Sun, December 19, 2010-A Reno, Nevada resident is playing a roll in what appears to be a new approach to Turkey as viewed through Wikileaks cables. I will tell her story next week, but first lets examine the new understanding that is emerging about the relationship between Turkey and Iran and what it means for Iran's nuclear ambitions.
RENO, NV (I.R.I.S.) -- A confidential cable from the U.S. Embassy in Istambul released by Wikileaks recounts recent independent assessments of Turkey’s swing in favors of Iran in energy, economics and nuclear weapons.
“Turkey sees a military attack against Iran's nuclear facilities as the worst possible outcome on the Iran issue. Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability would only be the second worst outcome,” wrote former U.S. Consul General Sharon Anderholm Wiener.
The in-depth report follows a series of regionally alarming developments between Turkey and Iran. The first occured on February 27, 2009 when a diplomatic cable outlined how the Turkish Prime Minister's friends would benefit from a gas pipeline deal with Iran and his delcaration that "Iran is our friend."
In a secret cable, Israeli Peace Process Officer Frederic Beryziat alleged that Turkey had allowed nuclear weapons-related material to cross Turkey with the Turkish Prime Minister’s full knowledge. The Israeli representative didn’t have any evidence to support that claim, but said they were collecting it.
In the following months, the U.S. Embassy in Ankara released this extensive investigation into Turkey’s stance on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It summarizes extensive interviews with business, independent non-profits and close government contacts. The cable is titled: Turkey-Iran Relations: Motivations, Limitations and Implications, dated December 4th 2009.
The cable outlines how Turkey is dramatically deepening its economic ties with Iran, it questions if Turkey truly understands its Iranian neighbor, and some predict that Turkey will be seen as "on the wrong side of history."
One of the “contacts” interviewed is described as an “international relations professor with ties to PM Erdogan's (Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan) office,” who said that Turkey is deepening ties to Iran because the region faces a "power vacuum."
“This contact acknowledged that this (a power vacuum) sometimes requires Turkey to tactically distance itself from the USG (United States Government) on several key issues, including Iran's "right" to enrichment (of nuclear weapons grade plutonium) and the regime's dismal human rights record.”
Wiener says that this support for Iran enjoys some Turkish public support. “Turkish public opinion also considers an attack against Iran as more dangerous to Turkey than Iran acquiring a nuclear weapons capability,” she wrote. “Indeed, almost a third of Turks polled do not consider a nuclear-armed Iran to be a threat, believing that Iran would never attack a fellow Muslim country.”
But Wiener doesn’t address what the other two-thirds of the polled Turks said or who conducted that poll.
Regardless of what fear may exist, the relationship between Turkish and Iranian officials is strengthening. According to the cable, are in the middle of an ambitious campaign to double their bi-lateral trade to 20 billion dollars and complete that plan by 2012. Trade experts say that is an unrealistic goal, but financial and trade ties circumvent western trade sanctions.
Wiener wrote that Turkey is protecting the expansion of financial ties with Iran by continuing to allow Iranian Bank Mellat to operate in Istambul. The bank has sanctions against it by U.S. Executive Order 13382, “Blocking Property of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Their Supporters.” They are also conducting business in Turkish Lira and Iranian Rials which avoids having to clear those payments through US or European banks, Wiener wrote.
Despite the strong ties, there is little evidence that Turkey can even influence Iran for its own purposes according to the cable. This has strong implications for the U.S. if the policy is that influence over Turkey might translate to influence over Iran. Wiener wrote that Turkey has no record of successfully moderating Iranian policies. One instance she sites is according to a Turkish businessman who deals with Iran (Ref F), several interventions from Turkey's Trade and Foreign Ministers, and even a plea from PM Erdogan in Tehran on October 27 were unable to persuade Iran to lower its customs duties on Turkish imports. Those duties are currently 45 percent for finished products.
“As our business contact explained, even though Iran depends on Turkish diplomatic support and benefits from Turkish gas purchases and other trade, Iran realizes it does not have to sacrifice any critical policy priorities in return, including its customs income, because "Iran knows Turkey is not going to walk away," Wiener wrote.
While Turkey claims to understand Iran and be critical to regional stability, its influence is seriously questioned. “These contacts suggest that Turkey draws its assessment of Iran's internal dynamics through a subjective filter, which values regime stability foremost, and thus Turkey's assessments artificially inflate evidence suggestive of regime stability,” Wiener wrote. “Despite its belief that it knows its neighbor Iran better than most other countries do, according to our contacts, Turkey is just as uncertain as the USG (United States Government) and other western countries as to what exactly is happening behind the regime's closed doors.”
The cable concludes with a very vague conclusion as to the U.S. approach. Wiener says a Turkish professor explained the best way for the U.S. to proceed is to sweeten deals for Turkey, but also pursue tougher measures.
The U.S. did take this approach two months after the report. Secretary of State Robert Gates met with the Turkish Minister of National Defense. They discussed sweet weapons deals for Turkey, but at the same time, Gates encouraged Turkey to prepare for armed conflict between Iran and Israel.
It’s not clear if Gates achieved his desired result, but given Turkey’s preference for a nuclear-armed Iran over an armed conflict, Gates’ comments could have also encouraged Turkey to more quickly pursue nuclear proliferation with Iran to prevent conflict.
A brief read of the diplomatic cables out of the U.S. embasy in Ankara, Turkey shows the uncertainty and a possible shift in an approach to the government there. Assessments of Turkey’s government are inconsistent at best. In December, 2004 Ambassador Eric Edelman described Turkey’s Prime Minister as “unbeatable” and that he holds influence with a two-thirds majority in the parliament. Three months later, another cable out of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara by Rober Deutch said the Turkish Prime Minister was “isolated” and lost touch with his parliamentary group. At least one assessment questions how seriously the U.S. government takes the Turkish leaders. A cable by U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey said, “In any case, sooner or later we will no longer have to deal with the current cast of political leaders, with their special yen for destructive drama and – rhetoric.”
Despite the downplaying of the Turkish government in some cables, the more recent cable outlining the interviews to better understand Turky’s role in a nuclear-armed Iran signals a shift in understanding the Turkish government, as a kind of behind the scenes assessment, instead of taking the world of government officials. Along this same line, last month, the State Department sent an independent non-governmental group to Turkey including a resident of Reno, Nevada. The goal was to better understand the secular conflict currently underway in that country. Since many Turks believe Iran would never attack a fellow Muslim country, the emerging secular conflict may be central to nuclear proliferation in the region.