Speculation is building in Turkey over whether Ankara will play a part in a revamped US missile-defense network, one designed mainly to contain Iran. Conjecture is being fueled by two recent developments: the Obama administration's decision to scrap the construction of an anti-missile shield in Central Europe, and Turkey's own announcement that it intends to purchase its first missile-defense system.
Although it's not clear if Ankara's plan to buy a missile defense system is being coordinated with the United States, experts say the purchase is an indication that -- despite its warming relations between Turkey and Iran, and Turkish officials' promotion of a diplomatic solution to the question of Iran's nuclear program -- Turkey is not taking any chances regarding its neighbor's intentions. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"There is an unstated rivalry [between Turkey and Iran]. They are two powerful states in the region and each one has its own strategy and Turkey now has one of playing an active role in the region," says Sami Kohen, a columnist with the daily Milliyet and a veteran observer of Turkish foreign policy.
"Turkey thinks that there are a lot of common interests with Iran. There are improving trade, economic, and energy ties. There has been a period of normalization, which has now been followed by a period of closer ties," Kohen continued. "Nevertheless, people in responsible positions who want to see Turkey grow as a key regional player believe there is a rivalry with Iran."
If it wants to play the part of regional power-broker, added Kohen, "Turkey can't lag [militarily] behind other countries in the neighborhood - Iran on the one hand and Greece on the other."
Relations between Turkey and Iran have improved dramatically in recent years, particularly since the governing moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) gained power in 2002. Party leaders have tried to uphold a pledge to pursue a regional foreign policy of "zero problems" with its neighbors.
Turkish-Iranian trade hit $10 billion in 2008, compared to $1 billion in 2000. Iran also supplies close to a third of Turkey's gas supply. Turkish officials, meanwhile, were among the first and only to congratulate Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad after his controversial reelection in June. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
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 at peace for centuries. Speaking on Turkish television on September 18, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu rejected the idea that Turkey's plan to spend close to $1 billion on a missile defense system -- either American-made Patriots, or systems from Russia or China -- is aimed at Iran.
"It is wrong to draw links between the Patriot and Iran," he told CNN Turk. "We neither have a perception of threat from any of the neighboring countries, nor have any military or security related preparation against them."
But Turkish analysts say that the peace that Ankara and Tehran have maintained for so long is based on a delicate balance of military power between the two countries, one that would be fundamentally disturbed if Iran were to acquire 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 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," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said back in 2006.
Although Turkish officials to date have kept their distance from American plans to introduce a more fluid European-based missile defense plan, experts say Ankara could benefit by being involved. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Even though the Obama administration has abandoned plans to place an anti-missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic, US officials have made it clear that they intend to deploy such a system elsewhere, in a location better able to cope with the rapidly escalating Iranian threat. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"The whole plan is going on, but in a different version, and it gets more interesting now with countries like Turkey ? possibly [getting] involved. It seems like the scope of the system is being increased," said Lt Col Marcel de Haas, a senior researcher at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations.
"The question is if [placing Patriot missiles in Turkey is] going to be part of a theater missile defense?" he adds.
"If that is the case for Turkey -- in this whole expanded scheme of missile defense -- it is quite interesting. I say it strengthens the Turkish position in NATO, and you can also consider it part of European defense, which could possibly bring Turkey closer to the European Union."
"Poland's loss may be Turkey's and America's gain: Turkey is the only NATO country that borders Iran, and US-Turkish cooperation on Tehran is key to Washington's success in tackling Iran's nuclearization," Washington-based analyst Soner Cagaptay recently wrote in an online forum hosted by the New York Times.
Milliyet's Kohen believes that, for now, Turkey is pursuing its own course regarding missile defense. "There is no linkage between this [the anti-missile system purchase] and the US shield project. This hasn't been discussed yet," he said.
Still, the announcement of the plan to possibly buy the Patriot system is stoking an intensifying debate in Turkey, with some pundits coming out as steadfastly against such a course of action.
"Are we taking defense against Iran's missiles? Against which other countries do we need to build such a system?" columnist Mehmet Ali Birand recently wrote in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News. "What happened to our successful zero-problem politics with our neighbors? I thought we were supporting Iran and resisting a brisk reaction from the United States against Iran's nuclear arms program. As you see, our minds are mighty confused."
Speaking to Today's Zaman, another English-language daily, Ihsan Dagi, a professor of international relations at Ankara's Middle East Technical University said purchasing a missile defense system would be "inflammatory" and would set back Turkey's efforts to establish itself as a regional peacemaker.
"If it ever happens, Turkey's efforts to help Iran integrate into the region will be undermined," Dagi said.
Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.