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Erdogan Rebuffs U.S., Insists Turkey Isn’t Iran Ally

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, in Istanbul. Erdogan may be headed for more tension with the U.S. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, in Istanbul. Erdogan may be headed for more tension with the U.S. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Turkey under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be headed for more tension with the U.S. as it steers an increasingly independent course, enabled by a booming economy that lessens its dependence on the West.

Erdogan says his embrace of nations such as Syria and Iran that the U.S. regards as adversaries doesn’t put him in that camp. Any suggestion that his country has broken with the West is “malicious propaganda,” he told a regional forum last week.

Even so, the U.S. should anticipate increasing “friction” as Turkey seeks to raise its global profile, said Henri Barkey, a member of the State Department’s Middle East policy planning staff from 1998 to 2000.

“We are going to see many more clashes between Turkey and the U.S.,” said Barkey, now a professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. “They are opening embassies everywhere, using trade as a major source of influence, trying to play a role in a whole series of international organizations and alliances.”

That will be a change for a country that has been a formal ally of the U.S. since 1952, when it joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and had established diplomatic relations with Israel three years earlier. Throughout the Cold War and its aftermath, Turkey was a reliable supporter of the U.S. and its allies and in recent years Israel’s strongest partner in the Muslim world.

Iran Sanctions Vote

The most recent sign of Turkey’s drift away from that posture came last week when it voted in the United Nations Security Council against imposing new nuclear sanctions on Iran. That followed Turkey’s recall of its ambassador to Israel after what Erdogan called an Israeli “massacre” of nine Turkish citizens on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla.

Before those latest moves, Turkey invited leaders of Hamas, a group branded as terrorist by the U.S., European Union and Israel, for talks in Ankara; proposed joint energy projects with Iran; and brokered with Brazil a nuclear fuel deal with the Iranians that the U.S. dismissed as a “transparent ploy” to avoid sanctions.

Western Influence

In so doing, Turkey runs the risk of losing influence with its Western allies, said Cengiz Aktar, a professor of international relations at Galatasaray University in Istanbul. This is true even though the policies reflect more a misunderstanding of the Middle East than an ideological shift, he said.

“There have been so many mistakes made in the way Turkey deals with the region,” he said in a phone interview. “It ends up an ally of Hamas and Iran, which is not the ideal position if you want to be a peacemaker.”

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman agreed, writing yesterday that while he once hailed Turkey as “the antidote to ‘Bin Ladenism’” it is now focused under Erdogan “on joining the Hamas-Hezbollah-Iran resistance front against Israel.”

During his first five years as prime minister, Erdogan presided over gross domestic product growth that averaged almost 7 percent per year. Turkey’s GDP increased at an annual rate of 6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009 as the country recovered from the global crisis, lagging behind only China among the Group of 20 nations, and the International Monetary Fund predicts an expansion of 6.25 percent in 2010.

Economic Strength

“Turkey’s economic strength helps it do things that it used to only talk about,” said Gun Kut, professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Bogazici University. “The U.S. and others make geopolitical decisions far away and Turkey is expected to comply even though its interests are harmed.”

U.S. lawmakers have reacted with disapproval to Turkey’s closer relations with Iran. Former presidential candidate John McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona, yesterday cited the “obvious thumb in the eye that Turkey and Brazil orchestrated” in negotiating a nuclear swap accord with Iran.

Republican Representative Mike Pence of Indiana said in a statement he has told Turkey’s ambassador to the U.S., Namik Tan, that “there will be a cost if Turkey stays on its present heading of growing closer to Iran and more antagonistic to the state of Israel.”

Pence said Turkey’s stance on Israel could cause him to reverse his opposition to a resolution that would describe the deaths of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire as genocide. The measure is opposed by Turkey.

Erdogan says the evolution of Turkish policy marks a return to natural ties with Arab neighbors, strained for decades by the legacy of Ottoman imperialism and Turkey’s close security links with the U.S. and Israel.

Public Support

There is no lack of public support at home for his move away from Israel. A poll by Ankara-based Metropoll found that 61 percent of those interviewed thought his reaction to the flotilla raid wasn’t strong enough. The June 3 poll questioned 1,000 people and had an error margin of 3 percent.

Erdogan’s denial of a break with the West came at a regional business forum in Istanbul on June 10, the day after the UN Iran vote, at which he was given a standing ovation by Arab leaders.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, writing in Foreign Policy magazine last month, said NATO and the EU are still the “main fixtures” of Turkish diplomacy, and are “perfectly compatible” with growing involvement in the Middle East.

Egemen Bagis, the minister for EU affairs, said in a June 12 interview that Turkey regularly consults U.S. leaders on Iran and other issues, even if the U.S. may feel “frustrated” with Turkish diplomacy on Iran.

Gas Contracts

Iran has contracted to send Turkey 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas a year, almost one-third of last year’s total consumption, making it the second-biggest supplier after Russia. Syria, along with Iraq and Iran, are viewed as potential markets by regionally ambitious Turkish companies.

Turkish companies expanding outside Europe include Gubre Fabrikalari TAS, an Istanbul-based maker of fertilizer, which bought an Iranian plant for about $600 million in 2008. Its shares have surged more than tenfold in the past four years. Turkiye Is Bankasi AS, the biggest non-state bank, is planning branches in Iraq, and Turkcell Iletisim Hizmetleri AS, the No. 1 mobile phone company, bid for a license in Libya and said it sees growth opportunities in Syria. Both are based in Istanbul.

Divergence from the U.S. on Iran is “not an anti-American move, it’s a pro-Turkey move that happens to benefit Iran,” said Katinka Barysch, an analyst at the Center for European Reform in London.

Turkish Access

Erdogan’s move away from lockstep with the West increases his credibility in the region, which means “we can use Turkey’s access to countries like Syria and perhaps even to Hamas for mediation,” Barysch said.

The change in Turkey’s political orientation is mirrored in its trade profile. Shipments to the 56 countries in the Organization of the Islamic Conference, mostly in the Middle East, have more than doubled as a share of total exports since Erdogan’s party was elected, to 28 percent so far this year from 13 percent in 2002.

As Turkey’s ties with Iran improved in recent years, its security alliance with Israel deteriorated. Erdogan last year walked out on a panel discussion with Israeli President Shimon Peres after condemning the 2008 offensive in Gaza. And after last month’s flotilla raid, in addition to recalling its ambassador, Turkey suspended joint military exercises and Erdogan said he doesn’t consider Hamas a terrorist group.

Ties Under Review

Turkey is reviewing the “contractual aspects” of its defense relationship with Israel, Burak Ozugergin, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said in a phone interview today. He also said that Turkey is demanding from Israel a formal apology, financial compensation, consent to an international inquiry into the incident, and the immediate return of the seized ships.

An Israeli foreign ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Turkish sanctions would harm the interests of both countries, and that cutting ties may leave Turkey marginalized in the Middle East.

The political, economic and security ties that had developed between Turkey and Israel were “one of the most promising things going on in the Middle East in the past decade,” said Philip K. Gordon, U.S. assistant secretary for European and Asian affairs at the State Department, in comments e-mailed by the U.S. Embassy in Ankara. “That has gradually deteriorated over the past couple of years, which is unfortunate.”

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