Will India and Turkey jointly broker an easing of US-Iran tensions?

How amazing that the defeat of the Turkish ruling party AKP in the election for Istanbul mayor on Sunday turns out to be world class headline in the western media! At the most obvious level, it only highlights the deep antipathy toward Turkish President Recep Erdogan in the West and the US’ regional allies in the Middle East. Erdogan’s variant of ‘Ostpolitik’, if one may borrow the term from the Cold War era, threatens to unravel the western alliance system. 

The western narrative is that the electoral setback in Istanbul signifies that the bell is tolling for Erdogan’s political career. Of course, that is largely wishful thinking. The point is, the Istanbul electorate has handed down a highly nuanced verdict. 

The Turkish intellectuals, self-styled liberal and left-leaning radicals — the ‘Khan Market Gang’ on the Bosphorous — are in ecstasy that this is a victory of Democracy. But then, this has been a truly free and fair election (although the political stakes were high) and that, in turn, only goes to show that despite three major and two virtual coups and one attempted coup-bid against him, Erdogan’s democratic instincts are still intact. After all, Erdogan didn’t rig the election! 

(Mayor-elect Ekrem Imamoglu hailed the result as a “new beginning” for the city of Istanbul, June 23, 2019.)

There is food for thought here for those who demonised Erdogan, within and outside Turkey, alleging that he was about to abolish the constitution. (Ironically, the opposition candidate who just scraped through with a majority of 13000 votes in the March round has since widened his victory margin to nearly 800,000 votes in Sunday’s repoll.)  

Second, the western analysts interpret the AKP’s defeat as a referendum about the presidency. This is a simplistic view. The fact that conservative districts in Istanbul such as Fatih and Beyoglu ‘defected’ and voted against the Islamist AKP shows that there are strong undercurrents stemming out of the deteriorating economic conditions since March. 

Again, importantly, Kurds form a significant ethnic minority in Istanbul’s population of around 15 million. Given the conspiracy of silence over the Kurdish national question in Turkish politics, estimates regarding the country’s demography are a sensitive subject, but according to some reliable surveys done in the late nineties, there could be anywhere up to 4 million Kurds in Istanbul. 

Now, Erdogan’s policies in the most recent years — his retraction from the pledges for reform program on Kurdish rights — have probably alienated this constituency and strengthened the Kurdish support for the opposition candidate. Erdogan’s policies toward the Syrian conflict become another factor here. At any rate, Erdogan used to command substantial support from the Kurdish voters in the past, but AKP has lately surrendered ground to the Kurdish regional party known as Peoples’ Democratic Party. 

To be sure, Erdogan’s political grit is not to be underestimated. He has staged comebacks from seemingly hopeless situations more than once in his tumultuous career. Besides, Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections are due only in 2023. Four years is a long time in politics anywhere, especially in Turkey. 

From an Indian perspective, it makes no sense for our media to lap up the western narrative on Erdogan. The point is, Erdogan will continue to remain an engrossing figure for the foreseeable future but he makes a meaningful partner for India in the contemporary setting of regional and world politics. Therefore, his planned visit to India will be keenly watched.

Isn’t it extraordinary that a Turkish leader is paying such high attention to India? Erdogan had last visited India in May 2017. Never before in modern history Turkey and India sensed such shared interests and common concerns as they do today.

Much has been written by analysts drawing comparison between Erdogan and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Clearly, both are self-made politicians who rose overcoming the handicaps of their working class background. Both leaders are famous for their grit and tenacity and will ‘never say never’. It shouldn’t be a surprise if Erdogan sees in Modi a connection of minds with strong affinity in attitudes or beliefs — an ideological soul mate in the broadest sense. Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s key foreign policy advisor, had come to Delhi for consultations last month, signifying a mutual desire for strategic communication.     

(Former President Pranab Mukherjee (L) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) receive Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (Centre) at Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi, May 1, 2017)

Both Turkey and India are exploring the rites of passage through a highly complicated regional and international environment. The US threat to sanction Turkey and India over their respective deals to acquire S-400 ABM system from Russia is symptomatic of a grave challenge to their strategic autonomy. 

The Trump administration is targeting their economies. And the variants of cultural nationalism that forms the bedrock of the ideology of the ruling elites in these two countries are in the US crosshairs. Meanwhile, the two countries’ friendly relations with Iran have become an eyesore for Washington. 

Fundamentally, both Erdogan and Modi are testing the potentials of Eurasianism and the multipolar world order to create space for navigating their countries as emerging regional powers. Erdogan’s India visit comes after his meeting with President Trump on the sidelines of the G20 summit meeting and following that, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. China, Japan, Turkey and India are stakeholders in easing the tensions over the US-Iran standoff. 

Quite obviously, some sort of gesture on Trump’s part to ease the sanctions will become necessary in a near future to encourage Iran to come to the negotiating table. This could be by way of giving ‘waivers’ to the top buyers of Iranian oil such as China, India and Turkey. The ‘waivers’ were withdrawn in May and can always be restored by the Trump administration. Perhaps, Erdogan and Modi would broach the topic at their meeting with Trump in Japan later this month. 

Japan has embraced the role of mediator at Trump’s request. Can Turkey and India be far behind? Way back in 2010, Turkey and Brazil had jointly brokered a tentative compromise with Tehran in the international standoff over Iran’s nuclear programme via an agreement on the “principles” to revive a stalled nuclear fuel-swap deal backed by the United Nations in which Iran would ship much of its stockpile of enriched uranium abroad for further processing; the uranium would then return as fuel rods for a medical research reactor. 

Erdogan has paid special attention to maintain friendly relations with Iran despite the two countries’ divergent interests in the Syrian conflict.