Monthly Archives: November 2010

Wikileaks Documents Reveal Growing Turkish Concern Over Iranian Nuclear Program


November 29, 2010

Wikileaks has finally released the first batch of U.S. State Department documents (slightly over 240 out of a total of nearly 250,000). Dubbed “Cablegate,” the collection comprises cables sent from 274 U.S. diplomatic posts from around the world.

The reports sent to Washington from the U.S. embassy in Ankara provide a colorful picture of how U.S. officials have perceived Turkey in the last six years. For the next few days, I will analyze the 27 documents that the U.S. embassy in Ankara sent to Washington.

(That is, of course, if we can overlook some very embarrassing comments and rumors about certain Turkish politicians.)

One of the most striking things about the leaked documents is that they reflect growing Turkish apprehension over Iran’s nuclear program. As I had pointed out last month, Ankara is beginning to see Iran’s nuclear program as a threat to its national security.

We now have evidence confirming that assertion.

Apparently, in a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on February 6, 2010, Minister of National Defense Vecdi Gönül acknowledged that the Turkish government was becoming “concerned about the Iranian threat, [e]ven though Turkey does not expect an attack from Iran.”

Barely twelve days after the Gates-Gönül talks, in a meeting between U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns and Undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Feridun Sinirlioğlu, the Turkish side once again “acknowledged [that] the countries of the region perceive Iran as a growing threat.” Mr. Sinirlioğlu added that, even in Syria, which enjoys good relations with Iran, “alarm bells are ringing.”

It seems that some arm-twisting took place between Washington and Ankara. In the run-up to the meetings in February 2010, on October 21, 2009, U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey reportedly used strong words with respect to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s attempts to mediate the nuclear standoff with Iran. Following Mr. Erdoğan’s dismissal of Iran’s intention to develop nuclear weapons as “gossip” during his trip to Tehran last fall, Ambassador Jeffrey reportedly conveyed his government’s displeasure to Mr. Sinirlioğlu, “that Washington was now wondering if it could any longer count on Turkey to help contain Iran’s profound challenge to regional peace and stability.” Mr. Sinirlioğlu pointed out that the Turkish Prime Minister was categorically against nuclear weapons in the Middle East and that Turkey supported P5+1 talks with Iran.

Fast forward to last week’s NATO summit in Lisbon, where the United States and its European allies agreed to install a missile defense shield. Although Turkey refused to label Iran as a “threat” to NATO, it nevertheless agreed to join the Alliance’s prospective missile defense system. Even Russia, which is growing more resentful of Iran, has agreed to cooperate with NATO on missile defense.

In light of these developments, there is only one conclusion to draw from the Wikileaks documents: Turkey and other Iran-friendly countries are becoming increasingly suspicious of the Iranian nuclear program and perceive Iran’s foreign policy ventures as “growing threats.”

It seems that policy-makers on both sides are going to have to show more flexibility and creativity during the Iran–P5+1 talks in Geneva on December 5, though Iranian negotiators have a harder task this time: If the talks fail to produce positive results, and if Iran gets the blame, their neighbors – including Turkey and Syria – may not be as sympathetic as they have been in the past. At a time when even the United Arab Emirates is implementing sanctions against Iran (the UAE is Iran’s fifth largest trading partner and its liberal trade regime helped Iran to circumvent sanctions in the past), deepening their country’s isolation would not be a prudent course of action for Iranian leaders.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğ


Memo to Republican Senators: Killing New START is Bad Politics (And May Undermine Iran Nuclear Talks)


November 27, 2010

It’s surprising to see Senate Republicans refusing to vote for New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) with Russia. Originally borne out of Ronald Reagan’s wish to abolish all nuclear weapons in the 1980s, New START limits the number of U.S. and Russian warheads to 1,550 for each side (the figure was over 10,000 when START I was signed in 1991).

(Click here for the full text of the treaty.)

