About us   Editorial Board   Advisory Board   Contact us  


In this section, we publish the weekly analysis of the major events taking place in the Caucasus and beyond. The Caucasus Update is written by our Senior Editor Alexander Jackson. Click here to subscribe.

Turkey in a Tight Spot on Missile Defense, CU Issue 82, November 11, 2010

There are just a few days to go until the NATO Summit in Lisbon. Amongst the many challenges facing the Alliance are the fallout from the war in Afghanistan; building a better relationship with a recalcitrant Russia; and agreeing a plan for a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system. 

From Ankara’s perspective, NATO’s plan for a joint missile shield is by far the most contentious item on the agenda. Turkish fears that the shield will be directed against Iran (Turkey’s neighbor and one of its key economic partners) have laid bare much deeper questions over the country’s continuing commitment to NATO, and – more profoundly – whether its future lies east or west.

The BMD scheme represents the evolution of George W Bush’s plan to deploy interceptors and radar systems in Eastern Europe. Ostensibly designed to prevent an Iranian nuclear attack on Europe, the choice of Poland and the Czech Republic as basing sites suggested that Russia was the target, provoking a furious reaction in Moscow.

As part of his reset of relations with the Kremlin, President Barack Obama put a more multilateral face on the project by rebranding it as a NATO initiative based further south, in the Aegean and potentially on Turkish soil (Guardian, April 18). To an extent this was to mollify Moscow, but also to satisfy Ankara. Turkish officials have stated that they are not opposed to missile defense per se, but have insisted that it is defensive, does not target Iran, and is under NATO and not American auspices (Today’s Zaman, October 27).

Having got what it wanted, Turkey is now seeking a higher price for its involvement. In late October Israeli media reported that Ankara had conditioned its involvement in the BMD shield “on a guarantee that no information collected by the system be transferred to Israel” (Haaretz, October 26).

Given the dire state of Ankara-Tel Aviv relations, this is plausible. It would certainly help to dampen domestic opposition in Turkey, and would also go a little way (only a little) towards reassuring Tehran. But it does not get Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan out of his tight spot.

To consent to a missile defense shield based in Turkish territory would be a blow to Mr. Erdogan’s growing stature in the Muslim world and severely damage ties with Iran. To veto it would be a critical blow in Turkey’s relationship with NATO and the West.

Both views have been aired with undiplomatic candor. Senior Western officials have apparently told Ankara “that missile-defense is an acid test of its commitment to the collective security arrangements it has with its western allies” (Telegraph, October 29). Mr Erdogan, for his part, said to French President Nicolas Sarkozy: “My advice to those who want to locate the missile shield system to my own country: Let them locate it on your own territory first” (Today’s Zaman, November 3). In an attempt to allow Turkey to save face, NATO has begun avoiding any mention of Iran when discussing missile defense plans (New York Times, November 2). But no-one is under any illusions.

Ankara’s unwillingness to antagonize Tehran stems partly from their deepening economic relationship. Turkey’s booming economy needs new markets, and it needs gas. Iran has plenty. But the relationship goes much deeper than the pragmatism of pipelines; it also involves Turkey’s re-emerging desire to be a leading state in the Muslim world.

Turkey’s attitude towards its eastern neighbor is therefore a litmus test of its stance towards the wider Middle East. Turkish support for a missile shield would undermine its explicitly non-confrontational foreign policy, which Ankara maintains even though it agrees with its western allies that an Iranian nuclear capability is undesirable.

The difference is one of threat perception. NATO’s primary concern is the risk to the Alliance’s own territory. The defense shield is, after all, intended to protect European territory, not the wider Middle East.

Turkey, on the other hand, opposes an Iranian nuclear weapon for the same reasons it opposes Israel’s– they are regionally destabilising and threaten a new wave of nuclear-armed powers. But it does not see the threat of an Iranian nuclear strike against Istanbul as realistic enough to warrant a provocative missile shield on Turkish territory.

As if to demonstrate this point, on November 2 details of Turkey’s new national security white paper were leaked. The paper removes all Turkey’s neighbors –including Iran, Russia and Syria – from the list of potential threats, neatly fulfilling the government’s “zero problems with neighbors” mantra (Defense News, November 2). If Iran is not a threat, then Turkey has no reason to support measures targeted at it. 

