(CNSNews.com) – President Obama said Monday Turkey could be “an important player” in efforts to prod Iran to keep its nuclear program peaceful – although an increasingly assertive Ankara has tilted perceptibly towards Tehran this year in its standoff with the West.
Characterizing Turkey as “a great country” and visiting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a personal friend, Obama said he was optimistic about the prospect of “stronger and stronger” bilateral ties in the future.
Turkey, a Muslim but officially secular member of NATO which aspires to join the European Union, is currently a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. It was among the handful of countries Obama visited in his first presidential trip outside North America last April.
Speaking after their meeting – which Turkish media noted with enthusiasm had lasted for two hours – Obama praised Turkey for its “outstanding contributions” in Afghanistan.
Turkey recently doubled the number of troops deployed in the NATO-led mission there to about 1,750, although none are combat troops.
Turkey has the second-largest standing army in NATO (after the U.S.), more than twice the size of that of Britain, which has almost 10,000 troops in Afghanistan.
The warm words at the Oval Office came despite recent trends in Turkey, including its criticism of the West’s handling of the Iran issue and a significant cooling in relations with Israel since last winter’s military offensive against Hamas in Gaza.
At a time when the West is edging closer to tightening sanctions against Iran, Turkey is pushing in the other direction. Erdogan’s government last week did not support an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) resolution censuring Iran for its uranium enrichment activities and referring the matter to the U.N. Security Council.
Addressing a press conference at a Washington hotel after the White House meeting, Erdogan reiterated his opposition to sanctions.
“We have specifically stated that the [Iran nuclear] question can be resolved through diplomacy and diplomacy only,” he said.
U.S. ‘disappointed’ by Turkey’s stance in IAEA vote
In a background briefing ahead of the visit, a senior administration official stressed the importance of U.S.-Turkey relations, but also hinted at some of the problem areas.
“We have no problem with Turkey reaching out to Iran, talking to Iran,” he said. “But it is important to us that the message be the same” as that of “the rest of the international community.”
The official said the U.S. believed sanctions would be most effective if broad and “multi-nationally imposed,” and that “Turkey would be an important player on this issue.”
He said Ankara’s decision to abstain rather than vote in favor of the Nov. 27 IAEA resolution had “disappointed” the U.S., which would continue to encourage Turkey and others to join “what we hope will be a common line.”
In the vote by the 35-member board of IAEA governors, three countries – Venezuela, Cuba and Malaysia – voted against the resolution and Turkey was joined by Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, Brazil and South Africa in abstaining.
Although Turkey has traditionally had better ties with Israel than any other important country in the Muslim world, that changed dramatically this year, with Ankara positioning itself as a leading critic of the Jewish state.
On ties with Israel, a second administration official at the briefing said that if the Turks wished to play a constructive role in Mideast peace efforts, “they need to be seen by all relevant participants in such a dialogue as an honest broker.”
If Turkey did not return to the “very strong and cooperative relationship” it previously had with Israel, the official said, “it’s going to be harder for them to lead in the way they would like to lead.”
Iran, Syria, Israel – a year of troubling signs
Erdogan’s White House visit comes towards the end of a year that has provided numerous examples of his government taking positions at odds with those of the U.S.
-- In February, Erdogan stormed off the stage during a televised debate in Davos after a heated exchange with Israeli President Shimon Peres over Gaza. American Jewish organizations subsequently wrote to Erdogan, linking a spate of anti-Jewish incidents in Turkey to “the inflammatory denunciation of Israel by Turkish officials.”
-- In April, Ankara announced it planned to hold its first joint military exercise with Syria, a prospect Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called “very troubling.”
-- In June, Turkish lawmakers aligned themselves with those from eight other Organization of the Islamic Conference member states in a resolution supporting Iran’s and condemning “interference” by countries critical of Iran’s conduct during and after its disputed presidential election.
The same meeting of Islamic lawmakers complained that Iran was being pressurized for “peaceful” activities while Israel’s nuclear arsenal was being ignored. And it demanded that Israel be prosecuted for “crimes” against Palestinians, while condemning the International Criminal Court’s attempt to indict Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for alleged war crimes in Darfur.
-- Over the summer, Erdogan said a key pipeline project – aimed at bringing Caspian natural gas to Western markets via Turkey, bypassing Russia – would fail unless Iran was also permitted to supply gas for the project.
Erdogan said any sanctions targeting Iranian gas would bring the pipeline plan “to a dead end.” Iran has the world’s second largest natural gas reserves. (“We don’t believe Iran should be a participant,” was the response from U.S. special envoy for Eurasian energy, Richard Morningstar.)
Citing other reasons for opposing sanctions, Erdogan said Iranian tourism to Turkey was significant, and that overall Turkey-Iran trade amounted to around $10 billion annually. The two are also planning to develop a tax-free industrial zone on their joint border.
-- In the fall, Turkey asked Israel to withdraw from a scheduled NATO air force exercise that it was preparing to host. After fellow participants U.S. and Italy pulled out of the Anatolian Eagle exercise to protest the move, Ankara canceled the event altogether.
-- At the U.N. in New York in September, Erdogan again voiced opposition to sanctions against Iran, while turning the spotlight on Israel.
“We are completely against nuclear weapons in the Middle East,” he told reporters. “There is a country in the Middle East that possesses nuclear weapon: Israel.”
Erdogan used the opportunity to accuse Israel of using “phosphorus bombs … a weapon of mass destruction” in Gaza and asked why Israel’s conduct was not being scrutinized by the Security Council. “These issues are never brought to the table, and this personally annoys me,” he said.
-- In October, Turkey hosted Mohsen Rezai, one of five Iranians wanted by Argentina in connection with the 1994 suicide truck bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. Despite the fact that Rezai, a former head of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, is the subject of an Interpol “red notice,” he traveled freely to Turkey, where he held talks with President Abdullah Gul and other officials.
-- The same month saw Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and other cabinet colleagues visit Syria, where they signed a bilateral “strategic cooperation” agreement and pledged to improve defense ties. Syria’s closest strategic ally is Iran.
-- Also in October, Davutoglu cancelled a visit to Israel, where he had been invited to take part in a major international conference in Jerusalem, hosted by Peres.
-- Several days later, Erdogan visited Tehran, where President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad publicly thanked him for his stance towards Israel.
The visit came at a time when the international community was awaiting Iran’s response to an international proposal that it send some of its low-enriched uranium abroad for conversion into nuclear fuel. Erdogan’s position on the dispute was to say that “those who claim they are after nuclear disarmament in the world should start the measure in their own country.”
During his visit, Turkey signed a “memorandum of understanding” about investment in Iranian gas fields.
‘Cold war mentality’
Ankara has rejected criticism that it is shifting orientation away from the West and closer to the Middle East.
“Turkey is expanding its relations; it’s not changing its direction,” Turkey’s Today’s Zaman daily quoted foreign ministry spokesman Burak Ozugergin as saying in late October.
“I guess people can’t get rid of the Cold War mentality. Turkey may be extremely good friends with Syria, Iraq, Iran, Russia, Georgia and Armenia, with Greece or Bulgaria as well,” he said. “This is neither against NATO, nor can it be considered as a stance against any other country or a group of countries.”