U.S. killing of Soleimani brings more benefits than costs for Erdoğan
U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to kill Qassem Soleimani, a targeted assassination befitting an official who had incorporated the tactics of the Nizari into his practice of diplomacy on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran, will have little to no negative impact on his personal relations with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or official relations between the United States and Turkey.
On the contrary, regardless of complaints about the U.S. action made by Erdoğan, Soleimani was no friend nor ally of Turkey or Turkish interests. Turkish leaders will not sincerely lament Soleimani’s demise.
Soleimani was a linchpin, an essential piece holding together the different pieces of Iran’s policy to establish a hegemony over the Middle East. He coordinated Iranian diplomatic efforts, and intelligence efforts under diplomatic cover, special operations to punish those who resisted collaboration with Iran. He cajoled, threatened, and even eliminated (if he deemed it necessary) opponents to Iran’s goal of dominating the entire greater Middle East. He was first and foremost an Iranian nationalist, a devout Shi’a Muslim nonetheless, but most of all a nationalist that used allies and subordinate national groups to enhance the power and prestige of Iran. Mirroring Erdoğan’s neo-Ottoman tendencies, his devotion to Islam and its spread did not get in the way of his efforts for the people of the Persian Plateau to dominate the region.
Both Trump and Erdoğan got lucky; the Iranian response has been somewhat muted and no American personnel was killed by Iranian missile strikes. It is clear to all that Trump means to enforce his redline regarding the killing of Americans, thoroughly consistent with his America First position. In his interview with CNN Turk, Erdoğan said he was shocked by Trump’s action. Perhaps, or perhaps he said this to make clear to the Iranians and all others that he had no foreknowledge of Trump’s plan. If by shocked he meant surprised, then he chose the wrong verb as Trump’s willingness to use violence to deter aggression against Americans (but not others) should surprise no one. Nor should his restraint at previous Iranian provocations that did not take American lives or cause serious injuries surprise anyone.
Many voices have expressed dismay that Trump ordered the killing of a senior government official, yet Erdoğan does not seem to join them in endorsing the position that one’s official status gives impunity from facing the consequences of one’s actions. How many senior military officers, professors, lawyers and civil society persons were arrested in Turkey over the last two decades regardless of their status? (And regardless of the truth of the accusations.) Erdoğan also strongly denounced Syria’s Assad. Clearly he does not think that Assad’s status should protect him from facing the consequences of his actions against his own people, if it were possible. (It’s noteworthy that one reason it is not possible is the efforts of Soleimani to save Assad’s regime, not for Assad’s interests but for Iran’s.) More recently, Erdoğan did not hesitate to denounce the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, for his involvement in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Though he might have other reasons for disapproving of the targeted killing of the Iranian Quds force commander, Soleimani’s official status likely figures little in the weak disapproval he has thus far expressed.
For Erdoğan, this killing brings more benefits than costs. He has not had to choose one side over the other, and the effectiveness of Iran’s hegemonic efforts will certainly be reduced, at least for a short time by Soleimani, removal from the field of battle and clandestine intrigue. In fact, it’s a double win for Erdoğan - Turkey’s proximity to Iraq and Iran will persuade many in the U.S. Congress that Erdoğan remains indispensable, for now, to U.S. security policy in the Middle East and his personal relationship with his only friend in Washington, Trump, remains on track. This should blunt complaints about Russia and Turkey growing closer as the Black Sea gas pipeline comes on line. (It’s noteworthy that with improved access to Russian gas, adhering to sanctions against Iran may become easier.)
Soleimani killing is also a double win for Turkey. Iran and Turkey have been rivals for a long time and likely will be for decades to come. Iranian de facto control of the region from the Persian Plateau to the Mediterranean is not in the security or economic interests of Turkey, for it cuts off markets the south and southeast. This is particularly true with much of the economy of Iran under the control of the IRGC, whose late commander used its economic activities to underwrite it foreign activities, and vice versa. Removing Soleimani will not provide greater opportunities in the short term for Turkey, but over time reduced fear of retribution for non-cooperation with Iran among many countries in the region might open more commercial opportunities.
More importantly, without Soleimani, Iran’s efforts to induce collaboration with its foreign policy goals by any means will suffer a reduction in potency, at least for some time. This provides an opportunity for Turkey to regain status in the region, though the legacy of 500 years of Ottoman domination works against Erdoğan’s efforts to make Turkey pre-eminent in the region. (Note: this author asserts that Iran seeks to dominate the region; Turkey, under Erdoğan, seeks pre-eminence, a crucial distinction.)
And herein lies the trap for both presidents: the death of Soleimani has thus far cost Erdoğan nothing and Trump very little. This can lead to cockiness, to overconfidence in their ability to manage events and foresee outcomes. No outcomes are fully foreseeable. Whether in Syria and Libya or in Iraq and Iran, Erdoğan and Trump must restrain any reckless impulses if the benefits to be gained from the elimination of Iran’s subtle, talented, and ruthless foreign affairs overlord are to be fully realised.