The US- Russian deal and the rise of Iran: What will Turkey do?

Gokhan Bacik

Two significant developments have changed the rules of the game in the Middle East in general and on the Syrian issue in particular: the US-Russian initiative on Syria, and the rise of Iran as a potential partner in the solution of a regional problem.

Having observed these two important developments, how Turkey will react to the new
situation is critically important. The new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has the
domestic legitimacy to bring Iran into a new setting. President Rouhani, it seems,
prioritizes getting a similar tick of legitimacy from the international system as well. In
principle, the Iranian regime needs a leader like Rouhani.
 
Political risks and economic sanctions are seriously damaging Iran. The sanctions are
well articulated, and they are effectively weakening Iran. In other words, Iran
desperately needs an exit corridor from its current position, one that will not lead it
into a humiliating one. It is a well-known fact that Iran will never accept any strategy
towards itself that may harm its renowned national ego. Noting this psychological
factor, the US seems to be aware of Rouhani's mission.
 
The presidency of Rouhani could itself become the bargain between the Iranian regime and the West.
The issue does not require a complex algorithm. Rouhani's presidency could become
the test of whether US diplomacy can generate a fresh strategy on Iran. A fresh
strategy will create important outcomes. Any strategy on Iran should be seen as a
grand development in the region. For instance, a new rapprochement with Iran is
likely to strengthen the political-solution-in-Syria camp. Meanwhile, with big Arab
states like Iraq and Syria being failed states, it should be noted that the importance of
Iran as a relatively stable state is now very high.
 
In short, there are strong signs that the US may push for a new strategy on Iran that
will be critically important for Turkey. The early impact for Turkey will be the
necessity of strong channels of dialogue. In such an environment, Ankara is sure to be
aware, any other strategy is likely to be more costly. Significantly, in the last four
years, Ankara has been the caring side in the bilateral relations between Turkey and
Iran. Tehran, however, seems none too concerned about harming Turkey.
 
The return of Iran with some degree of legitimacy under the leadership of President
Rouhani will become a key dynamic in the Syrian crisis. It is clear that Iran will push
for a political solution. This is important, as the political-solution camp now has pro-
Assad and anti-Assad member states like Iran and Saudi Arabia. When states known
to be in opposition take to subscribing to the same idea, that is very bad news for
some other countries.
 
Worse, the US is about to recognize that the Syrian crisis is a serious diplomatic opportunity for scoring points on many other complex foreign policy issues in the region. Unlike Ankara, Western states are more prone to linking the Syrian problem with other problems. If these dynamics remain in force, Ankara may exert serious pressure on the region to adapt itself to the political-solution camp of states. But, for sure, Rouhani knows his symbolic meaning to the US.
 
Thus, he will market his terms to the US in a carefully crafted way that may generate continuous problems for Turkish diplomacy. There is a big lesson in this picture for all actors: Politics is a translation mechanism. In the first phase, the masses pour into the streets. This is followed by the second phase, where the voices of elites/political leaders translate the masses' demands into political formulas.
 
Developments so far have seen the Western states that saluted the Arab Spring as a democratic movement maintain a silence in the first phase, then decide on intervention in the second phase. So here is a simple question: If politics is a two-level game (popular-level and elite-level), which is better for scoring the intervention goal?

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