Since coming to power in July, Turkey's first Islamist-led government in modern history has caused alarm in the U.S. by thumbing its nose at Washington. First, the new Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, visited Iran, where he inked a $20 billion deal to import natural gas. Then, the government refused to let the U.S. use Incirlik air base in southern Turkey for strikes against Iraq. Erbakan earlier had attacked Turkey's military accord with Israel and threatened to withdraw from NATO. No wonder policymakers are worried about an ominous shift by a key ally.
The reality, however, may be more nuanced. Instead of turning his back on NATO, Erbakan, 69, seems to be practicing realpolitik, accommodating the anti-Western views of a vocal Turkish minority while trying not to alienate the U.S. and Europe. It's a delicate balancing act but not one Western countries need fret about, at least for now.
PERFECTLY LEGAL? Despite his rhetoric, Erbakan is quietly maintaining many of Turkey's previous policies. He has renewed its commitment to the U.S.-led effort to protect the Kurds of northern Iraq from Saddam Hussein. He has stopped criticizing the agreement with Israel's air force. And U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry says Turkey will allow the U.S. to use Incirlik, if needed, for future strikes against Iraq.
And the Iranian gas deal, Turkish officials argue, doesn't violate a U.S. law aimed at discouraging investment in Iran, because it involves gas purchases rather than investment. Indeed, the deal was made in 1995 by the secularist government of then Prime Minister Tansu Ciller. "Building better relations with our neighbors is something that Turkey must do for economic and security reasons," says Omer Bolat, secretary-general of the Independent Industrialists' & Businessmen's Assn., a Muslim lobbying group close to Erbakan's Refah Party. "It's not a sign that Turkey is turning away from its Western friends."
Some of Turkey's moves make sense when viewed against the backdrop of its stagnant economy. Turkey has paid a price for isolating Saddam, losing about $25 billion in trade with Iraq since the U.N. embargo began in 1990. It also hoped to supply up to half of the $1.3 billion in humanitarian goods Iraq would have purchased every six months under the U.N.'s oil-for-food deal, but that is now postponed.
While anti-Western fundamentalists make up about one-third of Refah, the anemic economy helps them garner power. Anything Erbakan can do to show voters he's boosting the economy will help keep fundamentalists at bay. For this reason, the U.S. is unlikely to slap sanctions on Turkey for the Iran deal.
Even if Erbakan wanted to sever Western ties, he probably couldn't. Most Turks are secular and pro-Western. Erbakan's party is the largest in Parliament, winning 21.4% of the vote in December's election, "but that doesn't give them the moral or constitutional right to change the country's basic orientation," says Philip Robins, a Middle East expert at St. Antony's College, Oxford. Erbakan also must be wary of the military, which is secularist, and pro-Western. Business leaders, too, would fight moves that threaten access to European and U.S. markets.
For now, Turkey appears committed to keeping religion and government apart. Former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres says the clearest sign that Turkey's foreign policy is on course is that "they didn't cancel the agreement between our two countries." Turkey may be in hot water for playing both sides of the fence. But if the U.S. and Europe too sternly admonish Erbakan's attempt to be regional middleman, they risk pushing him further into the Islamic camp.