Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 176

Two visits by leading U.S. officials to Turkey in less than a week have failed to heal the strains in relations between Ankara and Washington, particularly over Turkey’s increasingly close economic ties with Iran and the continuing presence of militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq.

During a visit to Istanbul on September 22, Reuben Jeffery, U.S. undersecretary of state for economic, energy, and agricultural affairs, warned Turkey against signing a new agreement to import natural gas from Iran, noting that Iran “has not proven to be the most reliable supplier of energy” (CNNTurk, September 23). He also called on Turkey to join the international community in isolating Iran.

“Iran is pursuing nuclear programs and supporting terrorism as stated by two unanimous United Nations Security Council resolutions,” said Jeffery. “There needs to be a united action by a number of countries. We want to see Turkey among those countries.” (CNNTurk, September 23).

Jeffery’s warnings came after a September 18-19 visit by U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns to Ankara during which he repeated Washington’s concerns over a recent Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that foresees the investment of around $3.5 billion in a project to export natural gas to Turkey from Iran’s South Pars field (see EDM, August 7).

“No country’s relations with Iran can be like in the past,” Burns said in an interview on Turkish television, and he urged neighboring countries to isolate Iran and not enter into economic agreements with it (NTV, September 19).

But Turkey has remained defiant. Speaking after meeting with Burns, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted that Turkey would not sever its links with Iran. “No country can make such a demand of us,” he said. “Turkey generates 52% of its electricity from natural gas and it is impossible for us to cut our ties with our suppliers” (Milliyet, Hurriyet, September 21).

His sentiments were echoed by Turkish Energy Minister Hilmi Guler. “Our natural gas negotiations with Iran are not a reaction against the U.S. but a product of our needs,” he said (Milliyet, Radikal, September 22). Guler added that he expected to meet with his Iranian counterpart in Turkey in October to finalize details of the natural gas agreement.

Nor do the visits appear to have brought Turkey and the United States any closer on the issue of what to do about the PKK camps in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq, which are being used as a platform for the group’s insurgency inside Turkey. The Turkish government has long called on Washington to move militarily against the PKK camps or allow the Turkish security forces to do. But, during his visit to Ankara, Burns repeated previous U.S. calls for Turkish authorities to engage with the Iraqi Kurdish authorities in the north of the country.

The Turkish media quoted Burns as saying: “I think a dialogue has to be established between the Turkish government and Iraqi leaders to persuade them that the PKK is an organization that has to be kept away from the Turkish border” (NTV, CNNTurk, September 19).

Erdogan retorted: “There are no effective leaders in Iraq” (NTV, September 21).

During a visit to the United States Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, whose cousin was recently killed by the PKK (see EDM, September 19), said that Turkey was still awaiting concrete action from the U.S. and the Iraqi government against the PKK. “There is a limit to how much we can do on our own,” he said. “We don’t want to exceed these limits but if necessary we will” (Anadolu Ajans, September 22).

For many in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Washington’s reluctance to move against the PKK is in marked contrast to the increasing willingness of Turkey’s Muslim neighbors to cooperate. Despite intense lobbying from Ankara, Turkey remains the only country in the world to recognize the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). However, on September 22, Syria took a major step towards de facto recognition when it inaugurated a ferryboat line between the Turkish Cypriot controlled port of Famagusta and the Syrian city of Latakia. Regular ferryboat services between the two ports are expected to start in October.

Perhaps more significant than the inauguration of the line was the announcement by Syrian Maritime Minister Abdulkadir Sabira that Syria would apply the same procedures to TRNC passports as to documents from any other country. To prove the point, Syrian passport officials stamped the TRNC passports of the Turkish Cypriot journalists and businessmen traveling on the inaugural voyage (Milliyet, Radikal, Hurriyet, September 23).