On Monday, Turkey and Iran agreed to swap nuclear fuel (low enriched uranium).

“The deal forged with Turkey and Brazil appeared to be another attempt to stave off U.N. sanctions — a doubtful endeavor judging by reactions from the United States and other Western powers,” according to an article published in the Huffington Post.

This article, sent to me by a friend, has prompted a short response from me. I am particularly interested in the alternative fulcrums of international power that have increasingly been voicing their visions of international relations. This voice represents a share of those ‘developing’ countries that have grown to be economically impossible to ignore, such as Brazil, Russia, India, China (collectively known as the BRIC), and also including such regional influences as Turkey.

Given this context of new challenges to the traditional power of Western states and international institutions, the case of Turkish involvement in nuclear negotiations with Iran is particularly interesting.

It is in line with what the April BRIC meeting in Brasilia had articulated regarding any sanction or deal to do with Iran’s nuclear program. Specifically, the BRIC nations indicated a support for diplomatic options to deal with Iran’s nuclear program and have strongly suggested they would resist harsh sanctions. The meeting took place after the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, and brought Brazil, India, Russia, China, and South Africa to the Brazilian capital.

The meeting in Brasilia was a step toward the generation of an international order that does not marginalize participating states, now representing some of the world’s largest economies. In that case, it was strategic that the group assembled only one week prior to the annual International Monetary Fund and World Bank meeting of 24-25 April. It also precedes the G8/G20 summit to be held in Canada this June.

Turkey wants access to more energy. It has limited options for domestic electrical generation. According to an Asia Times article by Saban Kardas, “The country’s current total proven oil reserves could meet only its consumption for a year, and entire natural gas reserves could satisfy only one sixth of its consumption for one year.” It would like to import electricity from its neighbours, including from Iran’s grid. It also seeks to expand its gas and oil imports from Iran. Imports from Iran can be key to Turkey’s energy security, helping it diversify away from overwhelming dependence on Russian natural gas. Turkey imports 2/3 of its natural gas from Russia, according to the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources. In total, it imports 97.3% of its natural gas, and 93% of its oil.

Beyond meeting domestic demand and energy security desires, Turkey would like to improve its access to multiple sources of energy from throughout the Middle East and Central Asia in order to position itself as an energy hub. This is clearly indicated in Turkey’s latest five year energy and natural resources plan.

Turkey could then transit energy through its territory from its southern and eastern neighbours to energy consuming Europe. This transit infrastructure is to rely on pipelines, highways, and the Ceyhan port on the Mediterranean.

Its real options for sourcing such an energy corridor are Russia, Iran, Iraq, and under the Caspian Sea through Azerbaijan then Georgia or Armenia. The Caspian route will also be greatly facilitated if it has Iranian cooperation since Iran and other Caspian countries have been long negotiating how to collectively manage that body of water since the fall of the Soviet Union.

An alternative to the Caspian Sea route that Turkey seems interested in as well is to have an overland gas pipeline pass from Turkmenistan, through northern Iran, to Turkey. Such an option would greatly facilitate access to rich deposits of natural gas in Central Asia. A submarine pipeline running under the sea would require the cooperation of many more countries via contested waters. Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran are engaged in protracted negotiations regarding how to collectively manage the Caspian Sea and how to finalize their individual zones of influence.  The submarine route would also be a lot more vulnerable to future disruption.

Turkey wishes to diversify its energy imports in order to maximize its energy security and maximize the potential of turning itself into an energy hub. Turkey’s recent energy and natural resources five year plan states that, “great importance is given to the improvement of the diversification of resources, technologies and infrastructure. For this reason, the oil and natural gas exploration operations both at home and abroad have been intensified in the recent years and these shall also be continued increasingly within the period of the Plan.” (p. 13)

Turkey has, in the new millennium, shown notable examples of greater independence from US dominance of NATO. I think this has been the result of various outcomes throughout the past decade.

The war in Iraq, which was seen as an unjustified and illegal war of aggression undertaken by the US, NATO’s leader, certainly served as a catalyst. The US tried to convince NATO allies, among others, to join it in a ‘coalition of the willing’. This didn’t play too well as an example of NATO’s new post Cold War direction and helped give voice to a more independent Turkish policy.

I think the war in Afghanistan has also had an impact in drawing Turkey’s gaze to events in the region of Central Asia, where a great number of cultural similarity (in that it is an older home to Turkic peoples prior to their migration to the Republic of Turkey) has raised ideas of the origins of Turkish identity prior to their push for Westernization by way of integrating some aspect of European identity. I don’t think that this trend is in fact what some have called pan-Turkish sentiments. It is simply a greater curiosity of their non-European roots coupled with an interest in seeing how this may be used to exert influence in the energy rich Central Asian region.

We must not forget the continued failure of the project to have Turkey be accepted as European and enter the EU. It is becoming increasingly clear that the EU is not interested in Turkish accession, and that a central component of European resistance stems from their perceiving the Turks as eternally non-European.

This notion of a difference in culture between Europe and Turkey has been quite unflattering and even at times publicly racist. Interestingly, the move to further democratize Turkey (namely to apply a representative form of democracy that is rooted in a framework of institution legality) has been disempowering the ‘deep state’ under the leadership of the military, thus eroding these leaders’ ability to push for the Westernization of Turkey.

Public opinion has also indicated at least significant strains of caution and resistance to turning the national identity into a ‘Western’ one. This resistance includes opposition to the West’s wars in that neighbourhood (Iraq and Afghanistan), as well as opposition to Western governments’ support of Israel following that country’s most recent invasions of Lebanon and Gaza.

Also, Europe is really waning politically and economically. It has essentially bent knee to the US politically, which I think many in Turkey would see as less incentive to join that bloc since they wanted to join the EU in order to gain greater influence internationally not to be bound in a structure of subservience. Further, Europe’s economy continues to falter, and if Turkey was to join the EU it would be one of the only countries in that bloc with consistent and significant economic growth. It would also be the only EU country with a significant military to speak of. Yet, it is clear that it would remain an isolated member in the unlikely case of the EU taking it in, so Turkey feels even more indignant given this scenario. Why be, on paper, one of the most robust EU members yet be isolated by others who antagonistically see themselves as techno-economically and culturally superior? Turkey is no fool, it realizes that Europe has a significant degree of vulnerability to it as a gateway to the east, and if the West is stagnating why sell yourself short?

Iran, meanwhile, has significant domestic reserves of hydrocarbons, is positioning itself as an energy transit hub (though the success of this plan remains to be seen), and can also serve as a gateway to Central Asian energy and politics.

Regarding the development of nuclear technology, Turkey, the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia are planning to set up their own facilities and have signed agreements with the US or Europe, among others, to this end. I think they realize it would be seen as so very hypocritical if they gave Iran no possibility of access to a civilian nuclear program. Turkey resides within the Middle East after all and it is not as easy to fool their own population about the fact of burgeoning nuclear programs in that region. After all the average person tends to know more about their neighbours than say someone an ocean and a continent away.

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Nima Maleki

Nima Maleki is a policy analyst and consultant, currently the Director of Research and Community Engagement for the not-for-profit Maple Key. His writings focus on international relations and the impact...