Wikileaks Documents Reveal Growing Turkish Concern Over Iranian Nuclear Program

By BARIN KAYAOĞLU

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 (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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