Friday, September 18, 2009

Patriot Games

There's a certain feeling of Cold War déjà vu in Turkey these days. Back then, NATO ally Turkey was seen as a front line state in the standoff against a dangerous nuclear power and was even home to American missiles (the intermediate range Jupiters, quietly removed as part of the deal made to end the Cuban missile crisis). Cut to 2009, when western ally Turkey is again being viewed by some as a front-line defense against a (potential) nuclear power -- this time around Iran -- and might soon be home to an American-made long-range missile defense system.

The story has been developing in a very interesting way. It started with a report a few weeks ago in a Polish publication that claimed that the U.S. is scrapping its controversial European-based missile defense plan (true), to be based in Poland and the Czech Republic, and was going to place the system in Turkey instead (still not clear). Turkish officials quickly denied the Polish report, but soon after it emerged that the Pentagon had recently informed Congress that it plans to sell to Turkey the Patriot missile defense system. To clear things up, the Turkish military than announced that it is considering spending up to $1 billion for its first long-range missile defense system, but that it is also looking at Russian and Chinese weapons.

The question being asked in Turkey, of course, is in which direction will those defensive missiles be aimed? Iran might be the most obvious answer, but Turkish diplomats have gone out of their way to say this isn't so. "It is wrong to draw links between the Patriot and Iran," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told CNN Turk last week. "We neither have a perception of threat from any of the neighboring countries, nor have any military or security related preparation against them."

So is Turkey planning to spend $1 billion to defend itself against a non-existent threat? I doubt that's the case. What seems to be happening here is another expression of the difficult line Ankara has to take when it comes to its relations with Iran. On the one hand, Turkey has significantly improved its relationship with Iran in recent years, something that is reflected in the two countries' growing trade relations and in the fact that Turkish leaders were among the first (and only) to congratulate Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad on his recent controversial reelection. On the other hand, despite the smiling faces and the warm language being used in both capitals, Ankara and Tehran are regional rivals and Iran's nuclear program is as worrying for Turkey as it is for other countries in the region.

"There is an understanding between the United States and Israel and Turkey on the perception that Iran may become a threat if it develops nuclear weapons. There is also a common understanding with the rest of the world that [Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmedinejad is becoming a dangerous leader with his very provocative and aggressive statements," said political analyst Sami Kohen.

"As far as that is concerned, there is common ground," Kohen added. "But the question is how do you deal with the problems, and that’s where the differences are...."

....Turkey and Iran share a 310-mile (499 kilometer) border, and both Turkish and Iranian diplomats like to point out that the two Muslim neighbors have been a peace for centuries. But Turkish analysts say that peace is based on a delicate balance of military power -- one that would be upset if Iran obtained nuclear weapons.

"The bottom line is that Turkey can’t accept an Iran with nuclear weapons. A nuclear weapons-capable Iran, or a nuclear-armed Iran is not in the interest of Turkey," says Mustafa Kibaroglu, an expert on nuclear non-proliferation issues at Bilkent University in Ankara.

The increasing international pressure on Iran comes at a time when the Turkish government has been working hard to improve relations with its neighbors, especially Iran. The last few years have seen Turkish-Iranian trade grow dramatically, reaching $4 billion in 2005. In 2000, bilateral trade turnover stood at roughly $1 billion.

The government’s emphasis on trade, says Kibaroglu, has helped create a division among Turkish policymakers on how to tackle the Iran question. "I don’t think officials agree among themselves what to do," he says. "The perception of the government, as far as I can see, doesn’t fit the perception of the military. The military is more skeptical of Iran’s intentions when compared to the politicians who run the country."
(Hurriyet Daily News's Barcin Yinanc covers this dilemma in a recent column, which you can read here.)

Turkey is clearly trying to strike a very delicate pose here, working to defend itself against an "unspecified" regional threat while maintaining that it doesn't feel threatened by any of its neighbors. An interesting political stew is being cooked up -- what's not clear is just who is stirring the pot.

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