Long-time NATO member Turkey has been holding discussions with the US over the proposed missile defense system. Although Turkey has not publicly rejected US requests to take part in the system, it is concerned that a possible deployment of anti-missile elements in its territory could harm its relations with Iran, which has drastically improved its economic and security ties with Turkey in recent years.
US officials have said on more than one occasion that the missile defense system is meant to address a growing missile threat from Iran, a statement that rattles Turkey, which insists Iran should not be mentioned as a threat in the proposed Europe-wide anti-missile system. The clock is ticking for a final deal as NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen presses for a NATO decision on the matter during the alliance’s upcoming Lisbon summit on Nov. 19-20.
Turkey says it is not against establishment of a missile defense system for NATO’s European allies but insists in talks with the US that the project should be built for defensive, not offensive, purposes. Any clear reference to Iran or any other neighboring country as a threat in the proposed missile defense system runs counter to Ankara’s chief foreign policy objective: “zero problems” with neighbors. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is convinced that there is no need to mention any country as a source of threat as threats keep changing fast in today’s highly unpredictable world. Thus, dealing with the threat as it emerges is the practical choice. Sources said the Turkish argument looks reasonable to US authorities. Naming countries a source of threat is difficult in a practical sense, too, because NATO operates by principle of unanimity and it is not possible to classify a non-ally as threat if one of the allies is opposed. But the level of understanding permeating the ongoing negotiations is not enough to say what the final agreement will look like when the Lisbon summit convenes. Sources say even though there might be no formal reference to Iran in any written document, US officials may do so verbally in press statements during the summit.
Instant access to intelligence
Missile defense system plans were discussed during a NATO meeting of defense and foreign ministers in Brussels on Oct. 14.
Turkey also requests participation in decision-making and instant access to intelligence on any missile threat to be collected by sensors that will be deployed as part of the missile shield. The US has principally given the green light to the Turkish request for instant access to information but work is still under way to decide how the mechanism would work.
Another issue that came up in the negotiations was whether there would be any ships operating as part of the missile shield in the Black Sea. The proposed anti-missile system is planned to be mostly ship-based in earlier stages, with elements being deployed on land later. Ankara says terms of the 1936 Montreaux Convention, which severely restricts the passage of non-Turkish military vessels through the Straits, should be respected, thus no ship carrying missile defense system elements can pass through the Straits to reach Black Sea.
The US authorities have given assurances that there is no such plan since terms of the 1936 deal are clear. The missile defense system plans again put Turkey in a foreign policy dilemma over its ties with Iran. Western experts say Turkish refusal to join the proposed system would deepen concerns over an “axis shift” in the Turkish foreign policy, while participation in a system openly targeting Iran would disrupt Turkey’s zero-problem with neighbors policy and undermine its regional role. Many in Turkey believe that protecting Israel from a possible missile attack by Iranians is the secret purpose of the US-pioneered missile defense system. But Israel is not a NATO member and thus cannot receive protection from a NATO system. Israel also does not need protection from NATO as it already has its own national missile defense system that could counter threats from Iran or other possible enemies.
In fact, given the unpredictability of the security situation across the globe, it is possible that the missile defense system could even be used against Israel some day in the future. NATO is an organization that operates on the principle of collective defense and an attack on an ally is considered an attack on the entire alliance.
Relations between former allies Israel and Turkey took a nosedive following an Israeli offensive in Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009, which resulted in death of about 1,400 Palestinians. The tensions peaked when Israeli commandos killed eight Turks and one Turkish-American on an aid ship trying to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza on May 31 and relations have been at a standstill since then.
The proposed missile defense system, is much cheaper but also less capable than a dedicated anti-missile system proposed by the Bush administration, which caused a deep rift with Russia. Russia opposed the stationing of powerful radars and anti-missile batteries near its western borders. But it has not opposed the new system, although Russian officials have said it remains to be seen whether the two networks can be integrated.