Caught in the fray: Turkey enters debate on Iran's nuclear program

As the IAEA meets Thursday to discuss referring Iran to the UN Security Council, Turkey deliberates its own stance.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Blanketed in deep snow and shivering through subzero temperatures for most of the past two weeks, Turkey recently had to contend with yet another piece of chilling news. Supplies of natural gas from Iran, used for heating homes and powering factories, were unexpectedly cut by almost 80 percent.

The Iranians, who supply close to a fifth of Turkey's natural-gas supply, blamed the shortfall on technical problems and increased demand at home.

But some Turkish analysts, noting Iran's ability to offer emergency gas supplies to Georgia during the same period, suggested another reason: By choking off the gas stream, Iran was sending a not-so-subtle message to its neighbor to stay out of any Western efforts to rein in its disputed nuclear program.

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The timing would make sense. After staying on the sidelines of the international debate over Iran's nuclear efforts, Turkey has recently entered the fray.

During a mid-January press conference, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on Iran to adopt a more "moderate and amenable" approach in the diplomatic 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, echoing Western concerns.

CIA, FBI, and Condi Rice visit Ankara

US and European efforts to rein in Iran's nuclear program received a boost Monday, when Russia and China agreed to a resolution asking the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to refer Iran to the UN Security Council for sanctions at an emergency meeting in Vienna Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Turkish capital has been a revolving door of diplomatic traffic in recent months, with visits to Ankara from CIA chief Porter Goss and FBI head Robert Mueller, as well as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli chief of staff Dan Halutz. According to reports in European and Turkish papers, one of the main reasons for the visits was to discuss Turkey's role in containing Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"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 to Turkey," says Ian Lesser, a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington specializing in Mediterranean security issues.

"There is much more of a debate in Turkey now then there had been because it's not a theoretical issue anymore."

Shared border and $4 billion in trade

Turkey and Iran share a 310-mile border, and both Turkish and Iranian diplomats like to point out that the two Muslim neighbors have been at peace for centuries.

But Turkish analysts say that peace 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 nonproliferation issues at Bilkent University in Ankara.

The increasing international pressure on Iran comes at a time when the Turkish government, led by the moderately Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), has been working hard to improve relations with its neighbors, especially Iran. The past few years have seen bilateral trade between Turkey and Iran grow dramatically, shooting up from $1 billion in 2000 to $4 billion in 2005.

The government's approach, says Mr. Kibaroglu, has led to a division among Turkish policymakers about how to proceed on the Iran question. "I don't think the 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 compared to the politicians who run the country."

US pressure versus regional security

For now, analysts say, the split revolves around how aggressively Turkey should involve itself in diplomatic efforts to contain Iran's nuclear program.

Both the government and the military currently oppose any sort of military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, fearing that would dangerously inflame the region, analysts say.

Turkish officials say they are putting their country's position on the issue in line with the European Union, urging the use of diplomatic means to resolve the crisis and offering Turkey's services as a mediator between Iran and the West.

But some in Turkey are expressing concern that should there be a push for a military attack against Iran - particularly from the United States - Turkey might again find itself in a position similar to that before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when it was forced to choose between its regional security concerns and increasing alignment with the EU's soft-diplomacy approach, and US demands for facilitating military action.

"There is an understanding between the US 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] Ahmadinejad is becoming a dangerous leader with his very provocative and aggressive statements," says political analyst and columnist Sami Kohen in Istanbul.

"As far as all that is concerned, there is common ground. But the question is how do you deal with the problems, and that's where the differences are."

But the Wilson Center's Lesser says both Turkey and the US have learned the lessons of the events preceding the Iraqi invasion, which led to severe strains between Turkey and the US after the Turkish parliament refused to allow the American military to use Turkish soil for its operations.

"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 says.

"I think there is a lot of caution on both sides right now."

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