The deepening hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia across the Middle East has raised fears that the region will be drawn into a broader Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict. So the news that Turkey, a predominantly Sunni country whose foreign policy has looked increasingly sectarian recently, now appears less eager to take sides is an encouraging sign. Examining why Turkey might try to sit out the Iran-Saudi row offers some insight into the complicated dynamics driving the region’s turmoil and many of the contradictions at the heart of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) foreign policy.
After Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al Nimr and the ensuing Iranian attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran, the AKP government ultimately seemed intent on calming the situation rather than taking sides. “Enough is enough,” Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus declared, “[the region] is in need of peace and calm. Everyone must act with caution.” Perhaps neither this statement nor the ensuing offer to mediate are surprising in light of the way this conflict touches on the practical and ideological fault lines in the AKP’s approach to the region.
For much of its first decade in power, the AKP pursued a foreign policy it called “zero problems with neighbors,” seeking to build relationships, trade, and influence across the Middle East. A centerpiece of this approach was Turkey’s neighbor Syria, which offered a logistical gateway for trade with the rest of region, closer ties with Arab states, and good relations with Shiite powers.
During that time, then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan successfully cultivated Syria, improving economic ties and even going on family vacations with the ruling Assads. At the same time, Turkey enjoyed profitable relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran has always been an important source of natural gas for Turkey, a role only enhanced by recent tensions with Russia. Turkey resisted Western sanctions on Iran, in large part to preserve its economic interests in that country. And even after sanctions were imposed, some individuals close to the AKP made money undermining the sanctions. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states provided a valuable source of foreign investment in the Turkish economy.
The conflict in Syria brought an end to “zero problems.” When Assad responded brutally to nonviolent protests, Erdoğan, who had just faced international criticism for being too slow to abandon his erstwhile ally Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, seemed to feel both personally betrayed by Assad and overly eager to be on the right side of history. The AKP government recklessly threw its support behind anyone willing to fight against Assad, from moderate rebels to many of the more radical Sunni fighters who eventually became ISIS.
That move, and a protracted civil war fought mostly along sectarian lines, pushed Turkish policy toward an ever more sectarian and isolated position. Sunni jihadist groups quickly became the most brutal and effective face of the anti-Assad resistance, and Assad in turn became ever more reliant on support from his sectarian allies, Iran and Hezbollah. Turkey found itself directly opposed to Iran in Syria, as well as other regional conflicts in Iraq and Yemen, even while trying to maintain the benefits of cordial bilateral relations with Tehran. As late as 2014, Erdoğan referred to Iran as “his second home” and on a subsequent 2015 visit, held hands with President Hassan Rouhani amid the height of Syria related tensions.
In some ways, the strategic imperative of supporting the Sunni resistance in Syria brought Turkey and Saudi Arabia closer together than their economic relationship ever did. Though they have not always seen completely eye-to-eye, the December 29 announcement of a Turkish-Saudi Strategic Cooperation Council was a step to better coordinating their anti-Assad efforts.
Still, if Saudi Arabia, as a proudly Sunni power, might be on Turkey’s side of this sectarian divide, this simple characterization barely scratches the surface of the issue’s ideological complexity for Turkish leaders. In Egypt, for example, Saudi Arabia strongly supported the Sisi regime against the Muslim Brotherhood, while Erdoğan, up until recently at least, defiantly backed the Brotherhood. Indeed, while moving closer to Saudi Arabia, Erdoğan has also sought to mend fences with Sisi, a man he once declared “illegitimate” and “a tyrant.” Likewise, a decade ago, the AKP’s efforts to improve relations with Iran were often cited, by American and Turkish commentators alike, as evidence of the party’s Islamist foreign policy. In fact, for explicitly anti-Western or anti-American Turkish Islamists, Iran’s foreign policy often made it a much more appealing partner than Saudi Arabia. At less sectarian moments, the fact Iran was a defiant Muslim power mattered much more than the fact it was also a Shiite power.
While descriptions of Turkish foreign policy as “Neo-Ottoman” have become commonplace, the historical Turkey-Iran-Saudi triangle reveals just how complex such references can be. Ottoman emperors claimed to be the champions of Sunni Islam, using the title Caliph and invoking their status as protectors of Mecca and Medina. But not everyone saw them that way. Most notably, Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabist ideology emerged in the 18th century Arabian peninsula as a puritanical reaction to the perceived immorality and decadence of urban Ottoman pilgrims performing the Hajj. With Iran, too, the historical legacy is complicated. In fact, as Turkish-Iranian relations have oscillated over the past decade, pundits have alternated between declaring that the two countries have enjoyed five centuries of perpetual peace and insisting that they have been locked in a bitter rivalry since the 16th century. Both claims, of course, are somewhat overstated, and it is tempting to say that the Turkish-Iranian relationship was complicated in the past as it continues to be today.
But the current AKP response to the Iranian-Saudi dispute is perhaps most telling as a reflection on how the party’s foreign policy has evolved over its time in power. Before the Arab Spring, the AKP sought to expand its influence by simultaneously improving relations with neighbors across the region. This entailed reconciling with Turkey’s former rivals, and also trying to mediate regional rivalries. With the beginning of the Arab Spring, however, the AKP increasingly took sides, making itself a partisan player in many regional conflicts. Now it seems possible that the growing isolation this policy provoked has led Turkey to reconsider. While it remains unlikely that Turkey has enough credibility with either Iran or Saudi Arabia to serve as a mediator in the current conflict, the AKP appears if nothing else to be making a greater effort to stay neutral and avoid antagonizing its neighbors than it has in the recent past.