Turkish President Calling for Mideast Nuclear-Free Zone

September 21, 2010 - 4:24 AM

Turkey President Gul

Turkish President Abdullah Gul addresses a summit on the Millennium Development Goals at United Nations headquarters on Monday, Sept. 20, 2010. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

United Nations (AP) - Turkish President Abdullah Gul said he will call for a Middle East totally free of nuclear weapons when he addresses the U.N. General Assembly later this week.

"We would like to see our region free of nuclear weapons," Gul told The Associated Press in an interview on Monday. "The region should not be under such a threat."

Gul said he intends to raise the issue when he addresses the world body on Thursday.

Gul has called in the past for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, but his latest comments come amid deteriorating relations with Israel following the May 31 Israeli commando raid on a Turkish ferry that was part of an aid flotilla attempting to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip. Eight Turks and a Turkish-American were killed.

Israel is generally assumed to have assembled a sizable arsenal of nuclear warheads since the 1960s, but declines to discuss its status as a nuclear power.

Gul's remarks will likely antagonize the United States, because Washington sees any move to raise the issue of Israel's nuclear arsenal as potentially destabilizing at a time of renewed Israel-Palestinian peace talks.

Last week, the Obama administration warned Arab nations that they risk contributing to a failure of the Mideast talks if they continue to pressure Israel over its nuclear program. U.S. officials have asserted that it would be possible to have a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East even if Israel's arsenal remains intact.

Gul said Turkey, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the U.N. Security Council, only wants to ensure stability and security in the region.

The U.S. has been more concerned about the nuclear program in Iran, which is under four sets of Security Council sanctions for refusing to stop its uranium enrichment and ignoring other U.N. demands meant to ease global concerns that it is seeking to make atomic weapons.

Tehran maintains that all of its nuclear activities are for peaceful purposes. But the International Atomic Energy Agency says it cannot confirm that because Iran has only selectively cooperated with the U.N. watchdog agency and has rejected several nuclear inspectors.

"Iran must do what it has thus far failed to do -- meet its obligations and ensure the rest of the world of the peaceful nature of its intentions," U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu told delegates in Vienna Monday for the IAEA'S General Conference.

Gul said Turkish officials do not assume that Iran has a fully peaceful nuclear program, but "of course we cannot accuse Iran" of pursuing nuclear weapons without evidence.

"We want Iran to be transparent" with the IAEA officials, he said. "We in Turkey would like to see a peaceful, a diplomatic solution to this problem."

Turkey has opposed sanctions against Iran as ineffective and damaging to its interests with an important neighbor. Instead, Turkey and Brazil, to Washington's annoyance, have tried to broker a deal under which Iran would send much of its low enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for the higher enriched uranium it needs for a research reactor. However, the deal did not mandate a halt to Iran's enrichment process and fell short of U.N. demands.

Turkey, a member of the NATO alliance, has been governed by an Islamic-rooted party since 2002 that has tried to improve relations with Iran.

Gul said Israel's deadly attack on the flotilla attempting to breach the Israeli blockade of Gaza would be best handled under international law, but also suggested that Israel still needs to take public responsibility for the attack.

"It is not possible to act as though this incident did not take place," he said. "In the old world, in the old times, if such an incident were to take place, wars would follow. But in our world today, it is international law that has to be taken into consideration.

"It is up to Israel. They have to do what is necessary since they are the ones that created the incident," he said.

Earlier news reports had said that Gul and Israeli President Shimon Peres planned to meet in New York this week on the sidelines of the Clinton Global Initiative being held alongside the gathering of world leaders.

Gul told the AP that no such meeting had ever been scheduled. Peres said Monday that the planned meeting was scrapped because Turkey had set unacceptable conditions.

Turkey has repeatedly demanded that Israel apologize for the flotilla raid, and senior Israeli officials on Monday confirmed that Gul had made such an apology a condition for the meeting.

"I got some conditions which made this meeting in my judgment not a positive one," Peres told reporters as the U.N. General Assembly's Millennium Development Goals summit was getting under way.

Two international panels are looking into the flotilla attack: the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, and a separate U.N. panel formed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Israeli commandos said they opened fire in self-defense after encountering what they called unexpected resistance when they boarded the ferry carrying aid supplies to Gaza.