Tag Archives: US-Turkey Relations

Watch Out for the “Rover”: Turkey’s New Foreign Policy According to the U.S. Embassy in Ankara


December 3, 2010

The Wikileaks documents have caused a political ruckus in Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is threatening to sue Eric Edelman, the former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, for reporting rumors to Washington in 2005 about the Turkish leader’s alleged bank accounts in Switzerland.

It’s going to be entertaining to see if Mr. Erdoğan actually takes Mr. Edelman to court for a classified report he wrote at a time when he had diplomatic immunity.

Now, a less sensational but more important Wikileaks document shows how the U.S. government has perceived analyzes Turkey’s new foreign policy. According to a report, which the U.S. embassy in Ankara allegedly sent to the State Department early this year, Turkish foreign policy in the last few years appears to both fascinate and worry American officials. In the report, titled “What Lies Beneath Ankara’s New Foreign Policy,” former Ambassador James Jeffrey jokingly asserts that Turkey’s new activist foreign policy has “Rolls Royce ambitions but Rover resources.”

Discussions about Turkey “moving away from The West” and becoming a “neo-Ottoman” power in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus have been raging for nearly two years.

In line with those discussions, Ambassador Jeffrey’s January 2010 report takes a cautious line. For example, Mr. Jeffrey correctly points out that the ruling AKP’s “desire to be more independently activist and Islamic orientation” informs Turkey’s new foreign policy. According to the report, however, “rational national interest, particularly trade opportunities and stability considerations also drives Turkey’s new slant.” (Turkey’s trade with the Arab world and Iran has increased from $6.5 billion in 2002 to nearly $30 billion in 2009.)

Nodding to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s “zero problems with neighbors” maxim, Ambassador Jeffrey seems to appreciate Ankara’s efforts to resolve the Cyprus dispute, its rapprochement with Erbil and Baghdad, mediating the indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria from 2006 to 2008, and attempts to bring the Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks closer for a safer and prosperous Balkan peninsula (which, after the report was drafted, resulted in Serbian President Boris Tadic apologizing for his country’s role in the Bosnian War and his participation to the commemoration ceremony for the victims of the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica last summer).

But the report has less than flattering passages as well. For example, according to Mr. Jeffrey, Turkish mediation in the region’s conflicts “has not achieved any single success of note.” Worse, Ankara’s efforts to present itself as “a bridge between East and West” are not working.  Mr. Jeffrey observes that AKP’s efforts to present Turkey as a “successful meld” of “Europe’s secularism” with “oriental religiosity does not seem to carry much weight in most European capitals, let alone populations.”

In all fairness, Turkey’s foreign policy overtures have had their limits: The border with Armenia remains closed and Ankara’s efforts to re-establish diplomatic ties with Yerevan has angered its allies in Azerbaijan. In the Balkans, Bosniak-Serbian reconciliation runs the risk of relapsing into old enmities; in the Eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus remains divided; in the Middle East, the Israeli-Syrian proximity talks have not resumed; the future of Iraq remains uncertain; and the Iran nuclear standoff is as troubling as ever.

(As for growing conservatism in Turkey, a 2008 study shows that it’s simplistic to claim that Turks are becoming more religious; the situation is a lot more complicated than that.)

To be fair to the Turks, only in the last five years have they begun immersing themselves in their region’s conflicts. In fact, they are getting some modest but tangible gains. For example, after coming very close to forging a peace agreement between Israel and Syria until the Gaza war, Turkey has reciprocally lifted travel visas with Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, and Qatar. And last summer, Turkey agreed to create a free trade zone with Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.

These results are not that modest if one considers how Turkey came close to fighting a war with Syria barely twelve years ago and only had basic relations with other Arab countries.

Since the aftermath of the Cold War Turkey has capitalized on its large population and rapid economic growth to become the political and economic fulcrum at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa. The process simply accelerated under the AKP government.

But will that process succeed? No one can tell at this point. But going back to Ambassador Jeffrey’s “Rolls Royce-Rover” analogy, we need to remember that luxury cars can be disadvantageous in rough terrain. Sitting at the eye of multiple geopolitical storms (the Balkans, the Caucasus, North Africa, and the Middle East), if Turkey can get a skilled driver, its Rover just might outmatch the Rolls Royces in that part of the 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 also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).


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 (BarınKayaoğlu.com).


“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 (BarınKayaoğlu.com).