Iraq has been the site of one of the great turnarounds in Turkish foreign policy. On the one hand, in the north, Ankara has gone from having dreadful relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government -- it was not that long ago that Turkish government officials refrained from even using the word "Kurdistan" -- to working closely on a host of political and economic issues with the Kurdish-led government there. On the other hand, Ankara's relations with Baghdad have taken a nosedive over the last few years, with the Turkish and Iraqi governments failing to see eye-to-eye on a score of issues.
These simultaneous changes are, of course, not isolated from each other. One of the issues driving a wedge between Turkey and Iraq is the question of Ankara's energy ties with the KRG and whether the Iraqi Kurds can bypass the central government in Baghdad and sign independent energy deals with the Turks. The issue may get even more complicated if a recent report by Bloomberg, which claims Ankara and the Iraqi Kurds have signed a secret deal to send northern Iraqi oil and gas to Turkey, is true. From Bloomberg's report:
Iraq’s Kurdish region has signed a landmark agreement with Turkey to supply it directly with oil and gas, two people familiar with the matter said.
The accord was signed last month when Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Iraqi Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani in Ankara, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the plans are private. Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz, contacted via his press office, declined to comment, as did an Iraqi Kurdish official. The Oil Ministry in Baghdad didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Last week's visit to Turkey by Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras certainly hit all the right positive notes. Dozens of bilateral agreements were signed by the two countries and Samaras and his Turkish counterpart both vowed to increase trade between Turkey and Greece and to work together to solve the Cyprus problem.
The two once-bickering neighbors have certainly come a long way from decades past, when a visit like Samaras's to Turkey -- now something fairly routine -- would have been hailed as a major breakthrough. That said, it appears that some trouble might be in store for Turkey-Greece relations, particularly regarding the issue of Athens' desire to lay claim to a vast amount of potentially oil- and gas-rich maritime territory in the eastern Mediterranean. From a recent Wall Street Journal report that came out only days after Samaras left Turkey:
Greece has renewed its territorial claims over a broad swath of disputed waters in the eastern Mediterranean where the indebted country hopes to find vast oil and gas deposits—a plan that risks sparking a confrontation with Turkey.
Over the past several weeks, senior government officials have made a series of public statements—both at home and abroad—pointing to an almost two-decade-old international treaty granting those rights, one Greece hasn't asserted until now. Athens also has been building support in other European capitals and stepping up a diplomatic campaign at the United Nations….
Russian President Vladimir Putin came to Turkey this week -- after suddenly canceling a visit that was supposed to take place in October -- and there was a certain element of suspense to the trip. Although Russia is Turkey's top trading partner and the two countries have also been deepening their political ties in recent years, Ankara and Moscow have not seen eye-to-eye on some key regional issues -- the fate of Syria and the Assad regime, in particular -- and the question was whether these tensions would surface during Putin's visit.
In the end, there was little drama. As The Economist writes of the Russian leader's visit, the two countries have decided to let "cool pragmatism" rule their relations:
“The level of economic and political relations is such that neither Turkey can forgo Russia, nor Russia Turkey…the future of Assad is nothing,” argued Mehmet Ali Birand, a veteran commentator.
Turkey's already strained relations with Iraq continue to worsen, with the two countries now engaged in open disputes over several issues, with little hope for reconciliation in sight.
The main bone of contention between the two neighbors is the fate of fugitive Iraqi Vice President Tareq Al Hashemi. Recently sentenced to death by a Baghdad court on charges that he ran death squads, the Sunni politician is currently living in self-imposed exile in Turkey. After the verdict was announced, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Hashemi is safe in Turkey. "I'll say it very clearly. We will be willing to host Mr. Hashemi as long as he wants, and we will not hand him over," Erdogan said in Ankara the other day.
It didn't take long for the Shiite-led government in Baghdad to respond, announcing Thursday that it has stopped registering new Turkish companies that want to do business in Iraq for, ahem, "regulatory and statistics" purposes. The move is not a minor one, considering that Iraq has become Turkey's second largest export market, with Iraqis buying some $8 billion worth of Turkish goods in 2011, up from $2.8 billion in 2007. (In response, Ankara summoned the Iraqi ambassador to Turkey to explain his government's move.)
Ankara's already strained relations with Baghdad have taken yet another turn for the worse thanks to a recent deal signed between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq to export oil and gas from that region to Turkey. Reports the Associated Press:
The agreement envisions the Kurdish region exporting not only oil but natural gas through a web of pipelines through Turkish territory to the international market.
"Exporting oil from the Kurdistan region to Turkey is illegal and illegitimate," Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement. "The oil and gas are the property of all Iraqis and those exports and revenues must be managed by the federal government which represents all Iraqis," al-Dabbagh added.
He accused Ankara of "participating in the smuggling of Iraqi oil ... and this issue will affect the relations between the two countries, especially the economic ones."
