Ashtiani, Realpolitik, and the Conscience of Turkey
by AFSIN YURDAKUL in Istanbul
02 Nov 2010 23:47
[ dispatch ] Is Turkey the new hope for human rights in Iran?
When Sakineh Ashtiani, a 43-year-old woman accused of murder and adultery, was sentenced to death by stoning in the Islamic Republic of Iran, her son, Sajad, appealed to Turkey and Brazil to use their diplomatic influence to help reverse the verdict. Iranian authorities rejected Brazilian President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva's offer to grant Ashtiani asylum, and that marked the moment when all eyes turned to Turkey.
Having brokered, with Brazil's help, a nuclear swap deal with Iran earlier this year, Turkey seems to be among the few trusted friends of Tehran in the international arena. Despite the West's anxiety about the growing Turkish-Iranian rapprochement, the country may in fact be the new hope in convincing Iran to better its notorious human rights record. The question is whether Turkey, under pressure from its own citizens and the international community, is ready -- or willing -- to assume such a role, which requires a careful balancing of diplomatic calculus and care for human life.
When considered from the Turkish side, the debate is a double-edged sword: On one hand, Turkey can take advantage of this opportunity to assuage Western fears over its diplomatic relationship with Iran. It can show Brussels and Washington that having close ties with Tehran can actually help convince the regime to treat its citizens more humanely. On the other hand, the move may backfire if Iranian authorities perceive it as an intervention in internal matters, and its political cost to Ankara could be high.
Proponents of a more proactive Turkish role are mainly driven by concern for justice and human rights. Take Ayse Karabat, for instance, a columnist for Turkey's Radikal newspaper. She wrote that it is a matter of honor for her country to do something to save Ashtiani's life. "Perhaps Turkey still has to work on its own democracy," Karabat said, but it's "the only country in the world that Iran will not regard as a 'Western hypocrite' and whose 'advice' it would not perceive as an interference in its domestic affairs." Karabat thinks Turkey is uniquely positioned because it "knows Iran so well diplomatically," and it is therefore incumbent upon the Turkish leadership to intervene in cases of human rights abuses.
Ben Wikler of the advocacy group Avaaz.org, which started a campaign to save Ashtiani's life, agrees. "Turkey has such a pivotal role," Wikler says, "because unlike many governments, Turkey's government has a relationship of trust with the Iranian government." According to Wikler, the voices of Turkish citizens and leaders matter more than the rest of the international community because "Prime Minister Erdogan has a relationship with Iran that allows him to ask them to do the right thing in a way that they would listen." In September, more than 15,000 Turkish human rights supporters signed a petition to urge Ankara to save Ashtiani's life. The number of people who have sent personal letters to Erdogan requesting he take action is now around 14,000. The organization started a new global campaign today, right after the news came out of Iran that Ashtiani's execution -- now planned as a hanging -- is imminent, perhaps as soon as tomorrow.
Murat Yalniz, a journalist with Newsweek Türkiye, sees political benefit in taking a conscience-driven step. He says it's wise for Ankara to "keep an eye on this case," because "Prime Minister Erdogan may not only save a human life, he can also soothe American -- and to a certain extent Western European -- fears over its new role in the Middle East."
Despite Ankara's claims that human rights concerns form an integral part of its foreign policy, in practice they have rarely been of more than secondary importance. A survey of Turkey's diplomatic history reveals no major interventions in human rights cases, with the partial exception of the aftermath of the 2005 violence in Uzbekistan's Andijan province: Ankara openly criticized Uzbek authorities, at the cost of weakening ties with a Turkic country with which it enjoyed good relations. Turkey was expected to speak up against the attacks on Uighurs in China's Xinjiang region, and it has been sensitive about the condition of Turkomans in Iraq. Yet Erdogan's portrayal of Gaza as a humanitarian crisis, and the heated rhetoric he has directed at Israel over the situation, has put him in an unanticipated bind. According to Arif Keskin, head of the Middle Eastern research division at the 21st Century Turkey Foundation in Ankara, "People around the world started challenging [Erdogan] by asking what he thought about Sudan and Iran, if he thinks Gaza is in dire straits."
Erdogan's efforts to diminish the political influence of the Turkish military created the expectation both at home and abroad that he would speak up when Iran indulged its own increasingly militaristic instincts in especially egregious ways. Keskin explains that the case of Ashtiani has turned into a "sincerity test" for the prime minister. With international attention on Iranian human rights issues magnified by the still vivid memories of last year's violent post-election crackdown, Ankara had to take a step this time.
Turkey in recent years has been closer to Iran than ever before. In the past, the staunchly secular political tradition of the country kept it from cozying up to the Islamic regime, but the ruling AK Party, with its roots in political Islam, has adopted a different course. Ankara's new, more integrative Iran policy has stirred criticism in the West, with many arguing that Turkey is "changing axis" because of the European Union's perpetual reluctance to admit the country into the club.
Those who agree with Yalniz argue that Turkey needs to fix that "illusion" of an eastward shift. Yet doing so doesn't seem high up on the list of Ankara's priorities -- indeed, Turkish officials deny that the country has changed direction. Those skeptical of intervention think that Turkey needs neither the approval nor the appreciation of the West to formulate its foreign policy and doubt that Iran would respond positively to Turkish calls for human rights improvements anyway.
Geneive Abdo, an analyst with the Century Foundation, says Turkey doesn't have much to benefit from openly rebuking Iran because they "don't necessarily want to be in the good graces of the West." She observes that Turkey voted against harsher sanctions on Iran at the United Nations Security Council earlier this year, a clear indication that it does not share the Western perspective on Tehran. According to Abdo, Turkey's approach to Iran is based in realpolitik: "They are going to do whatever is in their interest." After all, she argues, Turkey can not "dictate Iran how to conduct its own domestic politics," nor does it consider itself the "morality police of the region."
Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, also does not anticipate that Turkish intervention in Iranian human rights cases will have much effect. "The reason for my skepticism is not in any way related to the capacity or the finesse of Turkish diplomacy," Maloney says. "It's more a recognition of the obstinacy of this particular leadership in Iran." Still, she thinks it's important for Turkey, "a democracy with a particular appreciation of the dilemmas of Islamic society," to speak up about human rights concerns, and "make clear to the Iranians that these aren't...excuses for American meddling and other troublemaking."
Such are the difficult calculations the Turkish government has to make, for Ashtiani's case has transcended the issue of human rights and gained a complex policy dimension as well. Last month, Turkish officials said they were conducting "intense telephone diplomacy" on her behalf. According to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, its diplomats have appealed to Tehran several times about the case, including writing letters to Iranian authorities. Turkish sources said the two countries' foreign ministers have discussed the issue in bilateral meetings. For the time being, Ankara is keeping its efforts low-key, effectively remaining on "standby" as it monitors developments.
It's clear that Turkey is walking a fine line. In a recent article for Foreign Policy, James Traub wrote that the Turks "seem to give their Muslim brothers a pass on human rights," and many are watching how Turkey will act this time. "Unlike China or even India, Turkey does not resort to the language of 'sovereignty' when defending abusive regimes -- it takes the 'Western' view of international law," Traub argued. "Rather, its dilemma has to do with its neighborhood: You can't be a regional leader in the Middle East if you take human rights too seriously." How Turkey will handle this case will speak to its abilities as an emerging regional power. After all, it's not only Ankara's diplomatic finesse that's being tested, but also its conscience.
Afsin Yurdakul covers Turkey for Tehran Bureau.
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