May 21, 2010 | Forbes

A Quisling Turkey

Beware. With stunts such as this week's bid to deflect further sanctions on Iran, Turkey's leaders like to boast that they are creating a new role for their nation as a rising regional power and broker of peace in the Middle East. What they're really doing looks more like a throwback to the ways of Vidkun Quisling, a 20th-century Norwegian politician whose collaboration with Nazi Germany earned him a special place in the lexicon. To this day Quisling's surname is shorthand for a politician willing to sell out his own country to the worst predators, if it looks like that might save his own interests.

This is the course on which Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP, is now embarked, as Turkey's leaders fawn over their nuclear-loving, sanctions-scorning counterparts in the neighboring Islamic Republic of Iran. This past Monday Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, together with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, turned up in Tehran, announcing an amorphous deal for an enriched uranium swap. The aim was clearly to head off new U.N. sanctions on Iran, buying yet more time for Iran's race toward nuclear weapons. Clasped hands raised with glee, Erdogan, Lula and Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stood should-to-shoulder, celebrating this new milestone in nuclear flimflam.

In the ensuing flurry of diplomatic jujitsu, the U.S. on Tuesday presented a new draft sanctions resolution to the U.N. Security Council. With Turkey and Brazil both currently among the 10 rotating members of the Council, and other members such as China, Russia and Lebanon throwing their clinkers into the works, the dustups at Turtle Bay are already under way.

Whatever comes out of the U.N., it is at least clear that it's time to rethink Turkey's credentials as a broker. That's sad to say, because Turkey is a country with tremendous achievements, worthy of respect. Lacking the oil resources that enrich and bedevil much of the Middle East, Turkey's 74 million people worked hard to turn their country into one of the world's top 20 most productive economies. For decades Turkey with its secular, Muslim-majority state, was a firm ally of the West, a member since 1952 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and a friend to the democratic state of Israel.

Since the Islamic AKP rose to power with a sweeping victory in Turkey's 2002 elections, its leaders have been trading on Turkey's credentials to greatly enhance their influence on the world stage. Top Turkish officials have made hundreds of diplomatic forays, globe-trotting to a staggering extent, opening new diplomatic missions in Africa and offering Turkey's services as a mediator of conflicts in the Middle East.

What's come of all this? Rather than boosting the standards of world politics, Turkey's leaders have been lending their country's good name to a lot of bad things. Since 2005 an Egyptian-born Turk, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, has been secretary-general of the Jeddah-based Organisation of the Islamic Conference. Also in 2005, Turkey together with Spain launched a U.N.-hosted initiative called the Alliance of Civilizations, which was grandfathered out of a previous U.N. oddity called the Dialogue of Civilizations–for which the progenitor was Iran. In 2008 Turkey turned up as go-between for “peace talks” between Syria and Israel, which went bust. These days Turkey has open frictions with Israel and embraces the Iranian-backed Palestinian terrorists of Hamas as “brothers.”

And in 2008 Turkey for the first time in more than 40 years won one of the rotating seats (for 2009-10) on the U.N. Security Council. Along with moonlighting as a broker of joke uranium swaps, Turkey's government is now translating that Security Council seat into license to run yet more interference for Iran's nuclear program. As for NATO relationships, watch out. The AKP has increasingly been sidelining the Turkish military, under the heading of fuller democratization of Turkey. That might sound reasonable. But under an AKP policy shift known as “zero problems with neighbors,” formerly tense relations with such despotic states as Syria and Iran have turned into cozy friendships.

With Iran going for the bomb–and missile delivery system–right next door, Turkey has become a cheerleader for the somewhat conflicting notions that Iran can simply be talked out of its interest in nuclear weapons or that perhaps Iran doesn't need to be talking out of anything. The fig leaf is that the ayatollahs may be merely on a much misunderstood quest for peaceful nuclear energy.

Not that Ankara is oblivious to the realities. In an interview there in March with a group of visiting policy analysts and reporters, including me, Turkey's President Abdullah Gul, speaking of Iran, said “I do believe it is their final aspiration to have a nuclear weapon in the end.” Apparently he thinks that goal is imminent enough that he prides himself on trying to talk them out of it: “I always tell them that this will serve no good for Iran.” (Note: When I quoted Gul's remarks in a March 26 column for Forbes, his office put out a statement that he had not given any interview to Forbes, but he did not deny the actual remarks. The interview was on the record, treated as such by an Armenian-American journalist also present, and the biographical material I provided in advance clearly stated that I contribute a weekly column to Forbes).

What's President Barack Obama been doing about all this? Until this week he's been mostly smiling upon Turkey, site of his first presidential visit last year to a Muslim-majority nation. This past February Obama dignified the Turkish-led Organisation of the Islamic Conference by creating the post of special U.S. envoy to the OIC. This month the U.S. for the first time joined the Iranian-fostered,Turkish-Spanish-sponsored Alliance of Civilizations, and now plans to attend an Alliance meeting in Rio de Janeiro, May 27-29. Perhaps if Obama had questioned Turkey's credentials earlier, his administration would not have found itself grappling this week with Turkey's quisling deal in Tehran. It is way past time for Washington to yank Ankara's license as regional broker, and stop reaching out and start standing up tall to Iran. I would even venture a guess that some of Turkey's top politicians, whatever they might say, would find it a great relief.

Claudia Rosett, a journalist in residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column on foreign affairs for Forbes.

Read in Forbes


Iran Turkey