Given these factors, we are likely to see Turkish opposition to a missile defense shield in Lisbon. This is despite concessions which other NATO states are almost certain to make: avoiding overt discussion of Iran as the target; limiting information-sharing with Israel; and – critically – accepting that none or few of the shield’s components will be based on Turkish territory.

However the idea of a diplomatic ‘grand bargain’ proposed by some commentators, in which Turkey accedes in exchange for progress and US backing on its long EU accession process, is simplistic (Hurriyet, October 18). France and Germany would rather live without missile defense and deny Turkey’s EU aspirations. US bargaining power is limited in Brussels, which justifiably asks what right Washington has to declare who should join the EU (Economist, June 17).

Claims of Turkey ‘turning East’ or being forced to choose are somewhat overblown (Caucasus Update, November 2 2009). Nonetheless there are occasions when binary choices occur. One way will anger NATO, another will anger Iran. This is clearly one of them. And for all Ankara’s misgivings about Iran’s nuclear aspirations, this time it is likely to risk alienating its allies, rather than its neighbors.

Sorry, Comments are not available for this article.

  Caspian Compromise Backfires for Russia and Iran, CU Issue 83, November 24, 2010
  Turkey in a Tight Spot on Missile Defense, CU Issue 82, November 11, 2010
  The OSCE and Kyrgyzstan’s Election, CU Issue 81, October 30, 2010
  Unblocking the US-Azerbaijan Relationship, CU Issue 80, October 07, 2010
  Nabucco Pipeline: Quo Vadis?, CU Issue 79, September 30, 2010
  Russia tightens its grip in the South Caucasus, CU Issue 78, August 23, 2010
  Armenian Politics: Rigidity Versus Flexibility, CU Issue 77, August 10, 2010
  Russia and Georgia: Ready To Talk?, CU Issue 76, July 21, 2010
  Can the US walk and chew gum at the same time?, CU Issue 75, July 9, 2010
  The Kyrgyzstan Crisis – A Qualified Success for Turkish Diplomacy?, CU Issue 74, June 24, 2010
  Brussels downgrades the Caucasus, CU Issue 73, June 07, 2010
  NATO’s New Strategic Concept and the Caspian Region, CU Issue 72, June 01, 2010
  Joe Biden and European Security, CU Issue 71, May 13, 2010
  Behind the US-Azerbaijan row, CU Issue 70, May 6, 2010
  Turkey and Iran: The risks of failure, CU Issue 69, April 30, 2010
  Kazakhstan, the OSCE, and the crisis in Kyrgyzstan, CU Issue 68, April 19, 2010
  The Implications of the Moscow Bombings, CU Issue 67, April 12, 2010
  Iran Manoeuvres for a role in Karabakh, CU Issue 66, April 5, 2010
  The EU and Abkhazia: Between a rock and a hard place, CU Issue 65, March 16, 2010
  Fallout from the US ‘Genocide’ vote, CU Issue 64, March 9, 2010
  Ukraine's elections and future of GUAM, CU Issue 63, February 10, 2010
  Less Democracy, More Security: Kazakhstan and the OSCE, CU Issue 62, January 18, 2010
  Tackling the North Caucasus Insurgency: Development or Rhetoric?, CU Issue 61, January 11, 2010
  The Caspian Region in 2010, CU Issue 60, January 4, 2010
  The Caspian Region in 2010, CU Issue 59, December 31, 2009
  The Turkmenistan-China Pipeline Changes the Energy Balance, CU Issue 58, December 21, 2009
  Russia’s European Security Treaty, CU Issue 57, December 7, 2009
  The ‘Kidnapping War’ in Georgia and its Implications, CU Issue 56, December 3, 2009
  Azerbaijan Shifts its Energy Priorities, CU Issue 55, November 23, 2009
  The South Caucasian States and Afghanistan, CU Issue 54, November 11, 2009
  Is Turkey turning East?, CU Issue 53, November 2, 2009
  What is Russia’s Gameplan for Iran?, CU Issue 52, October 26, 2009
  Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan: Where Next?, CU Issue 51, October 19, 2009
  The Armenians of Georgia: A New Flashpoint in the Caucasus?, CU Issue 50, October 12, 2009
