What Does Turkey’s “No” Vote Mean?

This commentary originally appeared on insideIRAN.org a project of The Century Foundation

WASHINGTON – The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed the fourth round of sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran on June 9, 2010. The U.S. administration made the case that the main objective of Resolution 1929 was to “complement” the dual-track approach the UNSC is pursuing in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapon capabilities. This approach would involve sanctions targeting specific institutions and individuals while keeping open the possibility of negotiations with Iran. Whether this approach would work with Iran remains a question, a concern shared by Brazil and Turkey, who have voted “no” at the Security Council.

Most analysts agree that another round of sanctions against Iran will not prevent Iran from pursuing its uranium enrichment activities. However, the U.S. administration argues that “smart sanctions” could bring about real results by targeting specific activities, institutions, and individuals suspected of contributing to the development of Iranian nuclear weapon capabilities. The resolution includes bans on nuclear and missile investments abroad, conventional arms, and ballistic missile capabilities, as well as the freezing of assets of specific individuals. It also calls for heightened sensitivity and “vigilance” by the states over the “suspected” cargo, financial activities of Iranian banks, companies, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The resolution comes at a time when the United States virtually has ignored the nuclear swap deal brokered by Turkey and Brazil in May. The administration argues that the deal was not comprehensive and did not address the main concerns of the international community. U.S. officials portrayed it as yet another attempt by Iran to stall the sanctions process and to divide the international community. As a result, instead of welcoming the deal and treating it as a true opportunity for engagement and dialogue with Iran, the United States chose to move forward with sanctions. Although the U.S. officials state that channels of negotiation are open, it will be difficult to convince Iranians that the sanctions are meant to contribute to “confidence-building” measures.

Turkey supports the peaceful use of nuclear energy and uranium enrichment, which is a right afforded to all signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which Iran is a part. This is also reiterated in Resolution 1929, and the Obama administration has repeatedly reaffirmed Iran’s right to access “peaceful use of nuclear energy.” At the same time, Turkey repeatedly has made it clear that it is against Iran developing nuclear weapons. Turkey also recognizes that Iran has not fully cooperated with the international community over its nuclear program and has failed to meet its obligations to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

If Turkey is in full agreement with the international community about the use of nuclear technology, why did it vote “no” in the Security Council? The main reason seems to be that Turkey believes sanctions could undermine the diplomacy track. Ankara was disappointed that the nuclear deal achieved with Brazil’s involvement was not given serious consideration as a confidence-building measure. Turkey realizes that Tehran may have agreed to a deal with Brazil and Turkey as a stall tactic and an attempt to divide the international community on the question of sanctions.

However, in the arrangement brokered by Turkey and Brazil, Iran has agreed for a uranium exchange for the first time, and this is the only concrete deal so far. Iran also met the deadline to submit its proposal to the IAEA. If the international community ignores the deal in favor of tougher sanctions, Turkey believes it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to bring Iran back to the negotiation table.

On the one hand, Turkey was concerned that voting “yes” would have seriously damaged Turkey’s integrity as a reliable negotiating partner and would alienate Iran even further. On the other hand, Turkey still shared concerns with the international community in regards to Iran’s nuclear program. As a result, while voting “no,” Turkey did not work against the resolution, and even encouraged countries such as Bosnia and Lebanon to make their own decisions instead of following Turkey. Turkey needed to stand behind the nuclear deal it helped reach to demonstrate its commitment to diplomacy.

Turkey believes that sanctions and military threats are counterproductive in achieving Iran’s full cooperation with the international community and that such measures will only reinforce Tehran’s defiance about its nuclear program by backing Iran up against the wall. Ankara worries that the prospect of a military action against Iran is a destabilizing factor for the region, similar to the invasion of Iraq. Isolating Iran will only exacerbate Iran’s suspicions about the sincerity of U.S. intentions, which would in turn kill any possibility of Iran’s full cooperation with the international community.

Critiques of Turkey’s recently energized foreign policy direction are framing the Iranian nuclear issue as a matter of Turkey’s abandonment of its traditionally Western-oriented alliances for newer yet more dangerous ones with its unstable Eastern neighbors. Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan has been criticized for giving Iran “a way out” of its international obligations.

Such criticisms overlook and disregard Turkey’s perspective on its relations with its neighbors. Turkey aims to maintain good relations with its neighbors based on economic integration, political stability, and regional peace. Achieving a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East is one of the main goals of Turkey. In order to accomplish this, Turkey feels that it needs to base its foreign relations on diplomacy and dialogue instead of sanctions and military threats. The Turkish “no” vote at the UNSC needs to be understood as Turkey’s desire to show its commitment to diplomacy. In that sense, if the Obama administration wants to pursue the “dual-track” approach on Iran, it will have to demonstrate its commitment to the diplomacy track as much as it did to the sanctions track.

Kadir Ustun is the Research Coordinator at SETA Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.

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