Ankara is taking a traditional “wait and see” position on the recent U.S.-Iran row that escalated with the killing of an Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani, and Tehran’s retaliation missile attack on a base in Iraq, according to Prof. Mustafa Aydın of Istanbul’s Kadir Has University.
“It is a wait-and-see position with a smile on its face,” he told Hürriyet Daily News in a recent interview. The academic also discusses the possible regional effects of Iran’s growing nuclear power.
It is becoming clear that we will not see a warfare soon, but what are we to expect in the U.S.- Iran row?
We will see an extended period of standoff. Both sides played their first moves. While the escalation dominance is on the U.S. side, both sides do not want to escalate the situation. Qasem Soleimani was an instrument of the Iranian state, and killing an instrument does not make too much of a change. But now that the U.S did it, they also went to a top gear to deter the Iranians from escalating.
What do you think the Iranian reaction will be?
In contrast to what many think, I believe Iran has a very pragmatic and strategic thinking at the decision-making level, especially when it comes to foreign policy. We see all these images coming from Iran depicting emotional people; religious fervor etc., and we think Iranians are not logical. That is a wrong assessment of Iranian decision makers. They are very cool customers and they play long games in diplomacy. So obviously they immediately made the analysis that in the short run if they escalate, they will end up in a losing war.
As their ability to inflict anything on the U.S. is restricted to what happens in the Middle East, they quickly decided not to escalade, hence the missiles. But this does not mean that in the mid-to-long term they will not try anything else. They will do it in their own time in a way that people will understand that it is done by Iranians but that you cannot prove it; plausible deniability will be there.
What’s the ultimate aim of the U.S.?
Iranians have concluded long ago that the only way for regime survival is to have nuclear weapons. The U.S. also sees that, and they understand that if Iranians become nuclear, it will not only ensure regime survival, it will totally change the balance of power in the Middle East. Look at what Iran is doing now even without being a nuclear power. If Iran gets nuclear capability, the U.S.’s ability to contain Iran will also be restricted. So, they are trying to get Iran denuclearized.
Meanwhile, there are real political problems at home in Iran. Demonstrations were getting bigger and bigger, and one of the reasons why people went to the streets was the Iranian operations abroad. There is a dilemma here for the Iranian regime: They need to have these forward defenses near abroad through their proxies to keep their opponents away from focusing on Iran and also develop ability to inflict harm to them if it comes to that. But as long as they continue to feed this money into their proxies, Iranians are unhappy at home. I think the Americans have seen this dilemma and they are pushing Iranians toward a change.
So, the Americans were aiming to trigger something like a regime change?
Possibly. If the U.S. is going to try something in Iran itself, in the near to mid future, the first thing they have to do is to cripple the Iranian network of proxies abroad. If it is left intact, you cannot do much in Iran since they can hit back at you in Lebanon and Syria, etc. If you want to try something in Iran, you have to first disrupt this network abroad. In Syria, they are trying heavily via Israelis. In Yemen, it is through Saudi Arabia. In Iraq, it has been the U.S. who has been pushing hard to get the Iranians out.
Currently, we are in the “eye of the storm.” In the eye, or the middle, nothing happens, everything looks quiet. But then, storm resumes its destructive force. I think Iranians are not likely to back down.
How will this standoff affect Turkey?
I never understand why we in Turkey are not discussing the possible effects of Iran getting nuclear capacity on Turkey. As if we don’t really care. We look at it as if it is not about Turkey, as though if Iran becomes nuclear, it will use it against Israel or the U.S. One thing is certain: If Iran gets nuclear warheads, the balance of power in the Middle East will totally change and Turkey will be totally excluded.
Turkish decision makers might well be aware of this but that they might think confrontation will not bring the desired outcome. There are bilateral ties as well.
I can understand the strategy of Turkish decision makers, but this does not really mean there should not be awareness among strategic thinkers or pundits in Turkey. People in Turkey talk about everything, but Iran’s possible nuclear capacity never made it to the top of the agenda.
And I don’t know why we should care much about the reconciliation between Iran and the U.S. Which is better for Turkey? When Iran and the U.S. reconcile and become best of friends, or when the U.S. and Iran are in a protracted conflict, short of war. I would argue the latter will be more beneficial for Turkey than the former.
Look at history, when the two were best of buddies before 1979 (revolution that changed the regime in Iran), Tehran ripped the benefits and Turkey was excluded from the Middle East. Turkey became more influential in the Middle East after 1979, and of course not only because of the Iranian revolution but this also did play a role.
So, the U.S.-Iran escalation will be a good development?
I am not saying that. But it will not be necessarily bad for Turkey either. Iran opposed Turkey’s interventions in Syria, and we have been on the opposite side in Iraq, except common position against the Kurdish referendum. The U.S. also wants to get Iran out of Iraq. If they were to succeed; wouldn’t it be good for Turkey.
Looking at Turkey, how do you think it is positioning itself with the current crisis?
Even though the (Justice and Development Party) AKP governments usually claim they have different policy making styles, when there is uncertainty and possible crisis, they also revert to the traditional policy of wait and see. It took Turkey two days to react at the top level, and when it came, Iranians tried to twist it according to what they wanted to hear, which annoyed Turkey. But still Turkey seems trying to not take sides publicly. We are keeping a very low profile. I would say, it is a wait-and-see position with a smile on its face. Not only because of Iran, but also because of the U.S. After all, the U.S. is not the best friend of the Turkish government, except (U.S. President Donald) Trump. Seeing a bloody nose in the U.S. face brings out a smile in Ankara.
How do you think this standoff can affect Turkey-U.S. relations?
If Turkey plays its hands strategically it could benefit from this crisis to use it to solve some of its problems with the U.S. Turkey could take the side of the U.S. without becoming a target of Iran.
You can do it diplomatically behind the scenes. Turkey can talk to the Iraqis, talk with Israelis, and with Syrians to get Iran out of Syria. If there was a solution to Syria, there is no legitimate reason for Iran to remain in Syria. But I am not sure the government will follow this line of reasoning.
Who is Mustafa Aydın?
*Mustafa Aydın is a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University and the president of the International Relations Council of Turkey. Aydın served as the rector of Kadir Has University between 2010-2018. He graduated from Ankara University’s international relations department in 1988 and went to the UK’s Lancaster University for his postgraduate studies. Aydın is a member of the European Academy of Sciences and Art, European Leadership Network and the Greek-Turkish Forum. He also served as an adviser for the International Center for Black Sea Studies (2003-2011) and the Hellenic Center for European Studies (2005-2010).
Hurriyet Daily News