Monday, September 14, 2009

U.S - Iranian policy and the Turkish factor

News Analysis

On Friday, the Obama administration notified Congress of a possible sale of missiles to Turkey, worth $7.8 billion. Two major reasons have been identified as motivating this deal. First, predictably, is to gain business from Turkey, which is also looking at potential missile purchases from Russian and Chinese arms manufacturers. However, the second reason is more interesting.

On July 26, speaking in Bangkok, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said:

We want Iran to calculate what I think is a fair assessment, that if the United States extends a defense umbrella over the region, if we do even more to support the military capacity of those in the Gulf, it’s unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer, because they won’t be able to intimidate and dominate as they apparently believe they can once they have a nuclear weapon.

In line with this notion of a "defense umbrella", other large American arms deals in the region have been announced, including a "$220 million artillery rocket sale to Jordan and a possible $187 million sale of F-16 fighter-carried weapons to Morocco".

Of course, it is not clear that this approach is set policy. In fact, very little of the U.S policy is clearly defined. Questioned on Meet the Press, by David Gregory on her use of the term "defense umbrella" and overall U.S policy towards Iran, Mrs. Clinton went back and forth:

SEC'Y CLINTON: ...First, we’re going to do everything we can to prevent you from ever getting a nuclear weapon. But your pursuit is futile, because we will never let Iran–nuclear-armed, not nuclear-armed, it is something that we view with great concern, and that’s why we’re doing everything we can to prevent that from ever happening.

MR. GREGORY: All right, but let’s be specific. Are you talking about a nuclear umbrella?

SEC’Y CLINTON: We, we are, we are not talking in specifics, David, because, you know, that would come later, if at all. You know, my view is you hope for the best, you plan for the worst. Our hope is–that’s why we’re engaged in the president’s policy of engagement toward Iran–is that Iran will understand why it is in their interest to go along with the consensus of the international community

In the same program the Secretary (simultaneously) suggested pursuing diplomatic engagement, preventing nuclear weaponization at all costs ("we're going to do everything we can"), and a nuclear umbrella strategy. All three approaches are complicated by the Iranian government's lack of legitimacy after the disputed election as well as increasing pressure on the U.S from Israel's right-leaning government to take strong action on Iran.

However, with regards to the idea of a nuclear umbrella and its possible connection to the recent announcements of arms deals in the region, there is an additional problem. The missile sales were announced last Friday. On Sunday, Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu was in Iran. In addition to the impressive growth in bilateral trade, (estimated at $11 billion in 2008), relations between the two countries seems to be at a high point in other areas. According to the Tehran Times, Iranian Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mouttaki called the relations between his country and Turkey "strategic and comprehensive". At their meeting, the two ministers committed themselves to cooperating against Kurdish terrorists in Northern Iraq, implying a degree of military cooperation. Such cooperation between Turkey and Iran would surely hinder any U.S attempt to use Turkey in a "nuclear umbrella" strategy against Iran. This is especially true as Turkey believes that, according to Davutoglu quoted by the Tehran Times: "Access to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes is the right of all nations, including Iran" .

If Turkey is unlikely to take part in a U.S attempt at a "nuclear umbrella", designed to mitigate the problem of a nuclear-armed Iran, would it participate in a U.S-led international attempt to squeeze Iran with additional sanctions should talks (if they ever occur) fail? According to the Fars News Agency, Mr. Davutoglu told his counterpart "All our attempts are aimed at campaigning against potential sanctions and removing the existing barriers so that Iran will not remain outside the regional and global economy". This is particularly important as Turkey currently holds a seat on the UN Security Council.

There is one avenue of potential cooperation amongst all parties according to the Turks. During his visit to Iran, Davutoglu offered to host G5 +1 (China, U.S, Russia, Britain, France + Germany) discussions with Iran on its nuclear program, praising Iran's recent package of proposals. However, Iran's new proposals have not been received with much enthusiasm either by the EU or the U.S. It is clear that Ankara and Washington are not on the same wavelength in the current, pre-talks phase of the elaborate diplomatic minuet. It remains to be seen whether they draw closer or drift further apart if engagement should fail.


  1. I'm not an expert on the issue, but my impression is that the U.S. government will use whatever means necessary to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear capability. I do not think that the arms deals are related to containment however... the real action right now is the administration's campaign to get stricter UN sanctions against Iran. Turkey has some sway on this by being on the Security Council, but the US will be able to get sanctions through as long as it can all P-5 members to consent, i.e. China and Russia.


  2. If talks fail, it doesn't look like Russia and China would support sanctions of any form, nevermind Turkey whose foreign minister and president have both said they oppose sanctions. Russia may even be helping Iran with its nuclear program:

    On top of that, the arctic sea "cargo ship" has also been identified in some reports as carrying Russian missiles to Iran, which may have been another reason behind Netanyahu's secret trip to Russia early last month:

  3. I guess that is why the U.S. is trying to get sanctions outside the U.N. now.