BACKGROUND: Turkey’s policies towards Iran became especially prominent in 2010 as Ankara emerged as the leading national mediator to the Iranian nuclear issue, displacing Russia as Tehran’s principal interlocutor. To this end, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and other Turkish officials labored for months to restart the nuclear dialogue with Iran. They appeared to achieve results when they announced an agreement in Tehran on May 17, whereby Iran declared that it was prepared to “deposit” 1,200 kilograms of its low-enriched uranium in Turkey in return for the delivery within one year of 120 kilograms of uranium enriched to the higher level needed for Tehran’s medical research reactor.
However, these presumably well-meaning efforts only yielded frustration and alienation, especially from the United States. The Obama administration gave Turkish officials the impression that they supported their initiatives, but Washington had apparently forgotten about the proposed uranium swap and became irritated when Iran appeared to exploit Turkey’s efforts in a last-ditch gambit to avert impending UN sanctions. Turkish representatives in turn became annoyed that Washington insisted on imposing those sanctions despite Ankara’s hard-won progress on a nuclear deal, and joined Brazil in voting against the fourth round of sanctions in the Security Council. Although Brazil has since abandoned its mediation efforts, Turkey continues to doggedly seek a settlement, and will host next January’s P5+1 dialogue in Istanbul. The Turkish government has also affirmed that it will only apply the UN-imposed sanctions on Iran, while ignoring the supplementary sanctions adopted by the United States, the European Union, and other countries.
Erdoğan and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu regularly complain how the great powers fight with Iran over its peaceful nuclear program while ignoring Israel’s refusal to even join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and renounce its nuclear weapons. But it was not Israel’s nuclear policies than led to a sharp deterioration in relations with Turkey; rather it was Israel’s policies towards the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. The AKP government has made the Palestine question a major factor in Turkey’s foreign (and domestic) policies for the first time in history. The break came in late May, when Israeli commandos attacked a Turkish-registered ship seeking to run the Israeli maritime blockade around Gaza, leading to the death and injury of Turkish nationals. Despite the extremist views of some of the protesters, the Israeli act inevitably rallied Turkish opinion behind them. The decades-long strategic alignment between Turkey and Israel, which served both countries well during the Cold War, has been shattered and looks unlikely to be resurrected. Domestic political imperatives and other factors will ensure that the Palestinian issue remains a constant irritant in their bilateral relationship.
Turkish-U.S. ties almost suffered irreparable damage as well from the flotilla clash. At the time, Turkish officials felt the White House should have explicitly condemned the use of force in international waters, especially since a 19-year old Turkish-American was among those killed , while U.S. supporters of Israel saw the AKP government’s tacit support for the flotilla to Gaza as provocative given Israel’s security imperatives.
These high-profile events distracted attention from the deeper northern and eastern currents in Turkey’s changing geopolitical orientation. Relations with Russia continue to strengthen, especially in the energy realm. Recent agreements with Moscow, especially those involving gas pipelines and nuclear power, could make Turkey even more dependent on Russia for its energy supplies, perhaps for decades to come. This enduring dependence will likely constrain Ankara’s ability to challenge Moscow in many ways, ranging from missile defense to regional security arrangements in the Black Sea, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.
One way Ankara might balance Moscow better in Eurasia, as well as to hedge against a further deterioration in its relations with the West, is to cultivate ties with Beijing. Security ties between China and Turkey garnered brief attention recently due to their joint military exercises in September and October as well as the visit by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to Ankara in October, but bilateral ties have been increasing for several years now. Still, the recent events have raised Sino-Turkish ties to a new level. The AKP government displayed pragmatism by abandoning Turkey’s longstanding support for the cause of the Muslim Uighur minority in China.
IMPLICATIONS: Moving into next year, a core issue for Turkish national security policy makers will be the withdrawal of all remaining U.S. combat forces from Iraq by the end of 2011—unless the new Iraqi government renegotiates its defense agreements with Washington. The process should work to reinforce Turkey’s ties with the United States otherwise strained over Iran, Israel, and other issues since Ankara and Washington will need to cooperate to make this work.
