Can the US, Israel, and Turkey collaborate to contain Iran?

In recent years, the United States has shifted priorities away from the Middle East, first with a pivot to China and then to Russia and Ukraine. Understandably, the United States is searching for partners with whom it can share the burden of defending common interests in the Middle East; Iran’s containment included. At least from some perspectives, Israel and Turkey share such interests. Is a US-Israeli-Turkish partnership to contain Iran feasible?

It should be noted that Iran represents several distinct challenges. First, in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Second, as a conventional and proxy-based military threat across the Middle East, as demonstrated from attacks on cargo vessels in the Strait of Hormuz to drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities to attacks on US troops in the Middle East to its attempted deployment of weapons in Syria to its sub-state armed organizations in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. And third, as a political competitor for regional hegemony. These challenges are intertwined, as Iranian strategy is, or at least was, based on distracting its adversaries away from Iran to secondary theaters where it commands soft power and handles proxies, and then pinning them down and attritting them in those secondary theaters (Israel in Lebanon and the United States in Iraq, to name but two obvious examples).

It may be that different partnerships and different rationales could be useful for each challenge.

Incentives for collaboration

US objectives in the Middle East begin with preventing global and regional powers from threatening freedom of navigation through the region’s waterways. US priorities are the uninterrupted supply of energy and goods from and through the region, the prevention of local problems from turning into global ones, and the stability and capabilities of its partners in the region.

Israel and Turkey’s interests are partially aligned with those of the United States, and they are not in a zero-sum game with one another. Israeli regional objectives are not well articulated, but focus on preserving the status quo while attempting to prevent the emergence of severe military threats (from the development of an Iranian nuclear bomb to the positioning of Iranian high-impact weapons in Lebanon and Syria). While Israel has transactional relationships with its regional partners, it cannot contend for regional hegemony in a theater where such contentions are influenced significantly by ethnic or religious dynamics.

Turkey’s regional objectives under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also defy simple characterization. They have ranged from far-reaching neo-Ottomanism, Blue Homeland ambition, and expeditionary interventions in such places as Libya to a “Zero Problems” policy and an attempt to maintain a Western orientation through NATO membership and, possibly, integration with the European Union as well. Perhaps a pragmatic definition would be the protection of its territorial integrity, mainly from the threat of Kurdish separatism, while attempting to increase its regional and even global strategic footprint—at tolerable cost and risk.

Turkey seems to have mastered the art of the “frenemy”—collaborating with actors with whom it also competes or even militarily clashes. Its multifaceted relations with Russia, which saw direct or indirect kinetic conflicts in Syria, Libya, and the Caucasus , are a showcase for this skill. Indeed, Turkey supplied killer unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to Ukraine, while simultaneously helping Russia mitigate the impact of sanctions. Following earlier tensions, Turkey has recently made significant rapprochement attempts vis-à-vis the United States, Israel, and other regional actors such as the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Turkish-Israeli relations rebounded as the two countries’ intelligence communities collaborated in thwarting an Iranian attempt to attack Israeli nationals on Turkish soil.

All three actors are, or at least should be, concerned about the challenges posed by Iran. A nuclear Iran would threaten the United States, Israel, and Turkey, although in varying degrees of severity. Iran represents a threat to US interests in the Gulf, to the flow of oil, and to US freedom of access. Iran’s direct and indirect lines of operation threaten to undermine the United States’ regional partners.

Over the past two decades, Israel’s prime threat has pivoted from the Arab world to Iran and its proxies. In fact, today, Israel collaborates openly or tacitly with the Sunni Arab world in a joint effort to contain Iran. Most Arab states that remain antagonistic are being so because they are aligned with Iran and not because they are Arab.

The United States, Turkey, and Israel have seen threats to their interests in Syria, Iraq, and Azerbaijan emerging from the Iranian footprint in those areas. Turkey and Israel have become bedfellows in Azerbaijan’s war with Armenia. They have also opposed Iranian attempts to establish its forces or proxies in northern and southern Syria, respectively. Iran, meanwhile, has developed working relations in Iraq with the anti-Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and in Syria with the People’s Defense Units (YPG), a PKK affiliate. In Iraq, Iran uses these groups to strengthen the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Bafel Talabani at the expense of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), which is led by Masoud Barzani, and in Syria to weaken the Turkish-supported anti-Assad opposition.

