Want To Contain Iran and Russia? Engage, Don't Repudiate, Turkey | Opinion

Since Joe Biden was sworn into office more than three months ago, Republicans have been understandably disquieted. The new president's team has been hard at work dismantling many of his predecessor's impressive foreign policy achievements—in particular, the "maximum pressure" campaign on the Iranian regime—while rushing to revive the Obama administration's legacy of accommodating Tehran.

Upon the announcement mere days after the inauguration that a key architect of the Obama administration's pro-Iran policy, Special Envoy Robert Malley, would again be put in charge of the portfolio, a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and wholesale sanctions relief seemed nearly inevitable. Malley was the most faithful steward of what Tony Badran, research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has dubbed the "Obama Realignment Doctrine," which sought to realign the United States away from its traditional regional allies and with Iran instead. By definition, this turn toward Tehran meant "downgrading and constraining allies" who, as Badran explained "must be made to stand down."

Following his old boss's playbook, Biden quickly terminated all support to Saudi Arabia in its campaign to defeat Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen. The State Department then removed the group from its list of sponsors of terrorism, delayed the planned delivery of F-35 fighter planes to the United Arab Emirates and reportedly advised Israel not to openly castigate Iranian malfeasance. And while the White House has yet to proactively harm Turkish interests, it's worth noting that while Biden has twice phoned "killer" Russian President Vladimir Putin, there exists no record of him placing a call to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Regrettably, too many of the administration's center-right critics, while rightfully expressing grave concern about the return of destructive Obama-era policies, reveal excessive disdain for Turkey. Indeed, these critics too often fail to acknowledge that no comprehensive approach toward containing Iran's hegemonic ambitions will succeed absent a tangible accommodation with NATO's second-largest military. How exactly do these skeptics envision our abandoned regional partners standing up to the pressure of Iran at a time when one of those principal state actors, Saudi Arabia, has struggled just to keep the remainder of Yemen from falling into the hands of the Iran-backed Houthis?

It's no exaggeration to assert that bilateral ties haven't been this frayed since the mid 1970s. Both sides have legitimate gripes. Among them: American politicos didn't fully appreciate that the Obama administration advanced the interests of the Iranians—not to mention, also a Kurdish militia the State Department still considers a terrorist entity—over Turkey during the Syrian civil war, and later offered milquetoast backing to Erdogan after a failed bloody coup attempt. In turn, Turkish officials were agonizingly slow to realize their American counterparts weren't looking the other way when Erdogan purchased and took delivery of the Russian S-400 anti-missile defense system, that the incarceration of an American pastor who had been living in Anatolia for more than 20 years horrified Christian leaders and that the hosting of Hamas personnel and a barrage of rhetorical broadsides against the Jewish state stalled progress with America's pro-Israel community.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images

Nonetheless, American conservatives need not approve of Turkey's shortcomings to grasp that the number one priority among those frightened by the prospect of Iranian nuclear warheads is to buttress, not hamstring, traditional allies.

Turkey and Iran may conduct business with one another, but they openly battle for influence across the region. Why do so many normally thoughtful and measured analysts scoff at the potential resumption of Turkish-Israeli ties when, together, they strongly oppose the Iranian regime's nuclear weapons quest, Tehran's presence in war-torn Syria and its meddling in Azerbaijan? As Gabriel Mitchell of the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies observed in February, if Turkey's Gulf state ally Qatar "managed to harness the positive energy of the [Abraham Accords] in order to restore ties with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council...which included an embargo and painful economic sacrifices...then why can't Israel and Turkey find common ground?"

Outside Malley's purview is Turkey's additional prospective value as a strategic partner in the White House's stated policy to stymie Russian malevolence. Both Democrats and Republicans interested in supporting Ukraine ought to reject misleading claims that Ankara and Moscow have become bosom buddies, or that Ankara and Washington no longer share any strategic interests.

Recent events highlight that the relationship between Presidents Erdogan and Putin is transactional, and that Washington and Ankara still share the same historic rival. For example, earlier this month Turkey granted the U.S. Navy permission to send two warships through the Bosphorus and into the Black Sea in a show a solidarity for the government in Kiev (the request was subsequently withdrawn). To Putin's further chagrin, Erdogan subsequently met for the second time in six months with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, where he strongly affirmed Turkey's support of Ukraine's territorial integrity and described the sharing of technology to produce drones and naval corvettes. In response, the Kremlin suspended all charter flights to the Turkish resort province of Antalya, a popular destination for Russian tourists.

While the Biden administration ponders whether to work more robustly with Turkey in defending Ukraine, its agenda in the Middle East is clearer. Again, America's partners are left to their own devices. In response, conservatives and Iran hawks shouldn't do Malley's work for him. It is imperative to help Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and other willing governments hold the line together against further Iranian aggression.

Jason Epstein is president of Southfive Strategies, LLC, an international public affairs consultancy. He was a member of the Turkish embassy's public relations team in Washington, D.C. from 2002 to 2007.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.