Some quick thoughts on Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s visit to Washington this week.
-It is clear that Turkey and the United States have different approaches to Iran’s nuclear program. The United States is still calling for “zero enrichment” and is threatening additional sanctions if Iran does not cede to the P5+1 demands. In contrast, Turkey has maintained that Iran has a right to nuclear power, though it should not develop a nuclear weapon. Prime Minister Erdogan generated headlines and aroused Western criticism when he traveled to Tehran last month and called Iranian President Ahadinejad a “friend.”
During a speech last night sponsored by the Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research (SETA) – the first Turkish think-tank to establish a presence in Washington – the Prime Minister acknowledged that Iran’s nuclear power capability represents a “threat” to the region and the world, but called on all countries to work toward nuclear disarmament. The notion of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East is not a new one, and has been discussed recently by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett.
Western analysts must understand that Turkey does not have a choice between friendly or antagonistic relations with Iran. (Neither does the United States, but that’s another story). Turkey shares a large border with Iran and has a very important and growing energy relationship with the Islamic Republic. Turkey is concerned about Iran’s nuclear program, but cannot support U.S. or P5+1 policies that seek to isolate the regime. They believe that this is a tactical mistake and a risk Turkey cannot afford to take. The Turks believe that more diplomacy can lead to a successful outcome.
-Prime Minister Erdogan said that analysts lamenting Turkey’s “eastward turn” are basing their conclusions on “ill-based rumors.”
The evidence at least partially supports Erdogan’s claim that Turkey is merely reestablishing relations with its neighbors in the Middle East, the Balkans, and the Caucasus with whom it had “unnaturally” distant relations as a result of the Cold War.
At a briefing sponsored by the New America Foundation/Iran Project today, Turkish Foreign Affairs Committee Spokesman Suat Kiniklioglu explained that Turkey’s trade with 11 of its neighbors (including Russia) has risen from $2.76 billion in 2000 to $28 billion in 2007. Clearly economics and unexploited trade opportunities explain at least part of Turkey’s recent activism in the Middle East.
For those unwilling to take the Turkish officials at their word, the International Crisis Group‘s Hugh Pope, a vigorous proponent of Turkey’s European Union aspirations and western orientation, offers an important, objective analysis of Turkey’s engagement with its neighbors that largely supports Erdogan’s and Kinikloglu’s statements. Pope makes a compelling case that suspicions of Turkey’s “neo-Ottoman” turn have been blown out of proportion and concludes that the AKP’s main foreign policy goal is “doing business.”
-Prime Minister Erdogan criticized the European Union for placing “enormous obstacles” in the way of its accession negotiations. This statement refers primarily to the eight accession chapters blocked by the Republic of Cyprus (an EU member) due to the ongoing political conflict between Turks and Greeks on that island, as well as French and German statements that Turkey is not “part of Europe.”
Prime Minister Erdogan is certainly correct that “political prejudice” plays a role in some European countries’ opposition to Turkey’s membership – and he is also right that this is bad for Europe and bad for Turkey. But Turkey will not meet the criteria for EU membership until it further liberalizes its constitution and ensures greater respect for fundamental personal freedoms. Prime Minister Erdogan seemed to acknowledge this point when he joked that if Europe gives up on Turkey, Turkey will turn the Copenhagen Criteria into the Istanbul Criteria. That is, Turkey will continue to reform regardless of how the EU process plays out.
-Chuck Hagel introduced Prime Minister Erdogan last night and said that “no country had been a more indispensable ally to the United States since the end of the second World War than Turkey.”
-Turkey’s desire for respect among members of the international community has been a common theme of official statements this week. Chief Foreign Policy Adviser to the Prime Minister Ibrahim Kalin said at the New America Foundation briefing today that Turkey resented that European countries did not include Turkey in its initial deliberations about sending a peacekeeping force to Lebanon or choosing Anders Fogh Rasmussen (who has made comments questioning whether Turkey belongs in Europe) as the next Secretary General of NATO . Prime Minister Erdogan also mentioned in his speech that he interpreted Israel’s decision to make him wait 35 minutes in a car before entering the Gaza strip as a sign of disrespect.
-Finally, I am disappointed that no major announcement on U.S.-Turkey cooperation was made at the White House. We need a strategic dialogue with Turkey that goes beyond the commercial working group announced yesterday.
— Ben Katcher