Turkey’s Gaza diplomacy has failed to bear fruit thus far, but it has clearly led to a rapprochement between Ankara and Tehran.
Turkey’s efforts on a cease-fire in Gaza and the release of hostages held by Hamas are continuing, though so far without results. Its Gaza diplomacy has, however, invigorated Ankara’s ties with Iran.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pleased Tehran by refusing to label Hamas a “terrorist” organization, and instead calling it a “mujahideen liberation group.” He intends to play a leading role at Sunday’s summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) together with his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi.
Turkey and Iran also appear willing to see if their convergence on Gaza can help resolve thorny bilateral files. Raisi is expected to visit Turkey later this month, following on the heels of Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, who traveled to Ankara for talks in early November.
Similar rapprochements between the two previously took place after Erdogan’s outburst at Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos in 2009 and after the collapse of Turkish-Israeli ties following Israel’s deadly raid on a flotilla carrying pro-Palestinian activists toward Gaza in 2010. Such temporary closeness hardly eliminates the incompatibilities of Turkey and Iran’s policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or resolve the fundamental discord in their bilateral ties.
While Iranian media cite Turkey’s stance to claim that Iran is not alone in its Palestinian policy, Erdogan has not allowed his anger on the Palestinian issue to reach the point of breaking ties with Israel and the United States.
After the Israel-Hamas escalation that began Oct. 7, Erdogan restrained himself for several days, wary of jeopardizing Turkey’s recent normalization with Israel or his hopes of playing a mediator role in the conflict. He returned to his factory settings, however, as the situation in Gaza worsened, his prospects for mediating waned and the embarrassing revelation that Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh had been asked to leave Istanbul following Hamas’ incursion into Israel. According to some reports, Haniyeh traveled back to Turkey this month for talks with Erdogan following phone calls between the two. Ankara’s contacts with Israel have continued as well.
Still searching for a role
All in all, Turkey’s Gaza diplomacy appears to have gotten nowhere thus far despite dozens of contacts and visits. Erdogan failed to secure a declaration to his liking even at the Nov. 3 summit of the Organization of Turkic States, to which he attaches so much importance. The remarks he made to journalists on his return flight from the summit show that Ankara has decided to focus on three main objectives.
The first is the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza. Ten planeloads of aid have departed Turkey for Egypt, but the supplies have yet to enter Gaza.
Second, Erdogan has pressed for an immediate cease-fire and places importance on the joint position expected to emerge from the OIC summit in Riyadh. Yet, Washington is the first party that needs to be convinced to press for a cease-fire. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s talks in Ankara this week seem to have produced nothing to this effect. Blinken was given a low-level welcome at the airport, and Erdogan did not bother to meet him. Blinken’s remarks in Ankara about “making sure that people can continue to come out of Gaza” triggered speculation that the evacuation of Gaza was on his agenda. This was followed by rumors on social media that Turkey would accept 750,000 Gazans. Ankara denied the assertions.
Third, Erdogan has repeatedly spoken of Turkey’s willingness to be a post-conflict guarantor for the Palestinians. The options discussed between Israel and the United States, however, have nothing to do with that system, which also involves a two-state solution. Erdogan has offered up the example of the guarantor states of Cyprus, and the proposal has created a media buzz, but it is unlikely to be accepted. When asked about the proposal during his visit to Ankara, Amir-Abdollahian said that Iran supports “all political initiatives that would prevent the spread of war and guarantee the rights of the Palestinian people.” Yet Iran’s backing is irrelevant.
In the talks on Gaza’s future, the United States and Israel have reportedly been discussing an international force to prevent Hamas’ return after its eventual ouster. That is not the peacekeeping force that Iran and Turkey have in mind.
Turkey has been in contact with Hamas on the release of the hostages that the group abducted in Israel, but Qatar remains the primary channel on this issue, followed by Egypt. Palestinian sources say Turkey could play a facilitating role at best.
Some wonder whether Turkey could be acting as a channel between Washington and Tehran. Though Ankara has such a capacity, two Iranian sources told Al-Monitor that US messages had so far arrived via Qatar and Iraq. Before traveling to Ankara, Blinken held talks in Baghdad, after which the Iraqi premier rushed to Tehran.
Bilateral connections and differences
The most important result of Turkey’s Gaza diplomacy so far is the revival of Turkish-Iranian contacts. The two non-Arab regional powers have sought to unite their voices in support of the Palestinians, but their visions differ significantly. Turkey supports the creation of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, while Iran refuses to recognize Israel and proposes a joint state for Muslims, Jews and Christians.
Erdogan’s support for Hamas has also been much different from that of Iran, which has armed Palestinian groups. Ankara’s relationship with Hamas is unlikely to ever evolve to the level of Tehran’s.
It would be a victory for Iran if Turkey severed ties with Israel, but Erdogan appears to have no such intentions. Last week, he said he had “written off” Netanyahu as an interlocutor while noting that Turkey’s intelligence chief, Ibrahim Kalin, continued contacts with Israeli officials and Hamas.
“I’ll make a decision on this issue after my meetings at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit. Let’s see the atmosphere there. But cutting ties fully . . . will not happen,” Erdogan said.
Amid the escalation in Gaza, Erdogan last month formally signed the protocol on Sweden’s accession to NATO and sent it to parliament for ratification — a sign of his unwillingness to increase frictions in Ankara’s fraught ties with Washington. Erdogan supporters were stunned to see police firing tear gas and water cannons last weekend at pro-Palestinian demonstrators outside Incirlik Air Base, which houses US forces in southern Turkey. Moreover, a call to sever ties with Israel by IHH — the Islamic charity that called for the protest — drew rebukes from members of Erdogan’s party.
As for other Turkish-Iranian issues, Abdollahian said in Ankara that the two sides had agreed to boost border security, establish new border crossings and set up free trade zones as well as convene the bilateral High-Level Cooperation Council.
According to the aforementioned Iranian sources, the talks during Raisi’s visit will have a wide-ranging agenda, including Syria and the Caucasus, transboundary waters and fighting terrorism.
As a staunch ally of Azerbaijan in its territorial conflict with Armenia, Turkey backs Baku’s demands for a corridor via Armenian territory to connect its exclave of Nakhchivan and mainland Azerbaijan. Iran fears that the corridor could sever its land link with Armenia and wants to see how a Turkish-proposed regional consultation platform would function, involving Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, Russia and Turkey.
On the issue of water, Iranian officials have held Turkey responsible for dust storms, blaming them on reduced water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which rise in Turkey and flow down to Iraq and Syria. Similarly, they have blamed Turkey for decreased flows in the Aras River, which originates in the eastern part of the country and forms some of Iran’s border stretches in the region. As for Syria, a regionalization of the Gaza war might upset the existing equilibrium, in which both Turkey and Iran are involved.
Bilateral rapprochement on the Palestinian issue could have a very limited impact on all those complex files.