Turkish and U.S. officials share the objective of establishing a strong Iraqi government capable of ensuring domestic stability following the American military withdrawal. A particular concern will be preventing the PKK from exploiting the withdrawal to reestablish a base of operations in Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkish military incursions into northern Iraq to combat the PKK would present Washington with the difficult dilemma of having to choose between its longstanding if strained bilateral military alliance with Ankara and its new if inchoate strategic partnership with Baghdad. The Pentagon should avoid a possible confrontation by requesting the right to withdraw military equipment from Iraq via Turkish territory.
Turkey’s continued contribution to Afghanistan should also help sustain its relations with NATO. The Alliance has committed to maintain a combat presence in Afghanistan at least through 2014—and a security role beyond that. About 1,700 Turkish troops continue to serve as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF) and Ankara has agreed to extend its leadership of the Kabul regional command for at least another year. Turkey’s training of the Afghan army, along with its regional diplomatic initiatives aimed at reconciling Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as its economic reconstruction projects, are essential to promoting political stability and Afghanistan’s post-conflict reconstruction. More so than Pakistan, which is widely distrusted by Afghans as an active and manipulative party to the dispute, the Turkish government is well-situated to mediate any peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban insurgents.
Missile defense could again become a divisive issue. NATO averted a crisis with Turkey at last month’s Lisbon summit by not naming Iran, Syria, or any other of Turkey’s neighbors as a target of the shield. And Washington was careful not to press Ankara to agree to host a missile defense system, instead simply urging Turkey not to block a NATO decision to make missile defense a core alliance mission. But the decisions over what systems to deploy where and when will need to be made in 2011. And Turkey’s willingness to host an early warning radar at least will be seen by some groups—such as the newly elected conservatives in the U.S. Congress—as a measure of its commitment to allied security. Conversely, a Turkish decision to buy its own national air-and-missile defense system from Russia rather than a NATO country could complicate the allies’ ability to integrate Turkey into the Alliance’s emerging missile defense architecture unless, against expectations, NATO and Russia can agree on a joint system for the Northern Hemisphere.
Even setting aside its frustrated membership ambitions, Turkey’s security relationship with the EU remains even more problematic than its ties with NATO. The most immediate problem is the paralyzing effects of the Turkey-Cyprus dispute on institutional cooperation between NATO and the EU. Turkey is a member of NATO but not the EU, whereas Cyprus belongs to the EU but not NATO. The two countries have used the consensus rules of each organization to prevent its cooperating with the other on important security issues. These mutual antagonisms have constrained NATO-EU cooperation in general, and disrupted the joint NATO-EU security missions in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and in the Gulf of Aden in particular. Perhaps the efforts of the United States and the NATO Secretary General to encourage Cyprus to permit greater cooperation between Turkey and the European Defense Agency will help generate new momentum in this relationship.
CONCLUSIONS: Afghanistan, Iran, and missile defense appear to be swing issues in Turkey’s relationship with the West. Successful cooperation in these sectors could help restore Ankara’s frayed ties with Western governments, but continued divergence could serve as a new source of tension if Western policy makers believe that the Turkish government is unwilling to contribute to achieving shared security interests. From Ankara’s perspective, how well Western governments respect Turkey’s economic and security interests regarding Iran will be seen as a sign as to how well they value ties with Turkey. If Turkey is not soon offered EU membership, then it should receive at least as much influence in EU security decision-making structures as Ankara had previously enjoyed as an associate member of the now defunct Western European Union.
The Turkey-China and Turkey-Russia relationships look set to become more important in coming years due to these three states’ status as the most important countries dissatisfied with some dimensions of the current global order. Turkish officials have discussed launching new initiatives to enhance Ankara’s influence in Central Asia, re-launching an effort that failed in the 1990s when Turkey was much weaker and Moscow was more suspicious of Ankara’s regional ambitions. In fact, Turkey’s New Year’s resolution might be to deepen its affiliation with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which would allow Ankara another means to cultivate ties with China, Russia, and energy-rich Central Asia.
Richard Weitz, Ph.D., Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Political-Military Analysis, Hudson Institute.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".