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Turkey in a Tight Spot on Missile Defense, CU Issue 82, November 11, 2010

There are just a few days to go until the NATO Summit in Lisbon. Amongst the many challenges facing the Alliance are the fallout from the war in Afghanistan; building a better relationship with a recalcitrant Russia; and agreeing a plan for a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system. 

From Ankara’s perspective, NATO’s plan for a joint missile shield is by far the most contentious item on the agenda. Turkish fears that the shield will be directed against Iran (Turkey’s neighbor and one of its key economic partners) have laid bare much deeper questions over the country’s continuing commitment to NATO, and – more profoundly – whether its future lies east or west.

The BMD scheme represents the evolution of George W Bush’s plan to deploy interceptors and radar systems in Eastern Europe. Ostensibly designed to prevent an Iranian nuclear attack on Europe, the choice of Poland and the Czech Republic as basing sites suggested that Russia was the target, provoking a furious reaction in Moscow.

As part of his reset of relations with the Kremlin, President Barack Obama put a more multilateral face on the project by rebranding it as a NATO initiative based further south, in the Aegean and potentially on Turkish soil (Guardian, April 18). To an extent this was to mollify Moscow, but also to satisfy Ankara. Turkish officials have stated that they are not opposed to missile defense per se, but have insisted that it is defensive, does not target Iran, and is under NATO and not American auspices (Today’s Zaman, October 27).

Having got what it wanted, Turkey is now seeking a higher price for its involvement. In late October Israeli media reported that Ankara had conditioned its involvement in the BMD shield “on a guarantee that no information collected by the system be transferred to Israel” (Haaretz, October 26).

Given the dire state of Ankara-Tel Aviv relations, this is plausible. It would certainly help to dampen domestic opposition in Turkey, and would also go a little way (only a little) towards reassuring Tehran. But it does not get Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan out of his tight spot.

To consent to a missile defense shield based in Turkish territory would be a blow to Mr. Erdogan’s growing stature in the Muslim world and severely damage ties with Iran. To veto it would be a critical blow in Turkey’s relationship with NATO and the West.

Both views have been aired with undiplomatic candor. Senior Western officials have apparently told Ankara “that missile-defense is an acid test of its commitment to the collective security arrangements it has with its western allies” (Telegraph, October 29). Mr Erdogan, for his part, said to French President Nicolas Sarkozy: “My advice to those who want to locate the missile shield system to my own country: Let them locate it on your own territory first” (Today’s Zaman, November 3). In an attempt to allow Turkey to save face, NATO has begun avoiding any mention of Iran when discussing missile defense plans (New York Times, November 2). But no-one is under any illusions.

Ankara’s unwillingness to antagonize Tehran stems partly from their deepening economic relationship. Turkey’s booming economy needs new markets, and it needs gas. Iran has plenty. But the relationship goes much deeper than the pragmatism of pipelines; it also involves Turkey’s re-emerging desire to be a leading state in the Muslim world.

Turkey’s attitude towards its eastern neighbor is therefore a litmus test of its stance towards the wider Middle East. Turkish support for a missile shield would undermine its explicitly non-confrontational foreign policy, which Ankara maintains even though it agrees with its western allies that an Iranian nuclear capability is undesirable.

The difference is one of threat perception. NATO’s primary concern is the risk to the Alliance’s own territory. The defense shield is, after all, intended to protect European territory, not the wider Middle East.

Turkey, on the other hand, opposes an Iranian nuclear weapon for the same reasons it opposes Israel’s– they are regionally destabilising and threaten a new wave of nuclear-armed powers. But it does not see the threat of an Iranian nuclear strike against Istanbul as realistic enough to warrant a provocative missile shield on Turkish territory.

As if to demonstrate this point, on November 2 details of Turkey’s new national security white paper were leaked. The paper removes all Turkey’s neighbors –including Iran, Russia and Syria – from the list of potential threats, neatly fulfilling the government’s “zero problems with neighbors” mantra (Defense News, November 2). If Iran is not a threat, then Turkey has no reason to support measures targeted at it. 

Given these factors, we are likely to see Turkish opposition to a missile defense shield in Lisbon. This is despite concessions which other NATO states are almost certain to make: avoiding overt discussion of Iran as the target; limiting information-sharing with Israel; and – critically – accepting that none or few of the shield’s components will be based on Turkish territory.

However the idea of a diplomatic ‘grand bargain’ proposed by some commentators, in which Turkey accedes in exchange for progress and US backing on its long EU accession process, is simplistic (Hurriyet, October 18). France and Germany would rather live without missile defense and deny Turkey’s EU aspirations. US bargaining power is limited in Brussels, which justifiably asks what right Washington has to declare who should join the EU (Economist, June 17).

Claims of Turkey ‘turning East’ or being forced to choose are somewhat overblown (Caucasus Update, November 2 2009). Nonetheless there are occasions when binary choices occur. One way will anger NATO, another will anger Iran. This is clearly one of them. And for all Ankara’s misgivings about Iran’s nuclear aspirations, this time it is likely to risk alienating its allies, rather than its neighbors.



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PREVIOUS ISSUES

  Caspian Compromise Backfires for Russia and Iran, CU Issue 83, November 24, 2010
  Turkey in a Tight Spot on Missile Defense, CU Issue 82, November 11, 2010
  The OSCE and Kyrgyzstan’s Election, CU Issue 81, October 30, 2010
  Unblocking the US-Azerbaijan Relationship, CU Issue 80, October 07, 2010
  Nabucco Pipeline: Quo Vadis?, CU Issue 79, September 30, 2010
  Russia tightens its grip in the South Caucasus, CU Issue 78, August 23, 2010
  Armenian Politics: Rigidity Versus Flexibility, CU Issue 77, August 10, 2010
  Russia and Georgia: Ready To Talk?, CU Issue 76, July 21, 2010
  Can the US walk and chew gum at the same time?, CU Issue 75, July 9, 2010
  The Kyrgyzstan Crisis – A Qualified Success for Turkish Diplomacy?, CU Issue 74, June 24, 2010
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  Joe Biden and European Security, CU Issue 71, May 13, 2010
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