Led by Jon Kyl of Arizona, Senate Republicans argue that New START would only make sense if the U.S. nuclear arsenal is “modernized” and old weapons are replaced with new ones. In order to assuage Mr. Kyl’s concerns, the Obama administration has allocated $80 billion over the next 10 years to replace aging nuclear weapons. About ten days ago, however, Mr. Kyl’s office issued a brief statement, which considered the passage of New START unlikely because the White House had failed to address numerous Republican concerns. (Foreign treaties require 2/3 of the U.S. Senate’s vote to get ratified. Thus, when the new Congress begins its work on January 3, the Obama administration will need support from at least 15 Republicans – an unlikely prospect.)

Add to that criticism from Mitt Romney (he sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and is the most likely name to lead the Republican ticket in 2012), who claims – quite erroneously, as Fred Kaplan correctly points out – that New START would weaken U.S. posture around the globe, the delay in the Senate appears to have ulterior motives.

It looks like Republicans are using the critical treaty to weaken President Obama and decrease his chances for re-election in 2012.

This can turn into a major foreign policy blunder for the Republican Party. As The Atlantic’s Max Fisher indicates, not only would non-ratification weaken U.S. diplomacy around the world (no foreign government would want to strike a bargain with a divided United States; why sign an agreement with the Americans if it’s going to be killed in the U.S. Senate?), it would also damage Russian President Dimitri Medvedev, a key ally when it comes to resolving the standoff over Iran’s controversial nuclear program. Mr. Medvedev’s support had enabled the United States to pass resolution 1929 from the UN Security Council, which imposed additional sanctions on Iran last summer.

If New START enters into force, both Washington and Moscow can gain the momentum that’s necessary to lead the world into total nuclear abolition. The two countries with the largest nuclear arsenals committing themselves to reducing their stockpiles is a powerful argument against proliferation. It would give the United States, Russia, and other members of P5+1 greater credibility vis-à-vis Iran during the upcoming talks in Geneva.

On the other hand, killing New START would destroy the whole point of talking to Iran over its nuclear program: How can the P5+1 tell Iran not to obtain nuclear weapons if its leading member seems unwilling to curtail a portion of its nuclear forces? How can the United States convince Iran that nuclear weapons are bad if some American politicians cannot part ways with The Bomb?

In the final analysis, it’s understandable that Republicans are trying to weaken Mr. Obama and decreasing his re-election chances. Politics is politics.

But New START should not be one of those anti-Obama maneuvers. It’s simply too important to U.S. interests around the world – especially non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.

Given Mr. Obama’s problems, Republicans will probably have other opportunities to undermine him. But if the Republicans use New START against Mr. Obama and manage to win the presidency in 2012, the new Republican president may find himself (herself?) dealing with bigger proliferation headaches.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğ


“Do No Harm”: How Can Turkey Help With the Iran Nuclear Standoff?


November 15, 2010

Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki’s proposal to have the next round of negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran in Istanbul received awkward reactions from the Turks. Some Turkish news sites misunderstood Mr. Mottaki’s suggestion as Iran’s sine qua non condition to restart the talks. Even Abdullah Gül, Turkey’s politically-savvy president, made it sound like Turkey would soon join the talks as a leading mediator, which simply wasn’t true.

Of course, even without sitting at the table, Turkey can help to resolve the standoff in several ways.

The prime directive for Turkish officials should be “do no harm” – and it should be upheld primarily by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Mr. Erdoğan, together with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, has successfully orchestrated Turkey’s rising prestige around the world in the past decade. But the Prime Minister has also frequently boxed himself with less-than-refined remarks. Last March, Mr. Erdoğan suggested that he reserved the right to deport illegal workers from the Republic of Armenia after American and Swedish legislators passed resolutions describing the forced deportation of Ottoman Armenians during World War I as genocide. Then, in a meeting with women’s rights organizations last summer, Mr. Erdoğan drew the ire of many women after he confessed that he “does not believe in gender equality.”

Unfortunately, Iran’s nuclear program has not been spared from the Turkish Prime Minister’s gaffes either. Last month, Mr. Erdoğan pointed out the discrepancy between pressuring Iran for its nuclear program while the Western world remains silent on Israel’s nuclear weapons.

Mr. Erdoğan’s comparison, though meaning well, didn’t help Iran at all. The Iranians have never juxtaposed their nuclear program with Israel’s nuclear weapons because, as they frequently point out, they do not want nukes.

(Of course, whether Iran’s declarations are completely genuine is another matter.)

