Turkey’s misgivings about NATO plans to build ballistic missile interceptor system are clouding relations between Ankara and its Western allies.
The shield, a reworking of the Star Wars program developed during the Reagan era in the United States, has been described by its chief proponent, the United States, as a means to thwart potential missile strikes carried out by 'rogue' states. It would cover North America, Europe and Israel.
Turkish concerns about the plan center on the way its NATO partners are explicitly describing the shield with Iran in mind. The United States and Iran have long been at odds over Tehran’s nuclear program. Ankara is no more eager than is Washington to see its neighbor and rival for regional hegemony build nuclear weapons. But recent years have seen a vast improvement in both trade and political relations among Tehran, Ankara and other countries in the Middle East. Turkey does not want to put those improving ties at risk by being seen as taking NATO’s side.
It remains unclear whether Turkey is expected to play an active role in the shield scheme. Speaking in Washington on October 17, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates dismissed media speculation that Turkey was being asked to host early warning radar systems.
Even with no active role, Ankara could play the role of spoiler. NATO decisions are adopted by unanimous vote, and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has signaled that he wants a decision by November 19, when Alliance heads of state meet in Lisbon.
Hakan Albayrak, a columnist for the pro-government daily Yeni Safak, said that a cornerstone of the Turkish leadership’s foreign policy is diplomatic independence in Middle Eastern affairs. He added that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears unwilling to sacrifice that room for maneuver in exchange for the missile-defense umbrella. "Sacrificing the Iranian friendship to NATO," he said, "would mean an end to the independent foreign policy Turkey has followed in recent years, and the respect that that has earned it in the Islamic world."
Turkish ambivalence about Iran came to a head this June, when it was the only NATO member to vote against stiffer United Nations sanctions.
The Turkish veto stoked anti-Turkish feeling in the US Congress. Displeasure with Ankara has been growing since Turkey's relations with Israel took a dive in late 2008, and came close to collapse when Israeli soldiers killed eight Turkish civilians in international waters last May.
With mid-term congressional elections due in the United States on November 2, Turkish fence-sitting on the NATO scheme risks exacerbating bilateral tension, senior administration figures have warned.
Kadri Gursel, a foreign policy analyst with Milliyet, a secular daily staunchly critical of the Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), said Ankara and Washington have genuinely different perspectives on several key foreign policy points. He added that reducing those differences to the AKP's "Islamic foreign policy" is simplistic. "If a secular government had been in power today, Turkey would have been just as unwilling to have anti-missile radar on its territory," he maintained.
For Gursel, the real source of the "centrifugal effect" on Turkey's relations with the West was the end of the Cold War.
At a press conference he gave in Brussels in mid-October, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made a similar point. "We do not want international conditions which would lead to Cold War-style polarization to develop," he said. "We do not want Turkey to be seen, as it was during the Cold War, as ... a front-line country."
"We do not have a perception of threat from any of our neighbors, and we are not of the opinion that our neighbors constitute a threat to NATO," Davutoglu continued.
The timing of Davutoglu's comments was telling. He was speaking on the sidelines of a meeting of foreign ministers aimed at preparing the agenda for the November 19 NATO summit. The gathering is expected to map the Alliance’s strategy for the coming decade.
Perhaps more than the anti-missile shield, it is this new Strategic Concept that worries the Turkish government.
In a set of strategic recommendations published this May, NATO experts headed by former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright stated that "defending against the threat of a possible ballistic missile attack from Iran has given birth to what has become, for NATO, an essential military mission."
Permitted to join NATO in 1952 after two rebuffs, Turkey played a frontline role in the Cold War, noted Bulent Aliriza, head of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Since the end of the Cold War, everybody has been fudging the fact that the common threat holding the Alliance together - the Soviet Union - had disappeared," Aliriza says. "Today's reorganization brings into question the nature of the Alliance."
Following Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul mid-October statement that he welcomed the missile system as long as it was developed "within the NATO context" and designed to counter "the full range of ballistic missile threats," most Turkish analysts believe that careful wording should be enough to bring Ankara onside by November 19.
But Aliriza hinted that existing differences between Turkey and its NATO allies, especially the United States, cannot be papered over forever, and at some point in the not too distant future, honest and difficult discussions need to take place. "Turkey has century-long links with Europe and the Middle East," he said. "With the United States it has nothing but a cold-eyed relationship. The time has come for both countries to sit down seriously and talk about what it is that they agree on."
Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.