Turkey Risks Confrontation With Iran Over NATO Missile Shield

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 172

Turkey has signed a memorandum with the United States on the deployment of a US radar station in the country, which will form part of the missile defense shield project to boost the protection of NATO members against potential missile threats from the East. Earlier this month, the Turkish foreign ministry confirmed that preparations had reached the final stage, and Turkey would host early warning radar to contribute to the Alliance’s missile defense system. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stressed that as part of the integrated NATO project, Turkey will host only radar components, and no interceptors would be installed in the country (NTV, September 4). Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also maintained that after very detailed examination by the Turkish armed forces and foreign ministry, and broad-based consultation at cabinet level, they decided to proceed with the project, as it would enhance the country’s security (Anadolu Ajansi, September 6).

On September 14, the Turkish press publicized the signing of the memorandum by the foreign ministry under-secretary Feridun Sinirlioglu and US Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone concerning the deployment of the radar at a military base in eastern Turkey, which is expected to be operational by the end of the year. The onsite security at the radar station will be provided by around 50 US personnel, while the area will be protected by the Turkish armed forces. The Turkish foreign ministry also confirmed these developments: “site surveys and the necessary legal regulations have been concluded, and the installation of the radar at a military facility in Kurecik has been decided” (www.ntvmsnbc.com, www.mfa.gov.tr, September 14, Cihan, September 19).

The radars in Turkey, together with interceptors in Romania and Poland and missile launchers based on warships in the Mediterranean, will be part of the defensive system to protect NATO members against potential missile attacks. When the shield was endorsed by the Alliance at the NATO Summit in Lisbon in November 2010, it was surrounded by many controversies. Concerns over the feasibility and financing of the project aside, the most controversial aspect was Turkey’s reservations about it, which cast doubt on the future of the system (EDM, October 21, 2010).

At the time, Turkey worked hard to ensure that Iran was not singled out as the country against which the system was developed, fearing that such a development would damage its ties with its neighbors with whom it had forged stronger relations. Over several months of discussion prior to the summit, Turkey even threatened to veto the project, leading to tensions in US-Turkish relations. Ankara later dropped its objections, arguing that the project would also boost its efforts to acquire defensive capabilities against increasing threats from ballistic missiles. Though Turkey claimed credit for preventing Iran from being named in the Lisbon declaration, Western political and military officials have made no secret of the fact that Iran’s missile capability and nuclear program was the main source of concern triggering this project.

Iran has expressed its uneasiness over these developments. When Turkey first announced that it would go ahead with the plans, Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi criticized the project. “The West claims the radar system [in Turkey] is to confront Iranian missiles, but they should be aware that we will not tolerate any aggression against our national interests,” Vahidi said (Hurriyet Daily News, September 7). Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson, Ramin Mehmanparast, joined the criticism, noting that “We expect friendly countries and neighbors…not to promote policies that create tension and which will definitely have complicated consequences… Iran condemns any action that creates an arms race in the world and region” (www.worldbulletin.com, September 8). Likewise, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also warned Turkey against this development: “Turkey is among our brothers and sincere friends, but when enemies deploy a missile system there and admit that it is against Iran, we should be careful” (www.farsnews.com, September 17).

The agreement is proving to be controversial domestically. Amongst Turkish public opinion, there is widespread perception fed by speculative newspaper reports that the missile shield is being built to protect Israel. Main opposition party representatives also express similar views, accusing the government of signing an agreement that would protect Israel, which Erdogan refuted as nonsensical (Anadolu Ajansi, September 6). As a NATO partner, Israel arguably seeks to be protected by the system, while US officials express willingness to fuse information obtained through the radars in Turkey and Israel for greater operability of the system. Yet, Davutoglu insisted that the information gathered through the radar station would not be shared with Israel. Moreover, he stated that Turkey used its veto threat to thwart Israel’s attempt to open an office at NATO Headquarters in Brussels under NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue program (CNN Turk, September 18).

The Turkish government wants to signal that it remains steadfast in its policy of isolating Israel rather than simply bowing to pressure from Washington to deploy radars on Turkish soil. Instead, the government conveys the message that Turkey willingly participates in the project, because it deems the system vital for its own security. Yet, so far Iran appears unconvinced by this interpretation and might risk a confrontation with Turkey over the issue.

The extent to which Iran reacts to Turkey’s move remains to be seen. But, Iran’s reference to “escalation” is important in many ways. Part of Iran’s military strategy is based on using its missile program as deterrence against attack by the United States and Israel. If the missile shield project is fully developed, it will reduce the utility of Iran’s missile system, perhaps forcing it to boost its strike capacity, hence triggering an arms race. This is certainly a scenario Turkey wants to avoid, and it will have to tread carefully to allay Iran’s anxiety. However, at a time when Turkey and the United States appear to be working closely in the Middle East, Ankara will likely find it difficult to convince Tehran.

In contrast, the decision on the basing of the radars signifies a major turning point in US-Turkish relations, as part of Turkey’s broader strategic reorientation of its Middle East policies in a direction in tune with its senior ally. After years of rather confrontational relations, Ankara and Washington are now going through a much more cooperative phase in the region, using also the momentum generated by overlapping policies in response to the Arab Spring.