  Turkey’s EU Membership: Will The ‘Armenian Opening’ Help?, CU Issue 49, October 5, 2009
  The Missile Defence Shift: Implications for the Caucasus, CU Issue 48, September 22, 2009
  Rising Tensions in the Black Sea , CU Issue 47, September 14, 2009
  Armenia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan: The Clock Is Ticking, CU Issue 46, September 7, 2009
  The Battle of the Bases in Central Asia, CU Issue 45, August 31, 2009
  Russia, Israel, and the S-300s, CU Issue 44, August 24, 2009
  The motivations behind Turkey's 'Kurdish Initiative', CU Issue 43, August 17, 2009
  The Implications of the Turkmenistan-Azerbaijan Dispute, CU Issue 42, August 10, 2009
  What has changed since the August war?, CU Issue 41, August 3, 2009
  The Internal Dynamics of Armenia’s Karabakh Policy, CU Issue 40, July 20, 2009
  Gazprom’s Baku Triumph, CU Issue 39, July 06, 2009
  Ingushetia: The New Chechnya?, CU Issue 38, June 29, 2009
  Georgias Economy - A Matter for Diplomats, CU Issue 37, June 22, 2009
  ‘Progress’ In The Nagorno-Karabakh Peace Process, CU Issue 36, June 08, 2009
  Iran's Azerbaijanis and the presidential election, CU Issue 35, June 01, 2009
  Nabucco and South Stream - The Race Heats Up, CU Issue 34, May 25, 2009
  China and Central Asia, CU Issue 33, May 19, 2009
  Russia, Georgia, and NATO - A Bad Week, CU Issue 32, May 11, 2009
  The Obama Administration’s Emerging Caucasus Policy, CU Issue 31, April 27, 2009
  Integration and Division in the Caspian Sea, CU Issue 30, April 20, 2009
  The Turkish-Armenian Rapprochement - Implications for the South Caucasus, CU Issue 29, April 13, 2009
  Turkey's local elections and Armenian issue, CU Issue 28, April 6, 2009
  Is There Life Left In The Nabucco Project?, CU Issue 27, March 30, 2009
  Problems and Prospects for Russian Military Reform, CU Issue 26, March 23, 2009
  Russia and Georgia: Not back to war, CU Issue 25, March 16, 2009
  Armenia: Heading towards crisis?, CU Issue 24, March 9, 2009
  Drug trafficking in the Caucasus, CU Issue 23, February 23, 2009
  Russian-led military block: A real counterweight to NATO?, CU Issue 22, February 16, 2009
  Are the International Missions in Georgia still relevant?, CU Issue 21, February 9, 2009
  Israel and Azerbaijan: Baku’s Balancing Act, CU Issue 20, February 2, 2009
  The North Caucasus in 2009: A Bleak Forecast, CU Issue 19, January 26, 2009
  The Military Balance in Nagorno-Karabakh, CU Issue 18, January 19, 2009
  Russia, Iran, and Barack Obama in 2009, Part II, CU Issue 17, January 12, 2009
  Looking forward to 2009 in the Caucasus and beyond, Part I, CU Issue 16, January 5, 2009
  The opportunities and the risks of NATO’s new supply routes, CU Issue 15, December 22, 2008
  The Black Sea Ambitions of Armenia, CU Issue 14, December 15, 2008
  Another Small Step for Nabucco, CU Issue 13, December 8, 2008
  Will Saakashvili survive politically?, CU Issue 12, December 1, 2008
  The latest fashion: conflict mediation, CU Issue 11, November 24, 2008
  The Baku Energy Summit, CU Issue 10, November 17, 2008
  Obama and the Caucasus, CU Issue 9, November 10, 2008
  Kazakhstan's oil options, CU Issue 8, November 3, 2008
  Is the Minsk Group being sidelined?, CU Issue 7, October 27, 2008
  Gas and oil developments in the Caspian region, CU Issue 6, October 20, 2008
  Where next for the Georgian peace process?, CU Issue 5, October 8, 2008
  Unrest in the North Caucasus, CU Issue 4, September 29, 2008
  Saakashvili's future, CU Issue 3, September 22, 2008
  Iran after the Georgian War, CU Issue 2, September 15, 2008
  Football diplomacy, CU Issue 1, September 8, 2008
  © 2006-2010 CRIA
  All rights reserved
About us
Editorial Board
Advisory Board
Our Authors
Current Issue
Back Issues
Caucasus Update
Call for papers
Submit a paper
Contact Us
Join us on Facebook