Turkey, Brazil, & Iran: A Glimpse of the Future

By Ian Lesser

It has been quite a week for diplomacy on Iran. On the eve of agreement on a new round of sanctions among the permanent members of the UN Security Council, the leaders of Turkey and Brazil concluded a dramatic visit to Tehran, bringing back a fissile material exchange agreement aimed at ending the stand-off over Iran's nuclear program.

The agreement falls well short of what the United States and others are now seeking from Tehran, and it is unclear that it could ever have been implemented. In the meantime, key members of the Security Council have agreed on a draft sanctions resolution. This, too, falls well short of what the United States and some European allies would prefer, but it allows for Russian and Chinese support. These developments say a lot about the evolution of the international system, the role of emerging countries like Turkey and Brazil, and the nature of the Iranian nuclear challenge. Taken together, they offer a striking glimpse of the future.

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First, Ankara's activism underscores the extraordinary changes in Turkey's international outlook. It has been fashionable to see Turkey's ambivalence on Iran policy as evidence of a drift eastward, toward greater affinity and alignment with Muslim neighbors. Events of the past week point to a different and potentially more significant trajectory. The deal brokered by Turkey and Brazil is one of the first tangible products of a Turkish policy inspired by the vision and objectives of the emerging global south-independent, assertive, and consciously at arm's length from the preferences of traditional "Western" partners. The American rebuff of the Turkish-Brazilian effort is understandable, but also unfortunate. It is likely to set back an already troubled relationship. Some observers are convinced that Turkey's leadership acted with a sense of tacit empowerment from Washington, in which case the sense of Turkish resentment will be all that much stronger.
The new Turkish foreign policy vocabulary now sounds very much like that of India, South Africa, Mexico, China, Indonesia, or, of course, Brazil.

This kind of posture-not so much neo-Ottoman as neo-non-aligned-could well be the most important new dimension of Turkish foreign policy over the next decade. It will shape the way the United States deals with Turkey. And it will influence and perhaps complicate Europe's relationship with Turkey as an EU candidate. Today's Turkey brings a lot more foreign policy capacity to the table, but it may not be an easy fit with Europe's interest in forging common strategies on key issues, including on Iran and Russia.

Second, the willingness and ability of emerging players like Brazil and Turkey to launch themselves into core strategic problems is a likely harbinger of things to come. The Obama administration has welcomed the rise of multi-polarity and, to be sure, it can offer important new opportunities for American diplomacy. But, as recent developments on Iran suggest, Washington and its transatlantic partners also face a new world in which the North is not always the center of gravity. This point is often made in connection with the rise of Asia. It should also be made about the emergence of a more powerful and assertive global South. Even within the transatlantic space, policymakers would do well to anticipate a wider distribution of influence and activism as countries like Brazil, Argentina, and South Africa aspire to a larger political, security, and economic role. From a transatlantic perspective, it suggests the need for a more expansive definition of Euroatlantic relations and partnership around the Atlantic basin.

Third, the Iranian nuclear challenge remains. The lackluster history of sanctions regimes makes it hard to be optimistic about the prospects for success this time around if success is measured in terms of halting Iran's enrichment activity. Much depends on how fast the nuclear clock is ticking in Tehran and how far Iran risks proceeding toward a usable weapons capability. The regime may well settle for a near-nuclear status, just short of action that might trigger a military response. In this case, the international community may be en route to an extended strategy of containment in the Gulf-one reason why the ban on major weapons sales to Tehran is a significant part of the draft sanctions package. Non-alignment, containment, and nuclear ambiguity-a nostalgic vocabulary, and a likely guide to the future.

Ian Lesser is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

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