The crisis surrounding Iran's nuclear program is forcing Turkey to confront a tangled geopolitical dilemma. While Ankara has no desire to see the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran, Turkish officials at the same time cannot afford to alienate Tehran.
As international diplomatic activity surrounding Iran's nuclear program intensified in recent months, Turkey mostly remained on the sidelines. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Yet, debate on Turkey's role in the Iranian nuclear discussions widened, analysts say. Broader debate is now showing signs of prompting a more active Turkish official stance on the Iranian nuclear issue.
"My sense is that the Turkish strategic community, after some years of wariness, but not deep concern, is now paying attention to the proliferation risks," says Ian Lesser, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. who specializes in Turkey and security issues in the Mediterranean. "There is much more of a debate in Turkey now then there had been because it's not a theoretical issue anymore."
At a mid-January press conference, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged Iran to adopt a more "moderate and amenable" approach in negotiations over its nuclear program. "The continuation of Iran's nuclear program for peaceful ends is a natural right, but it is impossible to support it if it concerns [the development] of weapons of mass destruction," Erdogan said.
Ankara has welcomed in recent weeks a bevy of visiting US officials, including CIA Director Porter Goss, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In addition, Israel's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, was a recent visitor. According to published reports in European and Turkish media, a central aim of all the visits was to help define Turkey's role in containing Iran's nuclear ambitions. Meanwhile, the head of Turkey's National Security Council, Yigit Alpogan, visited Washington in late January, saying that Ankara was "disturbed" by the lack of transparency surrounding Iranian nuclear research.
"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."
Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Namik Tan said a recent briefing that Turkey repeatedly has sent anti-proliferation messages to Iran "at appropriate times." EU officials have welcomed such initiatives. In early February, for example, French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said the EU has "an interest in seeing the Turks give [diplomatic] messages to the Iranians, especially at a time when a firm reaction is necessary."
Turkey also appears to taking action to help restrict Iran's nuclear ambitions. On February 10, the Milliyet daily reported that a joint operation conducted by the CIA and Turkish intelligence led to the confiscation of three large containers of aluminum at the Turkish-Iranian border. Turkish officials evidently suspected the materials, which originated in Italy, could potentially be used by Iranian nuclear researchers.
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."
In considering their policy options, Turkish leaders are keenly aware that Iran has emerged as a major energy supplier to Turkey, currently providing a fifth of the country's natural gas needs. Accordingly, Turkish officials are concerned that Iran might respond to any assertive Turkish move regarding the Tehran's nuclear program by cutting off gas supplies. During a recent cold snap in Turkey, supplies of natural gas from Iran, used for heating homes and powering factories, were unexpectedly reduced by almost 80 percent. Iranian officials blamed the shortfall on technical problems and increased domestic demand. Yet some skeptical Turkish analysts, noting Iran's ability to offer emergency gas supplies to Georgia during the same period, suggested that the reduction constituted a not-so-subtle warning by Iran, telling Turkey not to get deeply involved in action to curb Tehran's nuclear research.
At the same time, Turkish officials, given Turkey's status as an EU aspirant, cannot ignore Brussels. Turkish officials say they are trying to align their country's position on the issue with that held by the EU, favoring a negotiated solution and attempting to carve out a mediator role for Ankara.
Some in Turkey are worried that if negotiations break down for whatever reason, there could be a push -- particularly from the United States for military strikes against Iran. Under such a scenario, Turkey could find itself in a position similar to Ankara's stance prior the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when it was forced to choose between its regional concerns and its developing Euro-centric foreign policy, and US strategic demands. The Turkish parliament's decision not to allow temporary US military bases on Turkish soil caused a freeze in bilateral relations. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. One thing that the Turkish government and the military can agree on is steadfast opposition to any sort of military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. Such opposition is driven by fears that such action would only serve to destabilize the region.
The Wilson Center's Lesser, who specializes in Turkey and security issues in the Mediterranean, says both Ankara and Washington have learned their lessons concerning past geopolitical misunderstandings. "I don't think the United States has any assumptions about the Turkish willingness to facilitate a strike against Iran, especially after the Iraq experience," he said. "I think there is a lot of caution on both sides right now."
Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. Mevlut Katik is a London-based journalist and analyst. He is a former BBC correspondent and also worked for The Economist group.