Iranian power would be boosted by weakening the Sunni opposition in Syria, the pro-US (and pro-Turkey) KDP in Iraq, or both. This provides a rationale for as-yet unrealized collaboration between Turkey and Israel in both arenas.

Disincentives to collaboration

Both the United States and Israel have seemed concerned about Turkish policies’ volatility and unpredictability, especially under Erdoğan. Turkey, home to NATO’s second-largest army, has disappointed the United States sequentially, from denial of access to Iraq to the purchase of the Russian S-400 mobile surface-to-air missile defense system to friction in northern Syria and friction with Greece and Cyprus to Turkish concerns over the path of Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership.

The US-Turkish relationship reached a low point when sanctions were imposed on Turkey’s military procurement agency (SSB) and Ankara was excluded from the F-35 program. One may infer skepticism about future collaboration with Turkey from the recent US-Greece Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement (MDCA), which provides the United States with access to additional military bases in Greece. It seems like the United States is seeking more dependable strategic avenues.

Israeli-Turkish relations reached a low point following the Mavi Marmara flotilla affair in 2010, while the discovery of gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean dramatically rewrote regional policies. Israel, Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt developed close energy, economic, military, and political ties. These ties provide Israel with much more than a mere substitution for its lost strategic relations with Turkey. While Israel accepted recent Turkish rapprochement bids, it cannot take them to a level where it risks losing its newly gained quadruple gas partnership. Along with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Israel shares concerns about Turkish military presence in the Red Sea and in Qatar.

While the emergence of a powerful Iran, definitely a nuclear armed one, is clearly undesirable for Turkey, these neighbors do not define their mutual relations as adversarial. Their long, shared border remains peaceful, as it has been since 1639 when the Qasr-I Shirin treaty between the Safavid and Ottoman Empires ended territorial wars between them. So, Iran does not directly threaten the Turkish Republic per se, and economic relations are intensive. Turkey and Iran share opposition to the idea of a Western-backed establishment of a Kurdish state. Iran’s aggressive use of proxies in Iraq and Syria has threatened Turkish interests but has not touched upon core interests of either party.

Over the past decade, Turkey developed a robust defense industry, which reduced its dependency on US and Israeli weapons. This dilutes the transactional incentives for Turkey to align itself with the two countries’ defense establishments.

Finally, it should be noted that both Israel and Turkey face significant internal trials that may prove to be game changers. If Israel’s so-called legal reform is completed, it might experience a structural decline in both its actual and projected power, and turn inward to deal with its own domestic unrest. President Erdoğan secured a new five-year term with a comfortable parliamentary majority during the May 2023 elections. Based on atmospherics and congratulatory exchanges, it would seem that the mutual desire for better relations has survived both countries’ 2023 elections.

Future collaborations?

With regard to the nuclear file, no measures applied so far have convinced Iran to change policy and forgo its nuclear military ambitions. The actual use of force might be the only way to persuade Iran to reverse its nuclear policy; Israel and the United States are candidates for kinetic action. Translating kinetic inputs into desired Iranian policy change requires heavy lifting by the United States, though, and Turkey can probably offer little assistance or inclination in this regard.

Perhaps the most relevant takeaway for the United States is to keep Turkey out of any future nuclear arms race. Turkey has been developing a civilian nuclear program and hinted at a potential future turn to military dimensions. This would be highly undesirable and might expedite the emergence of an unstable regional, multilateral nuclear system. The most effective measure to keep Turkey out of a regional nuclear race is an inclusive policy toward Turkey—maintaining a shared nuclear deterrent out of İncirlik Air Base and assuring Turkey of Western security guarantees through the full embrace of NATO. Turkey should not be placed in a position in which it sees itself strategically and militarily isolated, and surrounded by potentially hostile forces. It should always have more to lose from breaking away from the United States than what it has to gain from developing its own nuclear military program, or from pursuing an entirely independent or anti-Western strategic direction.

Col. Ron Tira (Ret.) is the author of The Nature of War: Conflicting Paradigms and Israeli Military Effectiveness. He is a regular contributor to the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies.

Image: A Turkish naval frigate is seen berthed at the Haifa Port, in Haifa, Israel September 4, 2022. REUTERS/Amir Cohen