Gül’s Iran visit shows Turkey’s limits in push for democracy



Turkish President Abdullah Gül had talks with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday to discuss bilateral ties between Turkey and Iran.
Turkey was definitely caught off guard during the ongoing wave of protests sweeping the Arab world and Iran, demanding that their rulers step down after decades of authoritarian rule. Spearheading democratization has never been on Turkey’s foreign policy agenda, not in the Balkans, Central Asia or the Middle East.
Turkey has long maintained its ties with countries ruled by authoritarian fists in its neighborhood at the expense of masses demanding to have their voices heard. But while change has hit the Mideast with ripple effects, Turkey has now started to slightly shift their discourse and statements. Turkey’s advantage is its ability to engage with any government in the region so long as they do not pursue anti-Turkey policies.

Turks view democratization in the region as “good” but also as a “destabilizing” factor. Popular uprisings in countries where leaders prevented political transformation with bloodshed usually turn violent. Turkey from the outset of events that were unfolding in Egypt called for peaceful rallies and urged sides to avoid violence.

Turkish authorities frequently claim that they constantly warn their counterparts in Iran and Syria to heed the demands of their people. Failing to do so would invite people to take the lead in bringing about change.

Turkish President Abdullah Gül told Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during his maiden trip to the Islamic republic last week to “heed the views of the people” and that “people’s power forms the foundation of legitimacy.”

If Turkey feels it needs to lead the march toward more freedom across the Middle East, its decision makers will call on authorities to make reforms and become more accountable.

In a stark departure from the US’s previous position regarding freedom in the Arab world, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a speech to human rights activists, educators and students from more than 20 countries that civic leaders in the Mideast and beyond must seize the “historic moment” for democratic change created by popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia and that the growing protests around the Mideast show the need for them to organize and present demands.

To make these remarks, the US should have already considered the uprisings in the Middle East as the point of no return. Gül has also endorsed the idea that “every country has a share from the upheaval in Egypt and Tunisia.” But is Turkey brave enough to call for democratic change in its backyard and recalibrate its policy?

Practically, International Studies Journal Executive Director Nema Milaninia, who writes frequently about law and politics in Iran, said Turkey has little weight to change things on the ground in Iran — except to assist asylum seekers who in increasing numbers cross the Turkish-Iranian border. Milaninia added Turkey should be more outspoken about democratic reform in Iran because “what is at stake, though, is history.” The expert said that if recent events in Iran have shown anything, they have shown how totalitarian and autocratic the Iranian government has become and how increasingly angry the Iranian people have become. Turkish leaders should therefore not allow themselves to be characterized as supporting a dictatorial regime across its border.

During his talks with Ahmadinejad with the two countries’ delegations, Gül pointed out to Ahmadinejad that there are people in central squares in Tehran calling for democratic changes in the country. Ahmadinejad reportedly told him not to worry and that similar things happen there sometimes. “There were more than 2 million just two days ago,” he told the Turkish president, a reference to the celebration of the 32nd anniversary of the Iranian revolution. Clashes in Tehran also left one of the drivers of Gül’s staff injured.

Azadeh Moaveni, the author of “Honeymoon in Tehran,” said Turkey carries unique weight with Iran, given its economic and political clout in the region, and the Islamic republic would surely take notice if it were to suddenly be tutored in democracy by the Turks.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu designed Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East based on four components, or principles: stability, freedom of movement, economic interdependency and multiculturalism. Turkey has successfully abolished visa requirements with several of its Muslim neighbors, forged trade alliances and facilitated economic transactions, created free trade zones. It has also assiduously called countries to avoid stressing sectarian differences and encouraged various ethnic and religious groups to work together. Yet it remains unknown how Turkey will tailor its efforts to push countries to democratize without shaking already vulnerable stability.

Moaveni pointed to Brazil, which has far fewer natural ties to Iran than Turkey, and said it managed to project its influence with Tehran in the stoning case of Sakineh Ashtiani. “There’s every reason why Turkey could have even more leverage with Iran if it chose to,” the expert said.

Another stumbling block for Turkey in its bid to spearhead democratization in the region is its desire to maintain a balance of power in the region and make sure Israel never gains friends. Israeli President Shimon Peres lauded and praised protesters in Iran, but it seems the Turkish leadership will avoid drawing the same conclusions as Israel regarding Iran.

Iran has frequently called domestic unrest a product of a “Zionist conspiracy,” but a popular upheaval in Iran sparked by Turkey would shatter this argument. Turkey’s seemingly friendly ties with the Iranian leadership contrast starkly with the image the West has of Turkish leaders. Turkey’s embrace of Iran, which is in a standoff with Western powers surrounding the Islamic republic’s suspected nuclear program, is a signal telling the US and Israel to not strike Iran or bypass Turkey while dealing with its neighbor. Today’s Zaman’s columnist Abdülhamit Bilici traveled with Gül to Tehran and says Gül said he sees Iran as more inclined to a solution on the nuclear issue after his talks with Khamenei. Gül also added that he is a “balanced optimist” in this standoff.

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