By James M. Dorsey
A proposed $280 million NATO missile defense system upgrade is straining relations between the United States and Turkey in the run-up to this week’s NATO summit in Lisbon. Turkish officials say they will only agree to having radar components of the system on Turkish soil if NATO abstains from identifying any potential target of the system and promises not to share intelligence with non-NATO members.
The Turkish demands reflect a mounting divergence in US and Turkish foreign policy with Turkey no longer signing up to Western policies simply to align itself with the West but instead making cost-benefit analysis a key element of its decision-making. As a result, Turkey is demanding a quid-pro-quid for its accommodation of the proposed missile defense shield upgrade that threatens to put it between a rock and a hard place.
If Turkey rejects the upgrade, it risks angering its US and NATO allies; if it joins the shield, it would upset Iran, a neighbor and major energy supplier, and could complicate its relations with Russia, which opposed the upgrade when it was first proposed by US President George W. Bush. "We do not perceive any threat from any neighbor countries and we do not think our neighbors form a threat to Nato," says Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
The Turkish demand that NATO refrain from identifying the system’s target strikes at declared US policy: a White House fact sheet recently described Iran as the threat the proposed shield would be designed to counter. Turkey opposes Iran becoming a nuclear power but advocates continued engagement in the hope to expand its trade with Iran to $30 billion a year over the next five years. The US Treasury’s point man on Iran sanctions, Stuart Levy, last month failed to convince his Turkish counterparts to go further than the largely symbolic United Nations sanctions, which Turkey opposed, and endorse the much stricter US sanctions regime.
Turkey, concerned that any US or Israeli military effort to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program would further destabilize the Middle East, moreover wants assurances that any intelligence garnered from radars on its territory will not be shared with Israel. Turkish officials refused to confirm or deny reports that the Turkish Security Council last month approved changes in its national security document, called the "Red Book," removing Iran and Syria and adding Israel to the list of countries that pose a "major threat."
Turkey fears that allowing the radar to be based in Turkey will raise Iranian suspicions that it would be associated with a potential US or Israeli strike against the Islamic republic. The United States wants to base the radars in Turkey after US President Barak Obama promised Russia in September of last year that it would seek to accommodate Russian objections against basing them in Poland and the Czech Republic. Turkey’s position on the defense shield is influenced by the fact that its past accommodation of US and European interests has not pushed forward as Turkish leaders had hoped its efforts to join the European Union.
The quid-pro-quid Turkey is seeking for possible accommodation of NATO is US pressure on France and Germany to reverse policies that are preventing progress in negotiations for Turkish European Union membership. The US has signaled its willingness to accommodate the Turks by putting high on the agenda of a US-EU summit scheduled immediately after the NATO gathering Turkish EU membership. In expectation of a NATO compromise, Turkish officials say they have begun technical studies on the radars in preparation for possible deployment. The studies are in part designed to reduce tension between the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the armed forces, which view Iran’s nuclear program as a threat and favor deployment of the NATO missile shield.
While most analysts and officials believe that Turkey is genuinely seeking to balance its long-standing commitment to Western interests with the impact of paradigm change since the end of the Cold War, some analysts caution that a failure to take Turkish interests into account could provoke a rupture with Turkey feeling forced to choose between the West and Iran.
Mitigating against a rupture is the fact that Europe may have a renewed interest in embracing Turkey because of the United States’ perceived preoccupation with security risks posed by the Middle East and China at the expense of its past focus on Europe. Calls in Europe for a new European security architecture that would put a greater emphasis on the role of Turkey as well as Russia are gaining momentum. A recently published European Council on Relations report entitled "The spectre of a multipolar Europe" argues that Obama’s failure to participate in ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall was the latest sign that the US is no longer focused on Europe’s internal security. “Washington has its hands full dealing with Afghanistan, Iran and China and is no longer a European power,” the report concluded.
To fill the void, the report calls for an informal dialogue that would allow the EU, Turkey and Russia to build a new European security architecture from the ground up. This would require blowing new life into Turkey’s EU accession negotiations by expanding them to include common security and defense policies as well as energy. “The post-Cold War order is unraveling. Rather than uniting under a single system, Europe’s big powers are moving apart. Tensions between them have made security systems dysfunctional: they failed to prevent war in Kosovo and Georgia, instability in Kyrgyzstan, disruption to Europe’s gas supplies, and solve frozen conflicts… The EU has spent much of the last decade defending a European order that no longer functions. Russia and Turkey may complain more, but the EU has the most to lose from the current peaceful disorder,” the report says.