Turkey Reducing Security Ties with West, Turning to East

Monday, April 13, 2015

Ja'far Haghpanah
Assistant Professor of Regional Studies at University of Tehran, Iran

The recent trip by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Iran has provided a good opportunity to discuss political relations between Iran and Turkey, as an ally of the West and a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). As a central power in the neighborhood of such political subsystems as the Middle East, Caucasus, and the Balkans with special ethnic, linguistic, and religious links to these regions, and a potential to turn into an energy hub, Turkey is of high importance to Iran and the West alike. Such strategic advantage has also allowed Turkey to serve as a mediatory power, while at the same time, causing many limitations and challenges for the country.

Under the transitional state of the international system, few countries can meet their interests and security on their own. Therefore, countries like Turkey are usually willing to form alliances with countries that share their interests in order to head off common threats.

The following factors have been influential in shaping alliances between the government of Turkey and other governments:

A. Objective factors such as threats to survival and national interests of the country, which were previously posed by the former Soviet Union and now, arise from the spread of terrorism and extremism. Unlike Iran, Turkey is not able to protect its security on its own. Of course, taking part in such alliances is very economical for Turkey as its cost is much lower as compared to facing factors that pose threats to Ankara alone.

B. Mental and conceptual factors such as identity, ideology and common values have been also instrumental in determining Turkey’s security policies. Of course, as the intensity of objective threats increase, this factor loses importance, and forming alliances becomes a more rational option.

Within this framework, Turkey’s priority is to continue its alliance with NATO. The country is still important for NATO and major instances in which the two sides have been cooperating include the “Partnership for Peace (PfP)” program in Central Asia, the “Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI),” the “Mediterranean dialogue” and participation in the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and Libya. On the opposite, NATO has been trying through deployment of its Patriot missile system to boost Turkey’s air defense power in view of the continuing crisis in the neighboring Syria.

However, as the strategic partnership between the two sides continued, it became clear that serious differences of interests and approaches exist between the West and Turkey and the two sides cannot cover each other like they did in the past. The most important security challenge facing Turkey is the ongoing crises in Syria and Iraq and growing Salafism along its borders. The only help, however, that has come from NATO was deployment of Patriot missile systems. Western countries are at odds with the approach that Turkey has taken to Iraq and Syria and the war on terror. James Clapper, director of the US National Security Agency (NSA), clearly said in his last annual estimate to US Congress that such discrepancy actually exists between the two sides. Unlike Turks, who insist on the downfall of the Syrian President Bashar Assad, the West is trying to engage in negotiations with him.

The reaction shown by Turkey to the lack of cooperation from NATO and the West was to boost cooperation with those powers that were the natural rivals of the former two. As a result, Ankara signed a contract with Beijing worth USD 4 billion in 2014 to launch a long-range missile system. Turkish defense minister reacted to discontent of NATO officials with the contract by saying that his country’s membership in NATO cannot put constraints on national decisions taken by Ankara.

When it came to Turkey’s nuclear activities, the country again looked to non-Western partners that were NATO’s rivals. During a visit to Ankara by the Russian President Vladimir Putin, the two countries signed a contract worth USD 20 billion for the construction of a nuclear power plant in Turkey. In the latest security challenge between the West and Russia following the Cold War, which is over the current crisis in Ukraine and still continues, Turkey showed more distance from its Western allies. While the United States and the European Union decided to punish Russia by imposing sanctions on Moscow and NATO even decided to bolster its defensive belt around Russia in a show of power, Ankara decided to do the opposite by expanding its political and economic relations with Moscow. By signing the contract for the construction of a nuclear power plant and for the purchase of the Russian gas, the volume of trade exchanges between Russia and Turkey will hit USD 100 billion a year. Such measures by Turkey have been met with cold reaction of the European Union. Even a visit to Ankara by the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini at the end of 2014 failed to help reduce the coldness in the two sides’ relations.

On the whole, it seems that as the new century goes on, Turkey and the West – with the NATO as its military arm – are not able to maintain the strategic relations of the past, which were based on a realistic logic. Of course, the two sides still need each other.

Under the current conditions of transition and uncertainty, the behaviors of political actors are not only determined by their interests and objective elements of power, but also by ideas, concepts and identities. Today, a new identity is emerging within the political community of Turkey, which in spite of accepting modernism, is not totally passive in its face and deals with it on an equal footing. This new identity knows its border with modernism and tries to maintain its distance. The new Turkey does not consider its relations with the West as the main source of its identity and power, but believes that its own traditions and coexistence with Europe are the main source of its power. Of course, at the same time, Turkey is still willing to maintain its independent identity as a connecting bridge between the West and the East.

Such synthetic identity will lead to a profound change in this country’s ontological views. As put by Barry Buzan (1), ontological security of any country and its definition of threat and hostility are shaped on the basis of identity, ideals, norms, and values that shape sovereign concepts of its government.

Turkey’s ontological security under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has led to a gradual distancing from the West and the NATO. It seems that both sides need time to reach a mutual understanding of their own new position and that of the opposite side in the tumultuous world of today. Therefore, under the existing circumstances, identity-based actions, in addition to realistic ones, will overshadow traditional relations between the two sides.

In this way, it would not be illogical to expect that Turkey will choose for stronger security relations with the countries in the Middle East, including Iran. Of course, this process will not be without challenge and Turkey will probably have differences with Iran about the approach and the method used to establish security in the region. However, before other things, it should be noted that the borders between the two countries are friendship borders and relations between Tehran and Ankara have been constantly on the rise in recent years. While some observers expected Erdogan to cancel his scheduled trip to Tehran due to regional rivalries between the two countries, the visit was carried out. This was a good sign of the rationality and maturity of relations between the two neighboring countries, which can pave the way for further expansion of cooperation both at bilateral level and for the establishment of stability and new security arrangements in the region.


(1) Emeritus Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and honorary professor at the University of Copenhagen and Jilin University

Key Words: Turkey, Security Ties, West, East, NATO, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Iran, Middle East, Caucasus, Balkans, Salafism, Identity-Based Actions, Haghpanah 

More By Ja'far Haghpanah:

*Afghanistan Offers Common Ground for Iran-Saudi Cooperation?:

*Iran Facing New Opportunities in Afghanistan:

*Future Outlook of Tehran-Riyadh Ties in Post-King Abdulla Era:

*Photo Credit: ISNA

طراحی و توسعه آگاه‌سیستم