As previously reported on this blog, the discovery of what could be very large reserves of natural gas off the coast of Cyprus has led to increasing tension between the Greek Cypriots, who would like to reap the benefits of these finds, and Turkey, which says Cyprus cannot take advantage of its good luck until negotiations with the Turkish Cypriots over the divided island's status are resolved. The fact that the Cypriot find abuts a large gas field discovered by Israel, whose relations with Turkey have worsened dramatically in recent years, and that the energy company drilling in the Cypriot waters is American- and Israeli-owned, only complicates the picture.
Considering the potential for conflict surrounding the gas issue and inability of the Greek and Turkish Cypriots to make any progress in their reunification talks, the International Crisis Group has released a new report that suggests ways to prevent things from spiraling out of control. From the ICG's report:
A paradigm shift is needed. The gas can drive the communities further apart and increase discords, or it can provide an opportunity for officials from all sides, including Turkey, to sit down and reach agreements on the exploitation and transportation of this new find....
....Cooperation on the exploitation of significant gas finds, which Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders agree are a common heritage, can help build confidence without prejudicing the eventual outcome of comprehensive talks. If the sides continue engaging in unilateral actions, tensions will rise, accidents will become more likely, and Turks and Greek Cypriots will be on course for a head-on collision in the eastern Mediterranean.
After being grounded for several months following an unspecified digestive tract illness and subsequent surgery, the normally on-the-go Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was back in action this week, with a trip that took him first to South Korea and then Iran. In both cases, the question of nuclear power -- that of Turkey and of others -- was high on the agenda.
While other issues, namely Syria, are on Erdogan's plate during his visit today to Tehran, the question of Iran's controversial nuclear program will clearly dominate his talks with the Iranians (among others, the Turkish PM is meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani). In the past, Erdogan had been accused of being too quick to defend the Iranians and the intentions of their nuclear activity, but there was some indication that time around he was coming to Tehran with a sterner message. Initial reports out of Iran, though, found Erdogan voicing support for a "peaceful" Iranian nuclear program. “No one has the right to impose anything on anyone with regards to nuclear energy, provided that it is for peaceful purposes,” Erdogan said during a press conference with Iranian First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi.
Ankara ended 2011 with a pair of big -- and seemingly contradictory -- gas pipeline deals that are almost certain to alter the regional energy picture but that have also raised some interesting questions about the goals of Turkey's energy policy.
The first deal was a memorandum of understanding signed with Azerbaijan on December 26 to build a pipeline that would take Azeri gas across Turkey. Called the Trans-Anatolia Gas Pipeline, the project is scheduled to be finished in 2017 and would initially carry 16 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas, to be expanded to 24 bcm. (For more background on the project, take a look at this previous post and at this Jamestown Foundation analysis.)
With its guarantee of a steady supply of gas flowing westward, the Turkish-Azeri deal was hailed by many as the first tangible step towards finally creating a "southern corridor" for the delivery to Europe of non-Russian gas. But, with the ink barely dry on that agreement, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller on Dec. 30 announced that Ankara had given Moscow the green light to go ahead and build South Stream, designed to take some 63 bcm of Russian gas to Europe, through Turkey's Black Sea territorial waters. As Putin put it, Ankara had just given Moscow a "wonderful Christmas gift."
In a recent post, I took a look at the interesting story behind the presence of NATO nuclear bombs at Turkey's Incirlik airbase and how they fit into Ankara's strategic and security calculations. Those interested in diving deeper into the question of Turkey's nuclear policy might want to take a look at a new report released today by the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), an Istanbul-based think tank. The takes a comprehensive look at Turkey's nuclear policy, from its current plans to start producing nuclear energy to its position on regional non-proliferation.
From the paper's executive summary of Turkey's non proliferation and nuclear diplomacy policies:
History has shown that states willing to commit resources and time can overcome the technical obstacles and successfully develop first generation nuclear weapons. However, most nuclear-capable states have chosen to remain non-nuclear. The decision to pursue nuclear weapons is rooted in technical capability combined with decision maker intent. At the moment, policy makers worry that an Iranian nuclear weapon will force its neighbors to explore the nuclear option. The oft-repeated argument claims that an Iranian nuclear weapon will lead to a regional arms race. Turkey, along with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are the countries most often cited as the countries most likely to develop indigenous nuclear capabilities to counter Iran.
That high drama production known as Turkey-Azerbaijan relations has delivered a new plot twist, with the recent signing of a deal that allows for the transit of Azeri gas across Turkish soil and into Europe, making it the first tangible step towards creating a southern corridor for the delivery to Europe of non-Russian gas.
Ankara and Baku like to boast of their "brotherly relations" but their ties have frequently been strained over the last few years. As we learned from Wikileaks, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev has less than brotherly feelings towards Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And when Turkey signed a 2009 deal with Armenia to restore relations, Azerbaijan quickly reacted by taking down Turkish flags in Baku and hinting that other actions could be in store if the deal goes through (which it didn't).
The tension between the two countries was only exacerbated by the tough negotiations that they were conducting over the terms of the transit of Azeri gas over Turkish soil. So it came as something of a surprise that Ankara and Baku, with little fanfare, inked a deal on October 25 that provides for Azeri gas to transit into Europe through Turkey. From RFE/RL's report on the deal: