Amid a heated debate on the protests in Iran and what they mean, no one really had a chance to analyze the reasons behind Turkey's support of the regime in Tehran.
Ankara's calculation on the protests was in line with long-standing Turkish state policy towards Iran. Recognizing Iran as a historical competitor it couldn't quite defeat, the Turkish government has developed a policy of not increasing tensions with Tehran. In 2009, while there were mass protests throughout the country over the election results, Turkey was the first country that congratulated the announced candidate.
Turkey continued this policy, it seems, towards the renewed protests against the regime this month, this time not by the middle class Iranians but mostly the lower classes, distressed by the heightened inflation and economic hardships.
When the protests started again on Dec. 27, Ankara waited a couple of days before issuing a statement. When it did on Jan. 2, the Turkish Foreign Ministry used very balanced language that supported freedom of assembly but criticized the violence in the country and opposed external interventions. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and later President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan cast doubt over the motivations of U.S. support to the protesters, sympathizing with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
I think Turkey had a list of reasons for this policy choice, and they are mostly related to the misgivings of the Syrian Civil War.
First, destabilization of Iran would be very problematic for Turkey's immediate energy concerns since Iran is the second largest gas and oil provider for the country.
Second, violent and sporadic protests without any leadership would open the possibility that, following Syria and Iraq, a third country would sink into some sort of civil war that could fertilize terrorist networks. Turkey has been living through this nightmare, and a civil war in a country as large as Turkey could produce millions of more refugees, a number that would be more than the Syrian refugees.
Third, this would encourage the terrorist group PKK to create a new statelet in western Iran, as they did in northern Syria with the help of the United States. The PKK's main headquarters are on the Qandil Mountains in Iraq. The PKK's foothold in the country gained strength with another U.S. military intervention in the Gulf War and later with the invasion.
Lastly, for Ankara the worries surrounding a PKK statelet in Syria has become the main reason to establish a pragmatic and narrowly defined temporary partnership with Iran. Any trouble bred in that country would probably throw this initiative sideways.
One can say that strong American leadership and a smart plan could prevent any of the above concerns from becoming a real problem for Turkey. As a person who really believes that Iran must be held responsible for the mass massacres, prolonged war and terror attacks in Syria, Lebanon and around the region, I think the Turkish government has a point here.
It is true that Iran, an actor, greatly threatens Turkish interests, and Turkish officials could also be convinced that it is a moral duty to stand against the Iranian regime, but to what cost and benefit? The last time Turkey decided to go against the Assad regime in Syria, former U.S. President Barack Obama left Ankara alone. Then, from the top echelons of the American administration all the way to the bottom, everyone misled the Turks about the PKK's Syria affiliate the People's Protection Units' (YPG) behavior, and they didn't keep the smallest promises such as the YPG's presence west of the Euphrates River or in Manbij.
Now, Turkish experts ask themselves, on a policy level, what would Washington offer to Turkey in return for a coordinated course of Turkish action against Iran along the lines of Saudi Arabia and Israel? What assurances could be provided to Turkey to compensate for possible setbacks and the economic and social costs of such a move?
I think no one is ready to answer these questions, especially the Trump administration, which is still debating what to do in Syria.
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