Turkish ‘no' to missile defense could spell crisis with West, says expert

Published 25.10.2010 12:22

A planned missile shield for Europe could deter Iran from pursuing its contentious nuclear and missile programs and Turkey's refusal to join the US-backed defense system would put its ties with the West at risk, according to an expert on nuclear diplomacy.

The missile defense system proposal, which has been embraced by other members of NATO, presents Turkey with a difficult task of balancing between neighboring Iran and its North Atlantic allies. The possibility that the flourishing trade with Iran will be harmed amid political tensions over the missile shield is only one concern for the Turkish government. On a broader policy level, Ankara fears a missile defense system deployed in the Turkish territory against Iran would turn Turkey into a target, radicalize Iran and thus further destabilize the region and undermine its policy of "zero problems" with neighbors. But a refusal to join the system is likely to deepen a skepticism that has been simmering in the US and Europe since Turkey's vote against sanctions on Iran at the UN Security Council over Ankara's commitment to Western policy goals. Mark Fitzpatrick, a former US diplomat and an Iran expert at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), said a Turkish "no" to US requests for the deployment of elements of the planned missile shield on its soil could have more far-reaching consequences than the vote against sanctions at the Security Council. "This is not just a temporary issue," Fitzpatrick said in an interview with Sunday's Zaman this week. "This has long-term implications. If Turkey refuses to deploy elements of the defense system this would spell a longer-term disengagement from Europe." Turkey, in talks with the US, insists that Iran should not be mentioned as a threat in the missile defense system, despite US statements that it is directly aimed at Tehran. Speaking after talks between Turkish and US defense and foreign ministers in Brussels earlier this month, Philip J. Crowley, spokesman for the US State Department, said the basis of the proposed system is "expressly to address the emerging missile threat from Iran." Turkey will soon have to make up its mind as NATO says it wants to finalize plans during its upcoming summit on Nov. 19-20. Officials from both the US and Turkey have denied any pressure from Washington on Ankara to agree to missile shield requests. Fitzpatrick, who previously served as deputy assistant secretary of state for non-proliferation, said the missile defense system could deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons -- because Iran will know that even if it has nuclear weapons one day, it will not be able hit any target -- and thus will help ease tensions over Iran's nuclear program in the long run. But in the short run, Turkish participation in the system will cause problems in Ankara-Tehran ties. "Iranians would feel that they thought they had a reliable friend in Turkey but Turkey is not a reliable friend. In this sense, it could create some tensions between Turkey and Iran," he said. Turkey has long insisted on a negotiated settlement to the deepening crisis over Iran's nuclear program and joined forces with Brazil to broker a deal with Tehran in May under which Iran agreed to send a portion of its low-enriched uranium abroad in return for higher-enriched uranium to be used as fuel in a research reactor. That deal failed, as the US quickly dismissed it as insufficient and pushed for sanctions at the UN Security Council.

War in a year?

Although the door is still open for a negotiated solution, Fitzpatrick said this might be difficult to achieve as Iran refuses to give up its ability to be able be produce nuclear weapons when necessary and Israel is growing increasingly impatient about the threat from Iran. He said the Western bloc will be in a "kind of cold war" with Iran which may erupt into a hot war in the next one or one-and-a-half years. "I am worried that Iran will just pretend to be engaged in negotiations, not really make a significant offer. Meanwhile it will continue to increase the amount of low-enriched uranium to the point where some other country -- Israel -- will say it is too much and decide military action is necessary," he said. Iran's current low-enriched uranium stockpile stands at 3,000 kilograms, according to Fitzpatrick, an amount sufficient to produce two nuclear weapons. If this stockpile increases further to become enough for the production of four to five weapons, or Iran continues its enrichment program, Israel would think it is too much and could thus attack. The conflict could then spill over as Iran retaliates and the US steps in to defend Israel. Fitzpatrick said talks that would lead to a peaceful settlement could begin on the basis of a modified version of the May 17 deal Iran signed with Turkey and Brazil. He said Turkey and Brazil deserve credit for persuading Iran to agree to drop an earlier condition that the uranium exchange should be simultaneous but said the deal otherwise failed to address many important concerns in the West. "I hope the deal can be renegotiated, maybe with Turkey's participation and hopefully this could provide a peaceful solution to a growing problem," he said. The former US diplomat also said Iran's intentions in enriching uranium and developing its nuclear-capable missile program look suspicious, although Iran denies any intention to develop nuclear weapons and says its nuclear program is for peaceful ends. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly said that countries are allowed to acquire nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. "Iran's missile program is nuclear capable. The missiles can reach more than 2,000 kilometers. No country has developed missiles with this range without also producing nuclear weapons," Fitzpatrick said.


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