Thus, in order to “do no harm,” Mr. Erdoğan should stop comparing Iran’s nuclear program with those of other countries. Playing the “but you also have nukes” card brings Iran and the Middle East closer to war; not away from it.

Next, the Turkish government should impress upon the United States and Israel to stop threatening Iran. Everybody is aware that Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons could drag the region into war. But bullying the Islamic Republic may actually convince the mullahs to develop nukes.

Finally, Ankara has to do some tough-talking with Washington and Tehran behind closed doors. To the United States, Turkey has to point out the following: Last summer’s episode, when the United Nations Security Council resolution voided the Turkish-Brazilian-Iranian treaty, frustrated progress with the negotiations, and made Ankara and Brasilia look like idiots, cannot be repeated. Washington and other parties should decide as to whether they want Turkey to get Iran to swap its enriched uranium for nuclear fuel or if they want Turkey off the table completely.

Finally, the Turks have to show to the Iranians that their intransigence could start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Although Turkey and Iran enjoy very friendly relations today, a future nuclear arms race – regardless of who started first – would draw many Turks’ ire. As I write these lines, even members of Mr. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party are floating the not-so-distant possibility that Turkey will develop its own nuclear weapons should Iran (or another Middle Eastern country) initiate a nuclear arms race.

That would do much harm to the entire world.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğ


Change We Want to Believe In (But You Didn’t Give It to Us): The Road Ahead of President Obama


November 3, 2010

Yesterday was not a good day for President Obama. His party lost the House of Representatives by a significant margin and will have a razor-thin majority in the Senate.

In a sense, Mr. Obama’s historic success in 2008 led to last night’s defeat. As candidate, Mr. Obama had promised a lot and people believed in him. He had pledged to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. He has failed to do so. He said he would fix the economy. He has failed to do so. He had promised “change.” He has failed to deliver most of it.

President Obama hasn’t failed on every count, of course. His adroit management of healthcare reform ultimately forced Congress to address one of America’s most pressing problems. The $800 billion stimulus injected much-needed cash into the economy and ended the recession. Through Wall Street reform, the chances of financial abuse leading to another recession are now more miniscule. And the Obama administration’s decision to help General Motors and Chrysler, though quite controversial in 2009, probably revived the auto industry and helped nearly 1 million people to keep their jobs. (Even The Economist, which had opposed the $86 billion bailout, gives credit to Mr. Obama for saving America’s auto industry.)

Furthermore, outside the U.S., people have welcomed Mr. Obama’s presidency with a sigh of relief after the nightmarish years of George W. Bush (although many in Palestine, Afghanistan, and Pakistan probably have other ideas).

But it all goes back to the American maxim, “it’s the economy, stupid!”

If Mr. Obama wants to keep his job in two years, he has to emphasize his commitment to the free market and point out its shortcoming to the American people only within that framework. His opponents try to stick the nonsensical “socialist” tag on him and they are getting very good at it. The President can put an end to such childish name-calling only if he convinces people in the United States that his objective is to get the federal government involved with the free market to help it function more effectively (case in point: the stimulus and Wall Street reform).

Deeds speak louder than words and Mr. Obama can boost his economic credentials significantly by taking aggressive steps to decrease the federal deficit. A lot of budget balancing will have to come from decreasing military spending, which can be realized only if the United States reduces its military commitments, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but throughout the world.

Ronald Reagan’s “government is not a solution to our problem; government is the problem” adage certainly influenced voters yesterday. But at a time when the world is globalizing and economies are transforming, governments have a lot to do and the U.S. government is not an exception. As such, Mr. Obama has to move more quickly and decisively in some of the signature areas where he had promised “change” in 2008: education reform, improving America’s infrastructure (especially the transportation system), and energy independence.

That the Obama administration has moved so slowly on these important issues is what led to yesterday’s Democratic defeat.

“Change we want to believe in (but you didn’t give it to us)” said American voters to President Obama. Two years ago, his charisma and message of change had struck a positive chord with a lot of Americans and people around the world. Yesterday, we saw the result of great frustrations borne out of great expectations. Not an outright repudiation of President Obama and his agenda.

Republicans as well as Democrats should keep that in mind in the run-up to 2012. 

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğ