaliation. Ankara was not caught off guard by Iran’s actions, having anticipated them. However, the tit-for-tat exchanges between Iran and Israel continue. On Friday, Israel appears to have launched an attack on Iranian soil, threatening to drag the region into conflict. This keeps the spotlight on Turkiye’s potential role in defusing the growing tensions.

Turkiye has been in talks with both Iran and the Western actors before and after these attacks. Ankara is among the few actors that has back channels with Israel, Iran, Hamas and the US, aiming to know the limits of the growing tensions and be relevant in the diplomatic arena.

Diplomatic sources suggest that Iran told Turkiye about its planned operation against Israel, but many have questioned why Ankara responded so cautiously and belatedly to these critical developments on its doorstep. Turkiye’s main concern is the potential regional escalation of Israel’s war in Gaza, followed by the risk of escalating Iranian-Israeli tension deflecting international attention from the Gaza war.

Turkiye’s policy on Iranian-Israeli tension has three dimensions: Iran, the US, and security dynamics. Turkish-Iranian relations are not a bed of roses, but Ankara is managing its relations with Tehran cautiously. Turkish-Iranian tensions have escalated in recent years due to their disagreements on Iraq and Syria, and even in Lebanon. One main issue is Tehran’s support for the outlawed PKK. Turkiye’s security perception is closely intertwined with the Kurdish separatist threat, and Ankara has long had the perception that the Kurdish card was being used by Tehran as leverage.

However, despite tensions and mistrust, Turkiye and Iran have learned to engage with each other in a less confrontational manner. Often their relations are described as “manageable competition” or “reluctant cooperation,” as in many ways their regional policies clash. Although they are on the same page regarding the plight of Palestinian people in Gaza, they share differing motivations and visions.

Ankara is among the few actors that has back channels with Israel, Iran, Hamas and the US.

Sinem Cengiz

The second dimension involves the relationship with the US. Erdogan is scheduled to meet President Joe Biden on May 9, their first meeting in years. The invitation came from the U, and Erdogan attaches importance to this meeting. The two leaders are expected to proceed with caution, avoiding actions that could increase tension. In this regard, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s contact with the Turkish foreign minister after Iran attack on Israel is significant, aiming for a coordinated diplomatic response. The US acknowledged that Turkiye had played a crucial role in conveying messages between Iran and the US. Washington asked Ankara to advise Iran that any action must stay “within certain limits.” Ibrahim Kalin, head of Turkiye’s MIT intelligence agency, has also been asked by the US to act as a mediator in the Israel-Iran tensions. These developments increase Turkiye’s political relevance.

Turkiye has also reached out to the Hamas leadership, ramping up its diplomacy to prevent war in Gaza from being overshadowed by the Israel-Iran tensions. Last week, Fidan visited Qatar to bring the war in Gaza back to the forefront of regional attention, meeting Hamas political leaders and Qatari officials. Hamas political leader Ismael Haniyeh is expected to visit Turkiye at the weekend. In the Gaza war, Ankara has characterized Hamas as a liberation movement rather than a terrorist organization, diverging from its Western allies. Also, Ankara imposed export restrictions to Israel that it will maintain until there is a Gaza ceasefire is reached in Gaza. Although mutual trust is broken, Ankara tries to maintain diplomatic ties with Israel, which are crucial at times of tension.

The third dimension of Turkiye’s perspective is security related. Ankara, grappling with refugee and terrorism issues stemming from the Syrian war, aims to prevent further regional conflicts, especially on its doorstep. Turkiye shares a long border with Iran, making it particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of potential instability, such as the refugee crisis. Turkiye has already experienced the repercussions of wars in Syria and Iraq. Another issue is that terrorist organizations might find fertile ground to carry out attacks during the climate of tension. Needless to say, PKK terrorist attacks are largely due to instability in the region, especially among Turkiye’s neighbors. Before the Gaza war and the latest Iranian-Israeli tension, Turkiye’s regional policy was driven by perceived threats emanating from northern Syria and Iraq, and Ankara had built its strategy accordingly.

Turkiye’s cautious and strategic approach to escalating tensions between Iran and Israel reflects its complex geopolitical considerations, including its relations with the US, regional stability concerns, and security challenges. Ankara’s emphasis on diplomacy highlights its efforts to navigate a volatile situation while safeguarding its national interests and regional stability. Thus, Ankara has real reasons to actively de-escalate tensions and its response to the Iranian-Israeli tension should be understood within this broader context of its international relationships and security priorities.

  • Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkiye’s relations with the Middle East. X: @SinemCngz

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point of view

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